Today, let’s talk about one of Apple’s many announcements this week at its Global Developer Conference, which some see as a possible threat to the boom in email journalism. If that sounds complacent, given that it is from a reporter who distributes his work by email, I apologize. But it touches on so many topics that interest us here – the ability of a tech giant to reshape markets as it sees fit; how journalism will navigate the platform age; what we mean when we talk about privacy – hopefully I can pique your interest at least a little bit.
Start with the announcement. On Monday at WWDC, Apple announced Mail privacy protection, which will limit the amount of data that people who email you can collect about you. Here’s how the company describes it:
In the Mail app, Mail Privacy Protection prevents senders from using web beacons to collect user information. The new feature helps users prevent senders from knowing when they open an email and hides their IP address so that it cannot be linked to other online activity or used to determine their location.
When you finally update your iPhone to iOS 15 this fall, you’ll see a screen at launch that prompts you to register.
Suppose most Apple Mail users sign up for it. How necessary is this data to build messaging-based businesses? Over the past day I have read and heard a lot of disagreements.
Some quick info for those not obsessed with email. A long time ago, email marketers started including web beacons in the emails they send to you; when you open their messages, these pixels load, letting the sender know that you have read their message, and can also infer your location from your IP address.
Collectively, the percentage of people who actually open emails is known as the open rate, and this is one of the most important metrics that senders measure to gauge the effectiveness of what they are. do. This gives you an idea of how engaged your audience is and how that engagement has changed over time.
At the same time, there is a fairly long tradition that people find it scary. Superhuman messaging startup had to apologize in 2019 after a viral blog post explained how the company tracks when, where and how often people open emails sent through its service. The markup, a nonprofit newsroom that often focuses on data privacy issues, turned down eight potential email providers before finding one that would agree to disable tracking capabilities.
Last year, when Basecamp launched the Hey messaging service, it did block tracking pixels. a marquee feature. In a blog post today, Basecamp co-founder David Heinemeier Hansson – not a fan of Apple in general! – declared victory against tracking pixels. He wrote:
Given Apple’s monopoly advantage with their preinstalled Mail app, we don’t need a lot of use of what they call Mail Privacy Protection to break the pixel pixel barrier. You can’t say anything with authority about open rates if 5-10-30-50% of your recipients are spy-protected because you won’t know if that’s why your spy pixel isn’t triggering, or it’s because they just don’t open your email.
It is also impossible for users to voluntarily accept the pixelation principle if Apple presents the dangers of privacy as clearly and honestly as we did in HEY. Apple has already shown this with its drive to block unique ad IDs for cross-app tracking in iOS 14.5: 96% of US users refused to let apps track them like this! And email pixel tags are much worse and much scarier.
Let’s clarify a few things in advance. First, most people still don’t know these web beacons exist. Second, if they did, most people probably wouldn’t allow them if given the choice. Third, the majority of these web beacons are used for marketing purposes – efforts to better target you for ecommerce. I don’t think it’s irrational to look at the situation like Apple did, and say hell.
At the same time, email publishing has been one of the few strengths of journalism in recent years. (This has certainly been a beacon of hope for me!) Media companies from Facebook to Twitter to the New York Times are now investing heavily in newsletter strategies; new editors by e-mail are apparently appearing weekly. Much of this came about as a result of the success of Substack, which I use to release Platformer (see disclosure).
And so it’s no surprise that some observers are looking at protecting email privacy and seeing a threat. “It’s another sign that Apple’s war on targeted advertising isn’t just about screwing up Facebook,” Joshua Benton said. written in Nieman Lab. “They are also coming for your sub-stack.”
Benton brings up some powerful numbers to substantiate his concerns: “The Litmus’ most recent market share figures, for May 2021, 93.5% of all emails opened on phones arrive in Apple Mail on iPhone or iPad, ”he writes. “On the desktop, Apple Mail on Mac is responsible for 58.4% of all emails opens.
It seems clear that Apple’s decision to cut granular customer data from email senders will affect the economy of the email. But after conversations with newsletter editors and media executives today, I’m not sure people who do email journalism have so much to worry about change.
“The advertising industry has become addicted to tracking, prioritizing lower funnel metrics over quality, creative content. It’s tragic, ”said Alex Kantrowitz, author of the free ad-supported newsletter. Great technology. (He has already covered the industry for Ad age.) “And that’s why people hate advertising and advertising companies.”
Kantrowitz told me his ad inventory was depleted for the first half of the year, thanks to a premium audience he identified not through pixel-based tracking but through a good old-fashioned poll of readers. (The markup, also used reader surveys to get a feel for its user base.)
“Pixel blocking makes placements like this more valuable and gives quality email newsletters a leg up on the junk mail clogging most people’s inboxes,” said Kantrowitz.
For ad-based newsletters, protecting the confidentiality of the mail is therefore likely to encourage publishers to find other ways to understand their audience. But what about paid newsletters, like the one from which this column is syndicated?
Apple’s move could affect reader-supported newsletters even less, publishing industry executives told me today. Writers can triangulate reader engagement by many metrics that are still available to them, including the views their stories are getting on the web, the overall growth of their mailing list, and most significantly of all, the growth of their stories. their income.
The media industry is changing so rapidly that I don’t find it at all irrational to read a decision like the one Apple made this week and assume that it will be bad for journalism. But in this case, it mostly seems to me to be a false alarm. There are a number of changes that major email providers including Apple, Google and Microsoft could make that would make life more difficult for newsletter-based businesses. Ultimately, though, I don’t think pixel pixel blocking is one of them.
That said, I can’t end without highlighting the ways Apple itself is profiting from the crackdown on email data collection. The first is obvious: It further strengthens the company’s privacy credentials, as part of an ongoing and incredibly successful PR campaign aimed at building user trust in an era of trust. in institutions collapses.
Together, the many features of iOS 15 focused on user privacy combine to put more pressure on the digital advertising ecosystem. Perhaps most notably, “Private Relay” – available to paid subscribers of Apple’s iCloud + service – will encrypt all traffic leaving a user’s device, making it more difficult for advertisers to track.
One of my most cynical friends sees all of this as a way to get more businesses to build apps, offer in-app purchases, and promote them with Apple’s advertising products. Marketing emails not working as well as they used to? Looks like it’s time to buy keywords in the App Store!
And what about creators who want to move away from the advertising model? Apple will be there, ready and waiting to take a 30% reduction in Twitter Super Follows, Paid Podcasts, and Paid Facebook Events.
It is sometimes said that Amazon’s ultimate goal is to reduce all economic activity. Looking at Apple’s privacy moves this week, I’m mostly prepared to take them at face value – as a necessary counterbalance to the relentless rise of tracking technologies on the web. But it also seems clear that the value for Apple goes far beyond customer satisfaction – and as its revenue from ads and in-app purchases grows, we’d do well to keep an eye out for how its policies are reshaping. gradually the economy.
This column was co-edited with Platform, a daily newsletter on Big Tech and democracy.