Has the iOS 15 update resurfaced old perceptions about email tracking being unethical? And are these true? We explore this.

You may have seen a lot of news around iOS 15's Mail Privacy Protection lately. In fact, if you work in email marketing youre probably quite concerned about this. As we scramble for answers to the challenges this will present, questions around the ethics of tracking in email marketing are also inevitably going to resurface.

It's not the first time email marketing has been in the news for this sort of thing, but is it fair? Should we be worried about the perception email marketing may gain as a result of these stories and updates? We say no. We'd like to switch up the narrative here - and explain just what happens with tracking in email marketing, why it's good (and ethical!) for all parties, and why it's not the massive privacy invasion some may lead you to believe.

A quick reminder first.

The new iOS update essentially offers its users the option to load content remotely and not disclose their IP address. For marketers this means they wont be able to track forwards, opens and subscriber locations if subscribers are using Apple Mail. And this is a lot of people - according to SparkPost, Apple Mail and Apple iPhone account for 40% of the overall email client market share in 2021. You can find out more about what exactly this means for email marketers in SparkPost's insightful and ever-updating blog post on the impact of the iOS 15 update on open tracking for email marketers.

The fact that tracking open rates and subscriber locations has been targeted by Apple has put email marketing under the spotlight of customer data privacy. But we've been here before.

This isnt the first time email tracking has come under scrutiny.

Back in February 2021, you may have seen this article from the BBC. In conjunction with new email client and big-player-disruptor HEY, it claimed that spy pixels were in two-thirds of all emails, that they were 'endemic' and that (quoting from the HEY co-founder) they were a 'grotesque invasion of privacy'. Strong words and sentiments towards the email industry. It put email's tracking techniques squarely in the same bracket as any bad data usage or snooping scandals that other tech companies have been caught up in. The article went viral and into newspapers like the Sun and other global publications.

In truth, the article boils down to little more than sponsored content. And the DMA discovered that the BBC - who wrote the article - also use tracking pixels in their emails. But regardless of any sensationalism, it did start some debates around the ethical nature of email tracking and the privacy connected to it. And these continue to rumble on with the new iOS update.

So what is the truth around email tracking and pixels?

No one likes spam emails, but email pixels and subsequent tracking by email marketers is NOT used for the purposes of creating spam emails or unwanted inbox intrusion.

To explain what these pixels are and what they do, let's turn to one of the top #emailgeeks (and Taxi evangelist) Elliot Ross (click the Twitter link below to see his thread!):

There is a need to educate about just what email tracking is, and what it means for consumers. Is it bad? What does it mean for customers? Are companies spying on them? Is it an unethical use of data?

The realistic answer to these is no - though of course data privacy is a subjective thing to each individual. But there is a gaping difference between an email tracking pixel and something like Facebook's Pixel- a tracker in the code of millions of websites so Facebook can see almost every website you visit. (They then combine this with purchased 'sensitive' data to build out a large profile on you - even potentially knowing if you are trying to lose weight - all to offer you targeted ads.) An email tracking pixel is nowhere near as invasive.

Why is email tracking used by marketers?

Email pixels can be used as a marketing tool by companies to log specific actions by the recipient of the email. These include:

  • If and when an email is opened.
  • How many times an email is opened.
  • What device or devices are involved when opening the email.
  • The recipients rough physical location, deduced from their internet protocol (IP) address. An IP address cannot give an exact location of a user, but can give an indication of what town or city they are in.
  • Which headlines, preview text, and send times/days generate more opens and clicks on the email.
  • What email provider recipients use.

For marketers, pixels can help measure open rates, estimate the success of marketing campaigns, and potentially to send follow-ups and more personalized communications. Importantly, the data received is typically viewed in aggregate - meaning that data is grouped together in 'pots' and isn't individually analysed.

Though there are exceptions. It's important to be clear about these, and also that these exceptions are for the purposes of improving your experience with that brand and not for spamming. The main two examples are:

  • When a customer is trying to receive help from a customer support perspective, that person can link tracked data to their name in order to help identify a problem.
  • When customers engage regularly with a brand, marketers and salespeople sometimes contact them directly (e.g phone call) for high touch personalized service such as a service, discount or product of known value to them, based on prior purchases and interactions with them.

These more targeted uses of customer data are to offer highly personalised experiences and recommendations when a human is involved in the process (a call for a promotional offer based on prior purchases and interactions with that brand). Whether you call them or they call you, the experience is able to be personalised thanks partially to open tracking and other indicators just as emails can be personalised. And they are only combining data from open tracking and that customers have specifically given them (such as their name when signing up to a newsletter). It's transparent and for the purpose of either helping them or offering them something of interest to them - not to spam or intrude on them.

