How Mail Security Privacy Will Force the Email Economy to Optimize
Today, let’s talk about one of Apple’s many announcements at this week’s worldwide developer conference, which some see as a potential threat to the rise of distributed journalism by email. If this sounds self-indulgent, given that this is coming from a journalist who distributes his work via email, I apologize. But it touches on a number of topics of interest to us here – a tech giant’s ability to reshape markets to its liking; How journalism will navigate the stage era; What do we mean when we talk about privacy – I hope I can at least pique your interest.
Start with the announcement. On Monday at WWDC, Apple announced Mail Privacy Protection, which will limit the amount of data that people who send you emails can collect about you. Here’s how the company describes it:
In the Mail app, Mail Privacy Protection prevents senders from using invisible pixels to collect user information. The new feature helps prevent senders from knowing when users open an email, and masks their IP address so that it can’t be linked to other online activity or used to determine their location .
When you finally update your iPhone to iOS 15 this fall, you’ll see a screen at launch that invites you to opt in.
Let’s assume that most Apple Mail users opt in. How essential is this data to building email-based businesses? I have read and heard a lot of disagreements in the past day.
Some quick background for the non-email obsessive. Long ago, email marketers started including invisible pixels in the emails you sent; When you open their messages, they load pixels, tell the sender that you’ve read their message, and can even guess your location from your IP address.
Collectively, the percentage of people who actually open an email is known as the open rate, and it is one of the most important metrics that senders measure to gauge the effectiveness of what they are doing. This gives you an idea of how engaged your audience is and how that engagement is changing over time.
At the same time, people have a long tradition of finding it creepy. Email Startup Superhuman Had to apologize in 2019 This followed a viral blog post detailing how the company tracked when, where and how often people opened emails sent through its service. Marck up, a non-profit newsroom that often focuses on data privacy issues, turned down eight potential email providers Before finding one who agrees to turn off tracking capabilities.
Last year, when Basecamp launched the email service Hey, it made blocking tracking pixels a marquee feature. In a blog post today, Basecamp cofounder David Heinemeier Hansen — not a fan of Apple in general! – Declared victory against tracking pixels. She wrote:
Given Apple’s monopoly advantage with its pre-installed Mail app, we don’t need much more than a name for mail privacy protection to break the dam on spy pixels. You can’t really say anything officially about open rates if 5-10-30-50% of your recipients are protected from spying, because you wouldn’t know why your spy pixel isn’t tripping, Or is it because they just aren’t opening their email.
If Apple presents privacy threats as clearly and honestly as we did at HEY, there’s no way users are going to willingly accept the premise of spying pixels. Apple has already shown that with its campaign to block unique ad identifiers for cross-app tracking in iOS 14.5: 96% of users in the US refuse to track apps this way! And email spy pixels are far worse and more creepy.
Let’s put some things up front. One, most people still don’t know that these spy pixels exist. Two, if they had done so, most people probably wouldn’t have allowed them to substitute. Third, most of these spy pixels are used for marketing purposes – an attempt to better target you for e-commerce. I don’t think it’s irrational at all to look at the situation like Apple’s and say hell with it.
Plus, email-based publishing has been one of the few bright spots for journalism in recent years. (Certainly this has been a bright spot for me!) Media companies from Facebook to Twitter new York Times Now investing heavily in newsletter strategies; There are new email-based publishers appears to pop up every week. Much of this has come in the wake of the success of Substack, which I use to publish the platformer (View Disclosure)
And so it should come as no surprise that some observers look at mail privacy protections and see the threat. “This is another sign that Apple’s war against targeted advertising isn’t just about screwing up Facebook,” said Joshua Benton written in neiman labo. “They’re coming for your substack, too.”
Benton brings up some powerful numbers to address his concerns: “The Most recent market-share numbers from litmus, for May 2021, 93.5% All emails open on the phone arrive in Apple Mail on the iPhone or iPad,” he writes. “On the desktop, Apple Mail on the Mac is responsible for 58.4% All emails open. “
It seems clear that the email economy will be affected by Apple’s move to cut off customer data from email senders. But after conversations with newsletter writers and media executives today, I’m not sure people doing email-based journalism have that much to worry about from the shift.
“The advertising industry has become accustomed to tracking, prioritizing bottom of the funnel metrics at the expense of great content and creative. This is sad,” said Alex Kantrowitz, author of the free, ad-supported newsletter big technology. (He previously covered the industry Ad Age.) “And that’s why people hate advertising and advertising companies.”
Kantrowitz told me that his ad inventory sold out in 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. (Marck up, has also used reader surveys to build a picture of its user base.)
“Pixel blocking makes placements like this more valuable and gives quality email newsletters a leg up on the junk that clogs up most people’s inboxes,” Kantrowitz said.
For ad-based newsletters, mail privacy protections may prompt publishers to find other ways to understand their audience. But what about paid newsletters, such as this column being syndicated?
Publishing industry executives told me today that Apple’s move could affect reader-backed newsletters even less. Authors can triangulate reader engagement by a number of metrics that are still available to them, including the views their stories get on the web, the overall growth of their mailing list, and — most meaningfully — the increase in their revenue.
The media business changes so rapidly that I don’t find it irrational at all to read this week about a move by Apple and to assume it would be bad for journalism. But in this case, it mostly strikes me as a false alarm. Major email providers including Apple, Google and Microsoft may be making a number of changes that will make life more difficult for newsletter-based businesses. In the end, though, I don’t think blocking spy pixels is one of them.
All that said, I can’t finish without pointing out ways in which Apple itself benefits from cracking down on email data collection. The first is obvious: it further burns down the privacy credentials of the company, which is part of an ongoing and incredibly successful public relations campaign to build user trust at a time of collapse of trust in institutions.
Taken together, several iOS 15 features that focus on user privacy combine to put more pressure on the digital advertising ecosystem. Perhaps most notably, the “private relay” — available to paying customers of Apple’s iCloud+ service — will encrypt all traffic except the user’s device, making it difficult for advertisers to track.
Another cynical friend of mine sees all of this as a way to funnel more businesses to build apps, offer in-app purchases, and promote with Apple’s advertising products. Marketing emails not working like before? Looks like it’s time to buy some keywords in the App Store!
And what about creators who want to move away from the advertising model? Apple will be there, ready and ready to cut Twitter Super Followers, paid podcasts and ticketed Facebook events by 30 percent.
It is sometimes said that the ultimate goal of Amazon is to cut off all economic activity. Given Apple’s privacy moves this week, I’m mostly prepared to take them at face value — as a necessary counter-balance to the drastic rise of tracking technologies around the web. But it also seems clear that Apple’s value goes far beyond customer satisfaction — and as its revenue from ads and in-app purchases grows, we’d like to keep an eye on how its policies gradually increase. How are you changing the economy?
This column was co-published with platformer, a daily newspaper about Big Tech and Democracy.