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How iOS 15 Updates Will Affect Your Ecommerce Email Marketing

The iOS 15 updates are coming out in mid-September 2021. We know this is going to have important implications for email marketing. These changes will affect businesses of all sizes, but they will affect large brands the most. Here is what you need to know and what we recommend to help you prepare for the changes.

The video linked here also talks about the updates and the impacts they will have on email marketing. If you prefer watching and listening over reading, we recommend you check out this video.

There are two new features in the iOS 15 updates that are relevant for email marketing, Hide My Email and Mail Privacy Protection.

Hide My Email

Hide My Email is a minor change. It lets customers generate and use unique, random email addresses to forward emails to their personal inboxes. This feature allows customers to keep their actual email addresses private. It is built directly into Safari and Apple Mail. Hide My Email allows iCloud+ customers to create forwarding email addresses. Whenever they see an email address field, Safari will prompt them to generate and use a forwarding email address.

Diagram showing the usual email address route

In the example above, when we use an email address, the brand you sign up to has that email address. If the brand suffers a database breach, the email addresses, including your own, will get into the wrong hands, and your email could end up being spammed and misused.

Diagram comparing the usual email address route to the new iOS Hide My Email system

Hide My Email makes an intermediate email address that forwards to your actual email address, and the brand won’t have your personal email address directly. If you start getting spam, you can just delete the forwarding address in the new iOS phone settings.

How is this going to affect email marketing going forward?

We don’t expect it to cause any major problems. The main implication we expect is that subscribers may end up creating multiple accounts, splitting their history with you into two or more profiles. Other customers may make an account with ‘Hide My Email’, forget that they have done so, and sign up again with their real email address. This will be annoying, but it won’t be a significant issue.

Customers who sign up with ‘Hide My Email’ will still be recorded like any other customer. We’ll still be able to track them and their browsing behaviour. They will still trigger flows like the abandoned cart and browse abandon emails as normal. They will receive and engage with all emails as normal.

Mail Privacy Protection

The first time customers open Apple Mail, after they have updated to iOS15, they will be presented with this screen, or one like it with options to “Protect Mail Activity” or not. Because of the way this is worded, we expect most customers will opt to “Protect Mail Activity”.

When a customer opts to protect mail activity, Apple will activate “email security” for that account. This means:

  • Apple will preload images remotely before customers open their emails. Since Email Opens are tracked with an image pixel, an image being loaded will no longer necessarily mean the customer has opened the email.
  • When customers do open on Apple Mail, it will hide the device in the ‘open’ reports in your email marketing platform.

If you have been working in email marketing for a while, you may be aware that Gmail already runs a system like this. Gmail started caching images in 2014. However, it works differently to this new security system. Here is how Gmail works.

Let’s split the process into when the email is sent and when the email is opened. We have three components to the network. The email sending server, in this example, Nike, the Gmail server, and the Gmail app on your phone.

Mail privacy protection ‘protect mail activity’ options screen
When the email is sent to a customer with Gmail

When Nike sends the email, the text and code of the email are sent to Gmail, which then sends the text and code to your app.

Images requested by the user from the Gmail server

When you open the email, initially, you can only see the text without images. As you open it, the app requests the images. 

Images are delivered to the customer’s device from the Gmail server

The Gmail server then requests the images from the Nike email server, which then sends the images back to the Gmail server.

Images are delivered to the customer’s device from the Gmail server

The Gmail server then sends the images to your device. The whole process usually happens in less than 2 seconds. When this happens, Gmail hides the device information, so the email server can only see when the email was opened, not which device it was opened on.

So how is the new update from Apple different?

When an email is sent to a customer with ‘Protect Mail Activity’ turned on, the email stops at the Apple server

The sequence of events happens in a different order. As before, the email server sends the text and code of the email to the Apple server.

Images are requested by the Apple Server before the email reaches the customer. The ‘open’ is reported at this time

However, before Apple sends the email content to the app on your phone, Apple immediately requests the images from the email server and hides the fact that it’s being requested for an Apple Mail customer.

The email server sends those images to the Apple server and reports the email as opened, even though the customer has not yet received the content.

The email text and code are sent directly to the customer from the Apple Server

Only after this has been completed, does the Apple server send the email to the customer’s app. From this point onwards, the email server does not receive any additional ‘open’ information.

When the email is opened, the images are only sent from the Apple Server as they have already been requested from the email server

When the customer opens the email and the images load, the images will only be requested from the Apple server directly. Because the Apple server already has the images, it delivers the images to the customer’s app without the email server being made aware of it. The system is designed specifically for this purpose, to hide if and when the email is opened.