News flash - email marketers don't spy on where subscribers are

As mentioned earlier, open rates can only give marketers a rough geographical location, such as a city or region. They can't tell where customers are at all times, like some super-spy satellite. And knowing an approximate location can be useful, especially for brands who work across different regions. For example, radio stations, ticket sellers or holiday sites can all offer personalised experiences based on your location (alongside other factors including previous purchases etc). And combining location with other data such as opens and clicks can indicate the impact a campaign might have on a specific area (such as a festival organiser can track where most people are buying their tickets from, and also work out which regions may require an extra marketing push).

So what does this mean for customers?

Email marketers, and brands, can offer the customer a more immersive, individual experience when interacting with them. Offering products based on prior purchases, bumping reminders about upcoming special offers and events that are nearby that might interest them, or even not interacting with them if they don't regularly open emails. It's all in the pursuit of treating customers like a human being, and not a number on a spreadsheet.

The collected data is used to help offer experiences and products to customers that they have had prior engagement with - not for spamming them with any old rubbish that they have no interest in. And it's not to spy either. Privacy is something that email marketers take very seriously, as abusing it is something that will immediately result in unsubscribes, poor campaign performance and damaged brand reputation.

So are we really invading customer privacy? 

Not to the extent you would be led to believe. Email marketers cannot tell where subscribers will be at 2pm that afternoon, or what they are typing right now for example. We don't spy on computer activities either. Of course, levels of what constitutes consumer privacy is up to the individual, but there are always options to limit what data is sent to brands: 

  • Customers can manage permissions in a preference centre to decide what data is collected by brands (links are usually in every email footer along with the unsubscribe link and other legal info). Or they can email the brand's support team with preferences. Customers own their own permissions and data at all times. Every brand's privacy policy is always available to read so that any subscriber can know what a brand's 'tracking' means for their data.
  • There is always the option to completely unsubscribe if they feel uncomfortable, or are not getting satisfactory options or responses. 

It's worth remembering that marketing emails are almost always sent because the individual has requested them by opting in. The indication being that the person wants to hear from that brand - so it's up to the email marketer to keep them engaged. Bad data practices (sharing it, using it to profile that person, sending spam etc) is a sure fire way to turn that previously interested person away from that brand.

Also, the use of email pixels is governed in the UK and other parts of Europe by 2003's Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations (Pecr) and 2018's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Any brand found to be on the wrong side of these can face serious financial and reputational penalties. And even if your country or region doesn't have this type of governance, the whole concept of bad data usage will still turn subscribers away anyway, so it's really not worth trying to get sneaky with any data usage! It can also harm deliverability. 

As an email marketer, is there anything I can do to help?

There is always room for improvement. Best practices like making Terms and Conditions clearer, more user friendly,  and digestible to readers, are a great start. Offering easy to use preference centres can also really improve the relationship with your customers too. Transparency in these areas are key, and the more open you are with your customers, the more they are likely to trust you.

Tracking pixels do give marketers a certain amount of data though, and marketers must adhere to a certain code of conduct with it. Be sensitive with it, and don't use it to construct creepy messages or hound customers to open emails. We've seen sales-y type emails that say something like 'I saw that you read my email the other day, and I was wondering if I could help explain it further?' To a customer, this borders on stalking. Luckily, these types of emails usually end up in junk folders (where they belong!) as they are seen as suspicious by your email client's spam filter. But all the same - what basic data is collected from pixels must be used responsibly.

These 'spy pixels' we've talked about are a small part of how email marketers try to connect with their customers. The real aim of any great email marketer is to optimise what they have and build strong and loyal relationships with their customers through empathetic and thoughtful communications. Open rates and location tracking can only go so far to help this. And this is what email marketers should focus on in the future.

We've already written about the benefits of empathetic and customer-centric marketing to foster long term consumer relationships, so we believe that, despite initial difficulties, this current challenge will be a hurdle rather than a mountain. Besides, it's much better for email marketers to:

  • Talk to customers like a human being, rather than a number from a database with language that speaks directly to the customer as an individual. I.e. Youll love this, instead of Customers love this.
  • Offer products and services that are relevant to them, are helpful to the customer, and make interacting with them a lot easier.
  • Build brand trust by highlighting shared values and making those values come through in the experiences you deliver as a brand. Dont just tell them. Show them. 
  • Ensure youve got processes established for maintaining your databases and cleaning out any inactive or uninterested parties, so you can be in the best position before these tracking changes take place. 
  • Ask your customers what they want from you. We dont have to rely on behaviours alone to profile customers. 

It's easy to get alarmed by the thought of staple capabilities being removed, and for reasons that could damage the reputation of an industry that doesn't really deserve it (nor the people in it). But we email marketers are nothing if not inventive, resourceful and stoic. And hopefully, more people will become enlightened as to why email tracking helped them, rather than thinking it was for privacy invading reasons. That's the last thing we'd do.

Want to find out more?

We have a great 'Ask Me Anything' webinar on the iOS 15 update coming up - it's a great opportunity to learn more about what this means for email marketers.

We can also recommend the following articles:

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