How long until others copy Apple's Mail Privacy Protection?

When iOS 15 is released this fall, users will have access to enhanced Siri capabilities, new ways to personalize their device, helpful improvements to the Find My iPhone/iPad, and several other new features and functionality to play with. But in the worlds of digital privacy and marketing technology, there's one update in particular that has been sending shockwaves up and down the industry.

Companies who care about email marketing have been in a sort of panic mode ever since the full slate of iOS 15 updates was revealed a couple months ago, due to a new feature called Mail Privacy Protection. In what Apple is calling an advancement of its "privacy leadership," the ability to block marketers from tracking the open behavior of their emails is the first step in what could be a cataclysmic shift for the entire spam (I mean, "email marketing") industry.

It's no surprise that the top metrics that companies use to track the success of email marketing campaigns are open rate and click rate. Click rate (the percentage of users who click on a link in an email) is easy enough to understand -- once you click on a link, you'll be directed to the company's website and from there they can track you just like if you came to the site from a social media ad or Google search. You chose to click on that link in an email and thus it's expected that the company will be able to track that.

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Open rates are trickier to calculate, but make no mistake: companies know (and really like knowing) when you simply open their emails. This is achieved by embedding "tracking pixels" -- tiny images invisible to the human eye -- into those marketing emails. So even though it may be some other company's emails that you're opening in, say, your Yahoo or Apple Mail inbox, because that company embedded one of these tracking pixels, it is now able to capture information about you: not only the fact that you opened their email (they'll want to follow up and send you more emails) but also certain identifying data points like your browser and email client information, what type of device you're using, and even geolocation data.

What Mail Privacy Protection does is take that tracking pixel, along with all other images within an email, and host them in some anonymized server somewhere. So in essence, when you open an email using this feature, you'll be looking at a version of the email that Apple has preemptively cached on your behalf, preventing any kind of personalized data being sent back to the originating marketer.

It sounds like a common sense option and one that many users are no doubt surprised to learn wasn't really already available on any mainstream device or email client. But in the digital marketing space, it's difficult to overstate how much this changes things. There are entire marketing and consulting companies built around these tracking pixels -- allowing things like personalized weather-based email content based on where you open your email, or dynamically changing offers based on when you open your email. Using Mail Privacy Protection will prevent that kind of dynamic content from working -- and puts some of those niche companies in a bit of an identity crisis.

Of course, end users are unlikely to care much if this additional privacy prevents marketers from serving more personalized email content. In fact, there is probably an entire market out there who will applaud that as a positive outcome. However, there's another angle to this new feature that may have a more material ripple effect directly to end user experience -- and that has to do with the associated price tag.

In an interestingly calculated move by Apple, Mail Privacy Protection is not free. It will come bundled as an additional feature to anyone with a premium iCloud subscription, which Apple is rebranding to iCloud+ (because we don't have enough digital services with the "+" symbol in their name these days). The service will not be available to those with a basic, free iCloud account.

Of course, the primary thing you're paying for if you're paying for iCloud at all is the increased online storage capacity, but Apple is definitely testing the waters here in terms of seeing whether or not increased user privacy on its own devices is a feature worth promoting in a paid service.

It is not difficult to see this as a stepping stone toward a future digital landscape where micro transactions and micro subscription fees are offered to users not only by third-party software makers but also from the device and platform creators themselves. The kind of new capability offered by Mail Privacy Protection could in fact only be offered by Apple. That's a compelling fact if you're the kind of person who sees a consumer market with increased demand for privacy controls as a profit opportunity.

Speaking of consumer demand, digital privacy is one of those things where no company wants to seem one step behind, so even though this is purely just an Apple conversation right now, it's not hard to see this type of email protection becoming commonplace. In fact there is some reporting that Google is already working on adopting some of the other new Apple privacy features (although not Mail Privacy Protection…yet).

Even without the eventual onslaught of copycats, this new feature is going to change one of the oldest -- and still widely considered the most important -- forms of digital marketing. According to the email marketing think tank Litmus, which has released a recently-updated whitepaper of sorts about the impacts of Mail Privacy Protection, nearly 50 percent of all emails are opened on an iOS device (around 39 percent for iPhone and 10 percent for iPad), with Gmail chiming in next at around 35 percent.

To what extent this will change the way email marketing is executed remains anyone's guess at this point. Most likely, longform newsletters and other emails that are focused on just getting you to open and read them will slowly be transformed into more concise messages with one solitary goal: get you out of the email and over to the company's website… where that newfound expectation of privacy goes out the window.

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