Apple’s Latest Privacy Announcement Will Impact a Key Tool in News Publishers’ Audience Engagement Toolbox: Email Newsletters

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Steve Jobs was famous for announcing “one more thing” toward the end of his Apple product announcements. Typically, that “one more thing” was a new device that would reshape consumers’ expectations of what technology could do for them. (Sometimes that one thing was a price point – how much would the future cost?) In more recent years, the tone of Apple’s presentations has shifted, as the company’s focus has moved away from new devices to services and features designed to keep users happy. But the June 2021 Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) keynote speech, which introduced the company’s iOS 15, did feature one more thing that should have many news organizations paying attention.

The iOS announcement highlighted how the upcoming operating system can integrate into users’ lives in a post-pandemic world and continued Apple’s theme of supporting user privacy. As SVP of engineering Craig Federighi said, “We don’t think you should have to make a tradeoff between great features and privacy. We believe you deserve both.” Much of the pre-announcement conversation focused on App Transparency Tracking (ATT), which provides individual users with the ability to opt out of having their app behavior tracked and shared with advertisers. The feature is seen as a particular challenge to Facebook, which earns the bulk of its massive revenues from advertising (due to its ability to provide advertisers with valuable metrics about app behavior). Following its release in February, one study found that “U.S. users choose to opt out of tracking 96 percent of the time” when prompted. Many news organizations, rightly concerned about Facebook’s power in the advertising market, saw ATT as an attack on the platforms’ dominance. The hope was that advertisers would shift budgets away from Facebook (and to channels that used their own first-party data, such as news publications and apps) once it lost some power to target and track users.

However, the iOS 15 announcement featured “one more thing” that has some in the news industry concerned: an update called Mail Privacy Protection. As CNN described, “The email app on Apple devices will now hide users’ IP addresses and their location, so companies sending emails can’t link that information to users’ other online activity. Additionally, senders can’t see if or when users open their email.” Specifically, Mail Privacy Protection will not allow email senders to track the pixel that is used to determine open rates. Email senders – including news organizations – will lose the powerful engagement metrics on how many of their promotions, offers, and importantly, newsletters, are being opened.

In his analysis of the announcement, Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton points out this change is substantial – “This is Apple Mail, the dominant platform for email in the U.S. and elsewhere. According to the most recent market-share numbers from Litmus, for May 2021, 93.5% of all email opens on mobile come in Apple Mail on iPhones or iPads. On desktop, Apple Mail on Mac in responsible for 58.4% of all email opens.” Benton’s piece reviews the ongoing conversation about the changes and points out, “Open rates will now officially be useless,” and that small publishers, especially individual newsletters, have the most to lose. In a tweet, Matt Taylor of the Financial Times points out that the change will “hurt small pubs the most,” and that “for those with no audience it might stop them from ever succeeding.”

Platformer writer Casey Newton – who rounded up multiple tech and news industry responses to the announcement – agreed with Benton’s conclusion that without the ability to track email opens, publishers will “adjust, somehow.” In Newton’s newsletter, he shared that he wasn’t “sure that people doing email-based journalism have all that much to worry about from the shift.” He cites independent newsletter publisher Alex Kantrowitz, whose ad-supported newsletter “was sold out for the first half of the year, thanks to a premium audience he identified not by pixel-based tracking but by a good old-fashioned reader survey.” As Renee Cassard, chief research officer at the media conglomerate Omnicom pointed out to Digiday, “The marketplace has sort of realized that there are limits to behavioral data.” Beyond straightforward behavior tracking, publishers can leverage research and data-generation tools to understand not only what their readers have done, but who they are and what they want. This data would be of high value for internal product development as well as advertiser needs.

Kantrowitz’s perspective may be the most helpful for news publishers that send newsletters and are concerned about the changes. But as with any alternative, it is not practical to view it as a magic bullet solution to preserving long-term relationships – in fact, a simple open rate calculation was never an indication of that, either. It has just been the key metric by which advertisers value newsletter placements (until now). The point is that there are many ways to build relationships with readers, and as the industry shifts toward a more consumer-needs driven model, newsletters should be seen as tools for promoting engagement and building habitual, loyal, paying readers; not viewed solely for their potential to attract advertisers. Eventually, there will be a new “open rate.” But as these indicators evolve, continuing to meet readers where they are and provide high-value products will best position your organization for success.


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