The most disruptive element of Mail Privacy Protection is that Apple creates a mountain of fake auto-generated open signals to obscure the real opens generated by your subscribers. With MPP adoption at greater than 95%, that mountain is pretty big, especially for B2C brands.
Brands’ email marketing programs have been affected differently depending on how many of their subscribers use Apple Mail on iPhones, iPads, and Macs. However, for many brands, their unadjusted open rates (known opens + auto opens) have tripled. For a small, unlucky group that has the vast majority of their subscribers using Apple Mail and relatively modest pre-MPP open rates, their open rates have more than quintupled.
That’s a lot of noise, which is why Oracle removes auto opens from its reported open rates. Doing so provides a much cleaner signal of engagement, and makes fluctuations much more meaningful and therefore actionable.
That said, even though we remove them from this top-level calculation, we do factor auto opens into other calculations and even provide individual-level auto open data. We do this because auto opens can provide some value in certain situations (at least for now). Let’s talk about those situations. However, let’s first examine …
What’s in an Auto Open?
An auto open is any real or fake open from an email client that auto-generates opens. Right now, this only includes the Apple Mail app, which returns the generic “Mozilla/5.0” user agent string. We use that tag to identify auto opens. While that approach also includes a small percentage of users of other email apps that also use that generic user agent string, it currently captures all Apple Mail accounts that are generating auto opens.
Auto opens include real opens because, in the absence of confirming behavior like an email click, it’s impossible with sufficient certainty to tell them apart from the fake opens that Apple uses to mask the behavior of their users. Of course, this is entirely by design. Apple doesn’t want marketers to be able to tell which opens are real ones.
The lower your open rates were before MPP, the higher the proportion of fake opens you’ll have in your auto opens. For example, if your open rates averaged 20% on Apple devices prior to MPP last September, then you’ll ultimately have approximately a 4-to-1 ratio of fake opens to known opens among your auto opens. Or put another way, 80% of your auto opens will be garbage data.
We’re hard-pressed to think of any other data set that marketers would willingly use if they knew it contained so much bad data. However, there are a few wise ways to use this individual-level data.
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Safe Uses of Auto Opens
These are the ways that email marketing programs can use auto opens with minimal risk that provide genuine value.
1. As validation that an email address is deliverable
Apple doesn’t generate auto opens for emails that are blocked or land in the junk folder, and invalid email addresses hard bounce. So, if you’re getting auto opens when you send to an email address, you know that it’s an active email address and that your emails aren’t being blocked or junked.
Because of this, auto opens can also function…
2. As a warning sign of junking at Apple Mail
On an individual level, if you’ve seen auto opens from a subscriber and then those stop, that may be an indication that your emails are now being blocked or junked. Of course, it might also indicate that they’ve turned off Mail Privacy Protection, but that’s far less likely.
And on a macro level, if you see a sizable dip in auto opens, it is probably an indication of widespread deliverability problems at Apple Mail.
3. To target Apple Mail and Apple users
While MPP takes away marketers’ ability to see opens, it gives them the ability to deliver tailored experiences to Apple Mail’s MPP users that don’t rely on opens. For instance, when trying to reengage inactive subscribers, for your subscribers who have enabled MPP, you’ll want to send campaigns that require a click, since the usual open won’t register.
It’s also a way to identify many of the Apple users among your subscribers—although you’d obviously miss Apple users who use Gmail, Outlook, and other email clients, or who use Apple Mail with MPP disabled but are blocking images. Even with those exceptions, this approach could be useful in promoting Apple-specific products or apps.
Of course, by identifying and segmenting out the vast majority of Apple Mail users, you’re left with a segment of non-Apple Mail users, which is also useful for targeting purposes.
4. To create a special MPP reengagement segment
Because auto opens indicate that your emails are still being delivered, many brands will find it valuable to create an audience segment that’s composed of MPP users who haven’t clicked in a long time. Essentially, this is a special group of inactive subscribers.
Because they are inactive, you will still need to protect your sender reputation from the damage these subscribers can do to your engagement rates. The chief way to do this is to significantly reduce the frequency at which you send campaigns to this audience, such as only sending one out of every four campaigns. Doing that allows you to safely continue mailing these inactive MPP subscribers for longer. To determine just how much longer, watch for dips in your mailbox provider reputation and deliverability and then pull back on mailings to this segment.
If you stop seeing auto opens for any subscribers in this segment, it’s almost certainly a sign that emails to them are being blocked or junk, and that you should therefore move them to your suppression list and stop sending them campaigns.