So to summarise, both Gmail and Apple obscure the device information. However, since Gmail requests the images when the customer opens, as marketers, we still know if and when customers open emails. In comparison, since Apple will load images for all customers, it will look like all customers who use Apple mail are opening the emails, even if they don’t.

Apple Mail users account for about 50% of our clients’ customers, so a change to such a popular platform has significant impacts.

After this update, open rates are completely unreliable for Apple Mail, and since they will be hiding the device altogether, we won’t know when customers are using Apple Mail. This means the update will probably taint the open rates for all apps.

To be clear, you will still see open rates in your reports, but those open rates will be significantly over-reported. It will look like many customers are opening your emails even when they’re not.

The result of this is that we, as email marketers, won’t be able to use open rates. Platforms like Klaviyo, MailChimp, Salesforce Marketing Cloud, and Omnisend may update their products to soften the impact, but none have announced anything at this stage.

So what can we do to prepare, assuming we can no longer use open rates?

When is it happening?

iOS adoption will begin from 13-17 of September 2021, 80% of customers are expected to install the latest version of iOS by December

Apple always releases the iOS update in the middle week of September. 80% of customers typically upgrade before December.

Most customers auto-update iOS now. Since this update taints the pool, we recommend you act as if ‘Open Rates’ are unreliable right away. Plan to have no reliable ‘Open Rates’ from 13 September. August will be the last full month of reporting with ‘Open Rates’.

Adjusting for the Updates

‘Open Rates’ should no longer be used, but everything else will still work; clicks, revenue, and browse behaviour will all still work.

For some things, we can use ‘clicks’ instead, adjusted for the lower baseline. For example, in the “Engaged” audience definitions, instead of being defined as a 6 or 7-month ‘open’ window, we recommend extending to a 9-month ‘click’ window instead.

For monitoring deliverability and sunsetting subscribers, we’ll need to make more major adjustments. We won’t be able to run ‘Subject line AB tests’ – so we recommend you run as many as you can in the meantime to learn lessons you can carry forward.

You need to adjust deliverability monitoring. You need to use other metrics to define engaged audiences, and you need to update the way sunsetting subscribers works.

Summary of adjustments: our ability to track opens for all emails, AB tests for subject lines, our ability to monitor deliverability, define our engaged audiences, and sunsetting automations


So how will we monitor deliverability? How will we know if emails are landing in the spam filter?

One of the key ways we usually monitor deliverability is ‘Open Rates’ across devices, so without ‘Open Rates’, we won’t be able to monitor as much. Customers can use any email address with Apple Mail, so monitoring deliverability for all email domains like Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo, and so on will be impacted.

Since we won’t be able to monitor deliverability as much, it will be more important than ever before to follow best practices. Read our blog post on deliverability here

A few basic tips are using text as live text, verifying domains, and avoiding spammy content in subject lines. For example, avoiding ALL CAPS, $ signs, % off, and other spam content flags. 

Tips for deliverability. Image to text ratio, verification of domain and good subject lines

Finally, how do we adjust our sunsetting automations? The sunsetting email is usually a single email that is automatically sent to customers when they become disengaged to encourage them to re opt-in. Typically, if customers don’t open or click on this email, they will automatically be removed from the marketing list. This is very important for deliverability since sending to disengaged customers will eventually mean more of your emails land in spam folders.

Spam filters will still be judging your emails based on engagement. It’s therefore important to continue to sunset subscribers, even if it looks like they are opening your emails.

You will need to make some minor changes to adjust for not using open rates.

  1. You need to remove any rules that mention open rates. Since even disengaged customers may look like they’re opening.
  2. You need to adjust the timing. As I mentioned, you should sunset customers later than previously recommended. Instead of sunsetting at 6-months ‘open’, you can sunset at 9-months ‘clicked’ instead.
  3. Have two sunsetting emails rather than the usual one. Some customers will be engaged and opening your emails, but we just won’t know it. We don’t want to risk losing them because they miss one sunsetting email.
  4. We recommend you adjust the wording if you currently use a phrase like, “We see you haven’t opened in a while”. Since we won’t know whether they are opening or not, we should instead reword it to be something like, ”Are you still enjoying our emails?”

The iOS15 update is the biggest shake-up to email marketing in recent years. The good news is we expect email marketing to perform as strongly as ever. We will still know click rates, website behaviour, and conversions. By looking at customers’ purchase history, we’ll still be able to create detailed customer segments, and engage with customers in a deeper, more meaningful way than any other channel.

If you have any questions, leave them in the comments section of the video above. We will be answering them as quickly as possible so you can be fully prepared for the update in the second week of September.

Shaun is the Founder of Email Experts. Combining his love of data analysis and his passion for marketing, Shaun enjoys working with marketing professionals to deliver excellent results for ecommerce businesses.