Issue #010

Yesterday, Apple obliterated email open tracking

Did you catch the news from Apple's annual WWDC event yesterday?

Starting with iOS 15 and the next version of macOS (Monteray), Apple's built-in email clients will no longer track email opens – at least not accurately.

Here's a quick overview of how your email marketing platform knows that someone has opened an email of yours:

Email has no built-in "phone home" system. Because it's decentralized, the sender's email server has zero idea if and when a recipient's email client has actually read an email.

So marketers, being crafty, decided to include hidden images at the bottom of emails. When an email client would open an email, these hidden images – along with the logo at the top of the email and any other images contained therein – would open.

These hidden images were unique to each individual recipient. So if I opened an email sent to me, that hidden pixel would load and relay to the email sender's server: "hey, just loaded this image... which means he opened the email you sent him"

And this is how things have been working really since email marketing became a thing. Marketers have historically used open data to determine how engaged email lists are.

But marketers ruin everything

Or so I've been told 😉

Open tracking has led to some understandable concerns around privacy, especially since this same technology could effectively associate an email open to a web browsing session on, say, Amazon – allowing profit-optimized machine learning algorithms to deliver hyper-personalized content that's often perceived as... well, creepy.

As more people turned to ad blockers, and Gmail started defaulting to not showing images – and then only showing them through their own proxy servers, the usefulness of open tracking began to plummet.

Which lead me to tweet the following a few weeks back:

Open rates just aren't accurate.

And if you're using opens to decide who should stay on your list and who shouldn't, you're going to end up like ProfitWell is in my inbox:

(I read almost every newsletter they send, yet I'm still getting regular "it doesn't look like you're reading our emails!" notifications. Ugh.)

If open tracking is broken, then how do we know who's engaged?

There are a few things you can do with open tracking (well, when it works):

  • Determine how popular a particular email is – or at least how good it is at convincing people to give it a read

  • Segment people based on whether they open or not, and then send different subsequent emails accordingly (like resending an email to those who haven't opened the original after a few days)

  • Excitedly pull up someone's contact record and see exactly when they read your last email

  • Infer who's reading your your emails, and send some emails to try to either reactivate or unsubscribe those who aren't (see the ProfitWell example above)

The last bullet is the one I'd like to focus on in this email, specifically because it's generally how people "scrub" their list.

Platforms like ConvertKit have a built-in concept of a cold, or unengaged, subscriber:

We define cold subscribers as any subscriber who hasn’t opened or clicked an email in the last 90 days. For subscribers who have been active for fewer than 90 days, we define cold subscribers as anyone who hasn't opened or clicked an email in 30 days. [source]

Platforms use a combination of opens and clicks to determine engagement, but many marketers focus myopically on just opens.

I recommend optimizing for clicks.

This means encouraging people to click on links you include in your emails, whether they're passive links (like the link to the ConvertKit knowledgebase I dropped above), or something intentional – like a list of segmentation link triggers:

This might mean even minimizing the amount of content you put in an email, and requiring people to click through to your website in order to read the rest.

Here's how we do this on the RightMessage newsletter:

Every email marketing platform that I know of treats a click as both a click AND an open.

This means if Apple mail isn't loading the open tracking pixel, but the reader does click on one of your links, your email platform should register both an open and a click for that reader (which makes sense, because how would you click on a link in an email without first opening it?)

Creative ways to get more clicks

Here are a few ways to get more people to click, and thus increase their level of material engagement:

#1: Send Progressive Profiling emails

Itching to learn more about the needs and wants of your readers? Try sending a regular profiling email that's designed to segment.

#2: Use social share links (ideally powered by SparkLoop, my writeup here)

At the end your regular emails, include a call-to-action that encourages readers to click and share the content or the list with their network.

#3: Use link triggers and ask people whether they liked what you wrote this week

I haven't done this yet, but you could easily add some "I love it!" or "Meh :-/" links in your emails that ask people to provide a quasi-NPS score for each article you write. Bonus points if you wire it up to some automation that tracks the running count of loves/hates you're getting per subscriber.

#4: Teaser links

Who wouldn't want want to know what this link led to? (Spoiler: a tweet about the differences between US/European work culture.)

Take ownership over engagement

While I appreciate that email platforms allow you to see who's cold by virtue of their email opens/clicks (with some giving you fine tuned control over how you define "cold"), I still like having a bit more control.

One thing I've started doing (which I'm doing throughout this email) is to have an automation that fires whenever someone clicks on one of my links.

This automation is simple: it sets a timestamp on a contact based on when they last clicked a link.

This way, I can easily segment subscribers based on anyone who hasn't engaged (in the "clicked on something" sense of the word) in the last few weeks – or really, whatever time period I want. I can then develop my own list scrubbing strategies.

I hope this gave you a few ideas that you can use.

Ultimately, online marketing is always going to be a bit of a game of whack-a-mole: the public/gatekeepers like Apple are going to crack down on marketing excess.

But I know you're like me and you want to ensure that you're sending good, high quality content to an audience of people who hopefully get something useful out of it. So keep doing what you're doing, and use strategies like the ones I covered above to ensure that you're getting through to the right people.