5. To measure the size of your Mail Privacy Protection audience
While marketers could use other more complicated methods to identify the email clients and devices being used by their subscribers, auto opens provide an easy and fairly accurate signal to identify users of the Apple Mail app on iPhones, iPads, or Macs. Compared to the rest of their subscribers, this would help marketers understand the scope of the impact of MPP.
Marketers could also drill down deep to gain additional insights about MPP adoption among your subscribers. For example, do you see higher MPP adoption among newly tenured subscribers, or high-status loyalty members, or for subscribers who are interested in certain product lines? With this understanding, you can tailor your strategies anticipating how many known opens you’re likely to get when targeting a specific group and if you need to lean more heavily into clicks rather than opens.
From an email design perspective, this would also help email marketers understand, for instance, what percentage of their audience or various segments would be able to take advantage of CSS-based interactivity, which is well supported by Apple email clients. If the majority of your subscribers have MPP enabled, that would indicate that investments in kinetic emails (emails with interactive content) are likely worthwhile.
6. To improve open reporting in other email platforms
Currently, not every tool and platform that can deploy emails can discern between a real open and an auto open. For instance, many transactional email platforms, especially internally developed ones, may not be able to. For subscribers you’ve identified as generating auto opens, use that audience data to screen out auto openers in your other, less sophisticated platforms to get more accurate reporting of known open rates in that platform.
7. To progress an open-triggered email series
Many marketers, especially for B2B brands, have used opens as a sign of interest to trigger the next email in a series on a topic. In the age of auto opens, there’s no perfect alternative to opens for progressing such a series. All of the alternatives either reduce or inflate the audience significantly across the series. And the longer the series, the greater the reduction or inflation.
However, for brands with a small audience of Apple Mail users (and therefore a low level of auto opens), one option to consider is to use both known and auto opens to trigger the next email in the series. Will that result in some non-openers getting the next email? Yes. But it will be a relatively small number. However, the potential for misuse is high enough that Oracle doesn’t currently make auto opens available for automated campaign orchestrations.
That’s it. We could only come up with seven ways to use auto opens safely (and we are admittedly stretching a bit).
An additional word of warning: Most of these uses would become less valuable or entirely useless if one or more other mailbox providers follow Apple’s lead and adopt an approach similar to MPP and also use the generic “Mozilla/5.0” user agent string, which seems likely. So, the already limited value of auto opens will probably erode further.
The Riskiest Ways to Use Auto Opens
Essentially, any other way you might imagine using auto opens is risky, either creating a poor subscriber experience or getting you into trouble with mailbox providers.
The most dangerous way to use auto opens would be to treat them as real opens for email audience selection purposes. This would quickly lead to inflated mailing segments, lower email engagement, and higher spam complaints. That’s why we recommend compensating for the loss of opens to MPP by using cross-channel behaviors for email audience selection.
Nearly as worrisome would be using auto opens in predictive modeling or in AI or machining learning algorithms, such as send time optimization or subject line copywriting tools. Unintentionally, MPP is helping these tools by forcing email service providers and third-party tool providers to optimize for deeper metrics like email clicks, which they should have been doing all along.
The core temptation with auto opens is to treat them as a sign of engagement, of which they are a very poor indicator. Remember that the vast majority of auto opens for most brands are fake opens generated by Apple for the sole purpose of obscuring real opens. By design, auto opens are deceptive—to the point that it’s best that you not even think of them as opens at all. In fact, it’s more accurate to interpret an auto open as delivered rather than opened. If you do that, you’re much more likely to use auto opens responsibly.
For help compiling these recommendations, special thanks go to Sterling Shew, principal product manager for Oracle Responsys.
Need help adapting to Apple’s Mail Privacy Protection? Oracle Marketing Consulting has more than 500 of the leading marketing minds ready to help you to achieve more with the leading marketing cloud, including Email Deliverability Services and Analytic & Strategic Services teams that can help you maintain great inbox placement and understand subscriber engagement.
Now thoroughly updated, this blog post was originally published on Mar. 10, 2022 by Tommy Hummel and Chad S. White.
With over a decade of proven success in digital marketing performance on the corporate and agency levels, with a focus in email, direct, and web marketing and encompassing non-profit, association, commercial, travel, financial, retail, B2C, and B2B, Tommy Hummel bring a wealth of experience and expertise in digital marketing strategy, planning, leadership, and client service.
Chad S. White is the Head of Research at Oracle Marketing Consulting and the author of four editions of Email Marketing Rules and nearly 4,000 posts about digital and email marketing. A former journalist, he’s been featured in more than 100 publications, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Advertising Age. Chad was named the ANA's 2018 Email Marketer Thought Leader of the Year. Follow him on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Mastodon.