Open Rates Aren't Reliable Anymore. Here's How to Shift Your E-mail Engagement Strategy.

Now that Apple has made email open rates unreliable, adopt an alternative engagement strategy to determine the success of your email campaigns.
Open Rates Website

We're moving into a reckoning around Internet Privacy Rights and how much users allow their data to be tracked. Apple’s fall 2021 update that hides email open rates data for Apple Mail users is likely the beginning of a larger trend.

As people are being offered more choices to opt out of sharing their data, the time has come to get creative about measuring how your supporters engage with your emails.

As a social impact leader, you might think of this as a big problem to overcome. We see it as a great opportunity to reconsider how you gauge the health of your supporter’s digital journey today and in the future.

Apple’s Mail Privacy Protection - A Refresher

As part of the rollout of their Mail app included in iOS 15, iPadOS 15, and macOS Monterey devices at the end of 2021, Apple introduced their Mail Privacy Protection (MPP) feature.

Per Apple:

Mail Privacy Protection stops senders from using invisible pixels to collect information about the user. [It prevents] 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.

This is great news for Apple device users who want to protect their privacy. It’s a tough break for organizations that have been relying on email open rates as the most important (or only) metric for judging the success of their email campaigns.

Email Analytics is Changed Forever

In short, if an Apple Mail user opted out of being tracked, you’ll no longer be able to tell if they open an email you send them. Since over 95% of Apple users opted not to have their app use tracked when Apple’s App Tracking Transparency tool was introduced in early 2021, it’s likely similar numbers will accept the privacy protection offered by Mail Privacy Protection.

It is estimated that between 30-40% of email users open their email via Apple Mail. This means that a large chunk of previously viable open rate data is now unreliable. While other email services, such as Gmail, don’t currently allow users to opt out, we expect to see them and others follow Apple’s privacy protection lead.

If you’ve been using open rates as your primary metric for determining the success of your email campaigns, you’re going to adjust your strategy. While this looks different for every organization, we have some high-level suggestions that might help you turn adversity into opportunity.

Prioritize Engagement

Email marketing has always been more about quality than quantity. It might seem like you’re growing your social impact in the attention economy if you have thousands, or hundreds of thousands, of people on your list. While that may be true for social media influencers, it’s not the case for email marketing.

What really counts is the number of people who are actively engaged with your organization and to what degree. We’ve written in detail about how to increase supporter and donor action to spur ever-deepening engagement with your supporters. Someone who rarely reads your newsletter or campaign email and never takes any action isn’t helping you accomplish your mission.

Each action your supporters take lets you know that they are engaged. You can measure engagement using a variety of metrics such as:

A supporter who takes action is a prime candidate for moving up the engagement pyramid. Be sure that you provide engagement options in your email campaigns beyond donations. Not everyone has the means to donate and even those who do should be encouraged to take additional actions.

Reframe Your Definition of a Healthy Email List

It might seem scary to cull unengaged subscribers and give users multiple opportunities to unsubscribe (more on that below). The advent of MPP means that you need to realize that a list with thousands of email subscribers isn’t that meaningful.

You need to know if your email:

  • Compels people to take action

  • Helps them become more engaged in the long term

  • Helps move your mission forward

Guide the Engagement Journey

Someone might begin their engagement with you on social media. Encourage them to sign up for your newsletter or receive progress updates via email. Once they sign up, you can ask them to take further actions through your email outreach.

Look to new follower acquisition as an indicator of the effectiveness of your campaigns and health of your email list. If becoming a volunteer is a meaningful engagement benchmark, treat your volunteer metrics as the north star against which you measure engagement.

Be sure that you have the features your nonprofit needs in your donor management platform activated and create a schedule for reviewing the data. Also referred to as a customer relationship manager (CRM), donor management platforms like EveryAction and Salesforce are useful tools to track engagement and gain a more nuanced understanding of the activities of your supporters.

Restructure Your Email Marketing Strategy Around Deliverability

Now that open rates are no longer an indicator of success, it’s time to double down on deliverability.

Email Deliverability is the measure of how likely you are to make it into a subscriber’s inbox.

Of course, before people click, they need to receive the email in the first place. Your email platform likely has its own resources that can help you improve this. There are many ways to tweak and test your deliverability. We suggest you start with the following four tactics:

  1. Be consistent with your volume and cadence of emails. Overwhelming someone’s inbox with four emails in a week when you usually just send one might hurt what’s known as your ‘sender reputation’. Be sensitive to how often you email your supporters and maintain a steady pace.

  2. Monitor your bounce rate and cull hard bounces. Some platforms, like HubSpot, do this for you automatically. There are different types of bounces:
    1. Soft Bounce - A temporary issue with their server

    2. Hard Bounce - Their email is no longer valid

      You need to remove bounced emails from your list or diagnose why they aren’t sending so you’re only sending email to valid (and engaged) recipients.

  3. Allow your subscribers to re-opt in. If you haven’t seen your subscribers click or open an email recently, consider prompting them with a re-engagement campaign. Ask them directly if they still want to be on your list, and give them a clear opportunity to unsubscribe if not. Remember, the goal is to produce better overall deliverability than to repeatedly email a large list of unengaged subscribers.

  4. Add double opt-in to the subscription process. This looks different for every email client, but a double opt-in sends a user a follow-up email confirming their choice to subscribe after they’ve entered their email on your website or a form. This allows users to confirm their definite interest in joining your email list.

    The double opt-in process creates an opportunity to focus your messaging and segment your audience. During this process, you can ask what types of content they want to receive, including volunteer opportunities, progress updates, campaign information, or any other area you want. Sending supporters email specific to their interests increases the likelihood that they’ll open it.

Be Proactive

Make sure to discontinue the use of all of the processes that rely on email open rates. Check on the following:

  • Make sure that automated flows that rely on open rates are deactivated

  • Move away from countdown clocks to spur donations by a deadline

  • Discontinue the use of embedded content that might show outdated times; they may show a countdown from the time the email was sent rather than opened

  • Reconfigure your A/B tests if you were measuring winners by Open Rate

While these should be the top items on your checklist, you may have others..

Embrace This Opportunity

Mail Privacy Protection is going to change the way you measure the success of your email outreach. And that's a good thing.

It means that you have to shift to thinking more about supporter engagement than ever before. In the end, having more connected and active ambassadors, volunteers, donors, and champions can lead to effective community building that is active, rather than passive. It gives you opportunities to move people up the engagement pyramid and take those who truly care about your mission along with you on the journey to create the world you want to live in.

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