There’s a huge change coming in September – once again being driven by Apple – which could have a pretty major effect on how we sell books. And to all readers, not just Apple Books customers.
It’s a genuinely big deal so I’m going through it in detail for you today. This is a long, substantive email and I urge you to read it carefully because there is going to be panic about these changes, and probably a steaming pile of hot-takes too with dumb headlines like “Email marketing is dead.”
Before we get to that, one small but very necessary bit of housekeeping – which will become very relevant to the above in a moment.
Whitelist Me Now Or Lose Me Forever
Many of you didn’t get my last email.
I can always tell when something drops into Promotions (or worse) because my open rate drops around 15%. I typically get an open rate of 55%+ on this list for each campaign send, and if it drops to something like 42% then I know there’s an issue. While I usually test for this in advance, sometimes one will slip through the net.
This quick process should ensure you always get my emails: whitelist my email address by following these instructions. It only takes a minute.
BTW, it’s a good idea for you to do this periodically with your own lists, as well as at least once during your onboarding process.
(I will give you examples of how to do this in a future email as we are going to be talking about email marketing a fair bit this summer for reasons that will soon become clear.)
You will never get massive uptake on whitelisting – it’s not exactly sexy – but it is something you only need to get (some) readers to do once and then the benefits accumulate over time across your entire list.
Definitely one of those situations where every little helps.
(To be clear: this is your personal choice, nothing will happen if you don't whitelist me, you just might miss some important emails... which you presumably want to receive if you are on this mailing list!)
With that amuse-bouche scoffed, let’s move on to the rather troubling main course.
Apple To Block Email Open Tracking
Apple held its annual developer shindig last week and amidst all the usual glitzy new features was one which had marketers scrambling.
The next update from Apple – iOS 15 – will contain something called the Mail Protection Privacy, which will block email open tracking.
Virtually all email opens on Apple phones and tablets are routed through Apple Mail (often even if you are using Gmail), and around half email opens on Apple desktop devices go via Apple Mail as well, this is huge news – especially as other players are expected to follow.
Indeed, a Google spokesperson confirmed that they are looking at similar changes.
This genuinely is a major development for anyone that has a mailing list – and not a positive one – so let’s break down what this all means, and what you should do about it.
There's no reason to panic, but there definitely is reason to take action - and the window to do that effectively is limited.
How Open Tracking Works
Email Marketing Services like MailerLite or ConvertKit provide us with data so that we know how our lists are performing - and open rates are the most important, followed by click rates.
This data is essential for knowing how campaigns are doing, if readers are opening your messages and clicking the links, whether a new batch of subscribers are performing well, if a welcome sequence is keeping readers engaged, or alerting you to when a new release email drops into Spam or Promotions, and many more besides.
The way open tracking works is this: your email marketing service inserts a tiny image the size of a pixel into each of your emails, and when that pixel “fires” – i.e. when it is loaded on the recipient’s device – an open is registered on your dashboard.
From September, Apple will start blocking that process. Direct from Apple:
"In the Mail app, Mail Privacy Protection stops senders from using invisible pixels to collect information about the user. The new feature helps users prevent senders from knowing when they open an email, and masks their IP address so it can’t be linked to other online activity or used to determine their location."
While Mail Privacy Protection won't be an automatic default, users will be prompted to adopt it (and if figures around the Facebook changes are any guide, we can expect around 80% of users to follow Apple's prompts).
Just to underline how many users will be affected: most of them are using the Apple Mail app, even if they don’t realise it – when you hook up that generic looking envelope pre-loaded on your home screen to something like Gmail, your messages are still being routed via the Apple Mail app, and your email open tracking will be blocked for anyone who updates to iOS 15 and follows Apple's prompting.
And there's one final twist: Apple will actually report an open on every email that passes through Apple Mail in iOS15, so if you aren't aware of these changes, you might see a spike in your open rates and think your list performance is improving, when the opposite could be true.
In other words, it's going to make a mess of all your data, not just the big chunk of your subscribers using Apple devices. (I guarantee you this point will be missed in a lot of commentary on this, so keep it in mind.)
Click tracking works differently, I should add, and it looks like that will be spared (for now).
But that doesn’t soften the blow very much.
How Does This Compare To Recent Apple/Facebook Changes?
Some observers are comparing this to the recent changes in iOS14.5 which crippled Facebook’s ability to collect data on users of Apple devices. But let me explain why this move on email open tracking is a much bigger deal.
The changes in iOS14.5, aimed at Facebook, got a lot more media coverage but – for most authors at least – they turned out to be a bit of a damp squib.
Unless you were a heavy user of the Facebook Pixel or the Audience Network, and unless you were a wide author or otherwise had a disproportionate amount of Apple users in your target audience, you might not have noticed much more than what I saw: a shrinking of some Pixel-based custom audiences, a reduction in the size of some interest audiences, and a moderate increase in CPC.
