Jonathan Sills, VP Digital & New Media Strategy  ●  7/21/2021

Fundraising Email Measurement in an Age of Digital Privacy

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Consumer privacy has advanced enormously in the past 5 years. And the pace of change appears to be increasing:

  • 2016: The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) becomes law
  • 2019: California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) becomes law
  • May 2021: Apple launches iOS 14.6 that gives users the opportunity to opt out of being tracked when they use an app on their smartphone
  • Coming January 2023: The “cookiepocalypse”

And, this June, Apple announced that, starting with its iOS 15 and iPadOS 15 launching in September this year, it is implementing Mail Privacy Protection for Apple Mail, which is the default email client on its devices. This will stop email senders from using invisible pixels in their emails to collect data about a user’s behavior, including when they opened an email. It will also mask the user’s IP address so it can’t be linked to other online activity or to determine location.

According to some email service providers, Apple Mail on iOS and iPad represents 47% of all email opens in the U.S. and U.K.

These changes shouldn’t affect other email apps used on Apple devices like the Gmail or Microsoft Outlook apps for iPhone, but the implication is still that data on a large percentage of email engagement activity will become unreliable.

Mail Privacy Protection for Apple Mail means that from September onward, your year-over-year email open rates won’t be comparable, results from your A/B subject line test may not be reliable, and your ability to optimize campaigns based on open rates will diminish.

 

After a year of intense COVID-accelerated digital growth, weary digital marketers may be forgiven for despairing at yet another seismic shift.

 

How much do Apple Mail’s privacy changes matter?

The answer is (as always): it depends. But overall, it should certainly affect the way we fundraisers view open rates (OR).

Some email marketers consider OR a vanity metric based largely on clever subject lines and unreflective of the quality of your marketing communications. And because click-through rates and unsubscribe rates will remain reliable, despite Apple’s decision, you can still get a good read on email performance.

All of which is to say that you shouldn’t be over-reliant on OR as your primary performance metric. Look at your past email results and you may see an inverse relationship between OR and click-through rates. Strong OR can mask the fact that your content or offer isn’t strong enough to drive clicks to your site. They’re not always a reliable measure of donation intent.

 

Proxy Data

For year-end campaigns — the most important to nonprofits and where the impact of Apple’s change will be most noticeable — the chief KPI is not, and hasn’t been, OR. It’s conversions.

Sure, you want to get as many eyeballs on your message as possible, but there’s very little opportunity to optimize based on OR in that rushed season anyway. It’s a question of being present in front of your audiences during those key fundraising periods. And yes, a clever, well-written subject line can always help you stand out in an inbox, but this giving season, comparing your click-through and conversion rates year-over-year will be a better indicator of the success of your campaigns than comparing OR would have been.

 

Longer-Term Implications

Unreliable email OR data can help nonprofit marketers focus more on deliverability, click-through, and conversion rates. Paying attention to list hygiene, content personalization, and offer should have been key KPIs of your email program all along. But from now on, they will be, likely to the benefit of fundraising results.

 

Moving the Goalposts

If we digital fundraisers and marketers didn’t already know to be on our toes, a quick note about the shifting sands of consumer privacy.

If there’s irony in the belated arrival of many nonprofits at the Digital Age, only to find that consumer privacy laws and controls are reducing their ability to target audiences and measure effectiveness, then it’s almost certainly amplified by the recent news that the disappearance of cookies has been delayed by 12 months, and they are now set to go away in January 2023.

This reminds us that we are still in the early years of the Digital Age, and responses by government and business to technological change and human concerns are likely to remain jerky and unpredictable. See the early decades of the industrial revolution for details.

 

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