Email + data privacy = ?

With the news that Apple Mail will block some email tracking in iOS15, there's been active concern in email marketing circles (and by that I mean #EmailGeeks Twitter) about what it means for our work. Specifically, Apple Mail will block the pixels we use to see certain activity, like whether an email has been opened or IP information.

I admittedly didn't watch the announcement at WWDC (Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference), but I did see an immediate reaction on Twitter. Some folks were quick to suggest that open rate is a vanity metric, and that we should all be paying attention to better success metrics—like conversions—anyway.

There were also some concerned about how this will make aspects of our work harder, because we will no longer be able to reliably use  open activity for things like list hygiene (which is also maybe an outdated practice we can talk about another time).

I've been thinking about the intersection of email metrics and privacy for a bit now. In fact, I started thinking about writing this post almost a year ago (lolsob) when Hey was first being talked about.

Given how the Hey/Basecamp founders so negatively talked about email tracking (referring to the 1px blank image in emails that's used to track opens as "spy pixels," for instance), I was curious how other folks (specifically not-tech-company-founders) felt. I even ran a small, inconclusive, and completely unscientific Twitter poll to gauge how people felt about standard email tracking.

While I don't look at those poll results and take them at face-value (I'm no statistician but I know enough to know better), I do think they indicate that—in the grand scheme of data privacy on the internet—email tracking seems pretty low on the list of things folks are worried about. Realistically, there are fewer malicious things someone can do with your email engagement data than other types of data.

Even so, I'm realizing now that the question we need to be asking isn't necessarily "do people think this is OK?" or "what harmful things can be done with this data?" but instead: "why do we feel entitled to it to begin with?"

Because, as email marketers, we do seem to feel entitled to it. We expect ESPs (email service providers) will always have email tracking baked in, we use additional data tracking services to tell us even more information (like purchases and conversions), and we base our entire strategies and success off of access to these metrics.

I say "we" because I do this in my work, too. I always have. I use a combination of email engagement and business metrics to measure the health and success of campaigns. For every new email or experiment, my team identifies the primary "decision-making" metrics, as I like to call them, and the secondary "health" metrics.

I won't go too deep into how I structure my strategies here—it's irrelevant—but I will say that email engagement numbers are almost always just health metrics for me, and I rely more on click data than open data.

For what it's worth, I tend to fall on the "open rate is a vanity metric" side of things, mostly because of how I personally treat my emails: I scan, open what's interesting to me, and then mass mass archive and delete the rest. I imagine I'm not alone in this.

Given that, the news that open rate may be less reliable when iOS15 rolls out doesn't concern me too much. I won't lie, not having a reliably click-to-open ratio will complicate things, but we'll figure something out. I'm also not terribly concerned about IP blocking, as I don't like to use IP data for anything anyway.

When I set up this website, I decided not to add any Google Analytics tracking. While I did look to see if there were any other "more ethical" website analytics companies, I ultimately decided not to add any at all; I don't need to see any viewership metrics to determine whether I have a "successful site." I don't make money from this website, and knowing how many people visit and where from won't change anything I do here. And, frankly, it's none of my business who decides to read this. (So rest assured, when you're here, I'm not tracking you.)

Around the same time I built this site, I also decided to migrate the majority of my personal email off of Gmail to a paid service. While Gmail is technically free, we pay for it with our data. I decided the cost was no longer worth it for me. (Site note: I chose not to use Hey because I had feelings about the founders even before the Basecamp stuff this year.)

My current email provider doesn't block email senders from seeing how I interact with their content, but if I had the option to keep my data private, I probably would. It's not that I'm terribly concerned about what will be done with my data. If anything, I know from my line of work that if it is used, it'll only be used to send me more relevant things. But I would much rather companies get that information because I've explicitly opted to provide it rather than it just being the cost of doing business.

Which brings us back to the question: why do we feel entitled to the data?

I don't really have an answer. I imagine, it has to do with the fact it's always been there. We've always had access to this data so it's hard to imagine life without it.

But just because something has always been a certain way doesn't mean it should be that way. If anything, I imagine the desire and expectation for email privacy is only going to increase. I imagine more email providers will start thinking about what Apple and, well, Hey, are doing and start adding in more privacy features.

We—the senders—are just going to have to learn to adapt. Our jobs may change over time, and that's okay. We can come up with better ways to measure success that don't involve sacrificing our customers' privacy and consent.  We're a creative bunch. I trust we'll figure it out.