Marketing Metrics in the Age of Increased Privacy

Act-On
Analytics and Reporting

As consumers continue to demand better protection when they shop and interact online, new privacy practices and regulations are upending the ways marketers can collect and use data. 

Apple, Google, and other tech giants are quickly increasing their own focus on privacy to stay ahead of evolving regulations. From new email privacy features to the continued demise of third-party cookies, even advanced marketers can feel overwhelmed by the impacts on the best practices and metrics we’ve relied on for years. 

This new privacy landscape will surely require some adjustments, but also presents an opportunity for marketers to zero in on higher-quality data, better customer experiences, and more meaningful metrics.

The End of Reliable Email Open Rates

With the release of iOS 15 in late 2021, users who update their iPhones or iPads were automatically opted in to Apple’s Mail Privacy Protection (MPP) security feature. MPP hides users’ IP addresses and privately loads all remote email content received through the Apple Mail app.

When content loads privately, pixels contained within the email—the standard method of observing an email has been opened—can’t be tracked by email marketers. Instead, even if the recipient deletes or ignores an email that goes to their Apple inbox, every message will appear as an open. In this new landscape, open rates will skyrocket and click-to-open rates (the number of unique clicks your email receives divided by the number of unique opens) will plummet.

Bottom line: Two of the most frequently referenced email marketing metrics will no longer be reliable for this sizable segment of email users. 

How to Respond and Adjust to the New Normal of Email Metrics

1. Revise reporting to focus on engagement metrics

You can still measure open and click-to-open rates for non-Apple Mail subscribers in your reporting, but it’s likely that other providers will implement similar security features in the future. So in 2022, focus your reporting and attention on other metrics that signal reader engagement. Clicks will likely become the primary measurement of email success, but conversions, form fills, unsubscribes, and website behavior are other useful metrics. 

Be prepared to educate stakeholders on the change and how they might need to contextualize your reporting differently. 

2. Update your sunsetting policies on email data

Maintaining a healthy email subscriber list continues to be essential for email deliverability, but most marketers have traditionally used open rates to measure contact engagement. Adjust these metrics to rely on clicks, but since that behavior usually comes later in the customer journey, you’ll likely want to set a longer timeframe to avoid sunsetting contacts who may be slower to click a link than open an email. 

Additionally, consider using re-engagement campaigns to nudge users to take proactive steps to stay subscribed.

3. Check your automated email triggers 

If your nurture flows rely on triggers based on open rates, they will be compromised for users who opt into MPP (or more accurately, fail to opt out). One way to adjust to the lessening reliability of open rates is to audit and update your automated email programs to use engagement metrics, or time-based triggers instead. 

4. Update your A/B testing criteria or segments

Most email marketers use open rates to determine subject line winners in A/B tests. Either isolate those tests to exclude Apple Mail users, or adopt a different metric, like clicks. 

5. Get your benchmarks in order

If click rates will become your new go-to metric, make sure you have solid benchmarks in place so you can continue to track performance over time. Comparing future clicks to past open rates won’t give you good insights, as open rates will always be significantly higher than clicks. 

6. Encourage engagement within your emails

As you focus on clicks, you’ll need to double down on engagement best practices. Focus on clear CTAs, and consider adding in-email surveys or polls to keep users interacting with your content.

Missing Out on Email Device, Location, and Time Data

Open rates aren’t the only casualty of Apple’s MPP. With the blocking of invisible pixels and masking of IP addresses, certain types of individual subscriber data will be unavailable as well. These include the time an email was opened, the location from which an email was opened, and the device used to open an email. 

While these data points may seem more minor than open rates, you still want to adjust your email strategy and tactics to avoid negative experiences for Apple users.

How to Address Missing Subscriber Metrics 

1. Check on your send time optimization tools

Many email service providers use time-opened data to develop their “magic” recommendations about the best time to send emails to your contacts. Talk to your email provider about how they’re adjusting their send rate optimization to ensure the data driving those recommendations isn’t compromised by Apple MPP users. (For example, Act-On’s Adaptive Send feature incorporates other engagement behaviors like form fills and webpage views.)

1. Review and update reporting that includes device and location

If your reporting includes metrics on device or location, you may want to remove it altogether, or at the very least add a note about this data now being incomplete. 

2. Check for compromised localized or time-specific email content

Fun countdown clocks that rely on time-opened data and handy location-specific content like weather reports or nearby attractions will be unavailable or wildly inaccurate for users who adopt MPP. Review your dynamic email content and either isolate those blocks to non-Apple users—or remove them altogether to play it safe. 