In plain English, the changes only really impacted more advanced users of Facebook Ads and the impact was not as bad as feared… so far. And the reason why is directly relevant to how the impact on email open tracking might play out.
I was chatting to a friend at Facebook about all this recently, and he pointed out that only around a sixth of Apple users had upgraded to iOS 14.5 a month after its release.
Of course, those numbers will rise over time, but this is very useful to know – because it means that the impact of Apple’s changes won’t bite all at once this September. Rather, it will be a slow gnawing of the rope.
This gives us more time to adapt. And we’re going to need it!
How Will Email Marketing Services React?
I have no idea - honestly. This is all pretty new and while some of them surely predicted this was coming, I’m sure they are all scrambling now to get their hands on a beta of iOS 15 to see what they can do in practical terms.
I’ve seen a few potential solutions mooted: there has been talk of Open Rates going away as a metric and being replaced with some kind of predicted or estimated number, using the remaining trackable users on your list and extrapolating from that to cover the gaping hole created by Apple, but it’s all up in the air right now.
And that sounds like a sticking plaster to me, rather than a bona fide solution. However, I don’t think there is a magic way to fix this.
Also, Email Marketing Services might be reticent to invest too heavily in solving this problem right now for understandable reasons: others will probably follow Apple’s lead. So I would expect those sticking plasters to abound in the short term. Because the long term trends all point one direction.
The Age of “Privacy” Is Here
Marketers may well look back at the last two decades as the Golden Age of Data because the trends right now are obvious. Apple nixed Facebook data tracking in April, and will take aim at email open tracking in September. Google are taking the axe to cookies in 2022. And regulators around the world are nipping at the heels of all the big tech companies to do much more again.
All the tech companies will tell you this is about privacy, but as someone who used to work for a big tech company, I can tell you this is highly dubious.
Apple is still collecting tons of data on its users; it’s just not sharing it with Facebook anymore. And Apple will still be monetizing that user data – just in different ways.
For me, Apple’s move (and Google’s next year) is more to do with building the walls of its garden higher and boosting its App Store and associated ad platform.
Apple wants less people on the internet and more inside apps – where it gets 30% on all transactions, and where companies will increasingly need to be discovered in the App Store... on Apple's own ad platform.
It’s kind of ironic that all these moves to hold Big Tech accountable and reduce their power and increase our privacy will, most likely, solidify the position of Big Tech and make it harder for other companies to challenge their hegemony (and do little for privacy), but that’s a rant for another day.
Whatever our personal feelings on these moves and these companies, authors are mere leaves in the wind of these forces which blow through our industry; all we can do is adapt to the changes as best we can.
Is Email Marketing Dead?
You’re going to read a lot of thinkpieces with silly headlines like that over the summer, but there is no point overreacting here.
The change sucks for anyone who uses that data to build their business and get better at email, but it doesn't reduce the power of email marketing one bit. It just makes it harder to optimize and raise your email game.
There's also no point getting mad at Apple because if they didn't make this move, someone else would have. I actually expected this - it was kind of inevitable the way things were trending, it just happened faster than I expected.
I'd rather attack this problem in a positive way.
So let me summarize what all this means for authors specifically, especially those of us for whom email marketing is an important plank in our operations. Or what I think this means. Remember, this is all new; no one has had much time to digest it yet:
- Email open tracking is going away whether we like it or not.
- This will make it much harder to measure performance of campaigns and subscribers.
- Email Marketing Services will probably come up with solutions., but they won’t be great and probably will be temporary as the blocking of open tracking becomes industry standard.
- It will have a huge impact on aggressive list-building strategies in particular.
- List-culling will become way trickier.
- All this will happen gradually… so you have time. But it is coming.
- If you were planning some list-building, now is a very good time.
- And if you were putting list-culling on the long finger… perhaps rethink that as the window to do that effectively might only be a few months.
If you want one takeaway it is this: the time to get good at email is nowbecause it’s going to get harder next year.
But this distinction is critical: email marketing will still be the most powerful tool at your disposal. It's just going to get harder to monitor your performance in key areas - so now is the time to address any shortcomings you may have. Because you are going to be flying somewhat blind soon.
In other words, if you were deciding between a variety of things to pursue on the marketing side, bump email-related activities up the list. I’m certainly going to be doubling down on email for fiction and non-fiction for the rest of the year - while I can still get useful data on whatever I'm trying.
What this means for this newsletter is simple: we are going to focus a lot on email marketing this summer.
Starting next week, I’ll give you some resources to help with everything I've discussed here – this email is long enough!
Just make sure that you followed the whitelisting instructions above because the next emails from me will likely have quite a few images and links, and that can make an email drop into Promotions or Spam.
Because soon I won’t be able to tell…
P.S. Writing music this week is Joni Mitchell with All I Want.