3. Collect your own location data

Location data is really useful, but if you aren’t getting that data as easily as you might have before, one tip is to ask the user to share it with you. Add a question about your subscribers’ location in your form, in your onboarding email, or within your preference center. 

Bonus metric tip: Forward tracking is also going away with Apple MPP. If you include this metric in your reporting, consider removing the metric altogether. 

Updating Ad Performance Metrics to Combat the Loss of Third-Party Cookies

By the end of 2023, Google has promised to no longer support third-party cookies in Chrome. These cookies make programmatic ad targeting possible across the open web, monitoring users’ website behaviors and showing them relevant ads everywhere they go.

Safari and Mozilla already did away with third-party cookies due to privacy concerns, so this change isn’t a big surprise—but it is a big deal. (Keep in mind, however, that the first-party cookies you can use to track behavior on your own website aren’t going anywhere.)

Generally speaking, this means that advertising platforms will lose performance signals from third-party cookies, and brands will find it more difficult to connect the dots between ad impressions and eventual conversions. Informative metrics like view-through conversions won’t be accessible across browsers. While ad platforms like Google are developing machine learning models to fill the gap, and programmatic ad companies will revise their products to adjust to this new normal, measuring and optimizing ad performance will look different in the near future.

One additional consideration: frequency capping. Right now, most ad buyers rely on cross-browser and cross-device cookies to limit the number of times a user is exposed to the same ad—because overexposure can lead to fatigue. Without cookies, frequency capping will become much more difficult, putting brand sentiment at risk.

How to Prepare for a Cookieless Future

1. Fortify and improve your first-party data collection

You’ve probably heard this time and again in conversations about cookies and privacy, but that’s because it’s simply unavoidable. You must collect and put first-party user data to work. Form fills, email interactions, content downloads, website visits, SMS opt-ins, subscription preferences, custom touchpoints—you can collect all of these data points directly from your audience and use them to segment, score, map your customer journey, and personalize content experiences. In a future without third-party cookies, robust first-party data is an absolute must.  

2. Implement offline conversion tracking across ad platforms

Right now, most ad platforms use machine learning to optimize performance based on conversion tracking. As third-party cookies go away, that data will become less reliable. You can help address this gap by implementing offline conversion tracking, or server-side conversion tracking, which allows you to integrate your first-party CRM data with your ad platforms. 

With this approach, you can start tracking leads, MQLs, and movement through the funnel directly within the respective platforms. That allows those platforms’ machine learning models to optimize your performance better, according to your own first-party data. As digital marketing expert Gwynne Ohm described in our recent webinar on cookieless marketing, here’s what this looks like right now across the major players: 

Google: There’s a seamless integration between Google and Salesforce, or marketing technologists can use tools like Zapier to help integrate other CRMs. 

LinkedIn: Enable enhanced conversion tracking to support first-party cookie tracking on landing pages, and consider using LinkedIn’s native lead gen forms to collect data directly in the platform and sync to your CRM. 

Facebook: Become an early adopter of Facebook’s new conversion API that shares data directly through their server (versus a browser), so you capture more downstream data. And similar to LinkedIn, Facebook’s native lead gen form is available to improve conversion tracking. 

3. Talk to your intent data provider

If you work with an intent data provider, chances are they’re working on a plan to accommodate these changes and continue delivering valuable insights to customers like you. But, it’s never too early to have a conversation and understand how these changes will impact the volume and quality of the data they’ll be providing. 

4. Keep your eye on frequency capping

There’s no easy solution for the danger of overexposure, but keep a close watch on how your respective platforms are approaching frequency capping in this new frontier. Marketing leaders are sounding the alarm about the risks of ignoring frequency capping without cookies, so it’s likely the industry will respond with new approaches—but you may need to micro-manage across platforms or implement more conservative limits in the meantime. 

Increased Attention to Consumer Privacy Could Be a Perfect Motivation to Update Your Approach to Marketing Metrics

Adapting to new technologies and customer behaviors is part of what can make a good marketer great. Changing expectations around consumer privacy can provide motivation to refocus efforts on improving your first-party data collection and utilization. The data your customers directly provide is more reliable and more actionable than any information you receive from external sources. You can use it to fuel better personalization and cutting-edge marketing automation, driving meaningful outcomes and delivering better experiences for your customers—while respecting their privacy and earning their trust.