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12 Ways to Respond to the Apple Mail and Gmail Changes in Your Year-End Giving Campaigns

On September 20, 2021, just as nonprofits were launching or preparing to launch their year-end fundraising email campaigns, Apple implemented its Mail Privacy Protection (MPP) along with new features that fundamentally alter how organizations conduct their email outreach. Though the changes were first announced in June, an exact release date wasn’t provided, only that the updates would go into effect sometime in the fall. Because of the relatively short notice, nonprofits may still be finding their footing in this new landscape.

If the shift feels uncomfortable, remember how similar transitions — the move to responsive design, for example, and enacting Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) — may have felt seismic at first but are now part of the everyday. Organizations will soon find themselves not just surviving Apple’s changes but exceling with a revamped approach to email. And, because data privacy remains a top issue for regulators, advocates, the public, and the media (as well as companies that see it as a competitive differentiator), organizations may see more changes on this front in the months ahead. 

So, let’s review what exactly has gone away, what’s taken its place, and how nonprofits can best navigate Apple’s MPP and the new features introduced earlier this fall.

Apple MPP Changes

NO MORE PIXELS

Most email providers like Mailchimp and Movable Ink add an invisible pixel to emails to collect data from recipients. Typically 1 pixel by 1 pixel in size, the transparent image acts as a unique identifier that tells servers all kinds of information: if and when an email was opened, what device opened it, and sometimes where the recipient was when they opened the email, as well as the associated IP address.

But now Apple automatically preloads an email’s images and content, effectively neutralizing the pixel. As a result:

  • Open rates are no longer a reliable performance metric.
  • Tasks auto-triggered by email opens, such as resends or drip campaigns, are unnecessary because now all emails sent to an Apple Mail address are marked open whether or not the recipient actually opened them.
  • Live content, such as countdown timers for year-end fundraising, is now inaccurate. That’s because live content is tied to when an email is opened, but because Apple marks them as such even when the recipient hasn’t opened them, organizations can’t be certain that the content is correct when a recipient actually does open the email.

These effects apply to all Apple Mail emails no matter who the provider is, be it Campaign Monitor, HubSpot, or Mailchimp.

HIDE MY EMAIL

The tech giant also debuted Hide My Email, a feature available only to those who pay for iCloud+, Apple’s cloud storage and cloud computing service. It’s a sizable group: The service counted 660 million subscribers in April.

Those millions can now create an unlimited number of randomly generated icloud.com email addresses that can be activated and deactivated at will. So, for any form, app, or website that requires an email address, a user can submit a “dummy” icloud.com address that will relay the email to another account chosen by the user. Because the user can kill the fake account at any time, emails sent to it once it’s been deactivated will count as a hard bounce. Get enough of those, and your hard bounce rate will exceed 2 percent monthly. Once that happens, email providers may begin blocking or directing your emails to spam or junk folders.

Hide My Email can also obscure who your audience is because it masks a user’s identity. And, if a user deactivates the email you have on file for them but then signs up again with another Hide My Email icloud.com address, you have no way of knowing that it’s the same donor or prospect who’d been on your list earlier.

 

PRIVATE RELAY

Private Relay rounds out the list of powerful changes from Apple. Only iCloud+ subscribers — all 660 million of them — can access Private Relay, but when it’s enabled, all traffic from Apple devices (iPad OS15, macOS Monterey, iOS 15, and watchOS 8) will be encrypted. Multiple security proxies redirect user traffic, preventing third parties from tracking user activity across the web (also known as “fingerprinting”). Because most ads seen on websites and apps are informed by data gathered via fingerprinting, ad agencies and adtech companies are especially threatened by Private Relay. Although nonprofits are unlikely to be as adversely affected as for-profit companies, which are more reliant on ad-driven revenue, this change will still negatively impact user tracking at a deeper, more systemic basis.

12 Ways Nonprofits Can Respond

  1. CONDUCT BASIC HYGIENE

To get a more accurate picture of your file, first scrub it of email addresses that bounced before Apple’s updates went into effect on September 20, 2021, which will help your bounce rate as Hide My Email gains ground among iCloud+ users. You should also remove unsubscribers if your email provider doesn’t do that for you automatically.

  1. AUDIT YOUR FILE

Next, examine your file pre-September 20, 2021. What percentage of emails were opened on Apple devices? The amount should tell you to what extent the changes will affect your email communications and fundraising. Of course, you won’t know how that percentage will rise or fall over time, but it gives you an immediate sense of the impact of the changes.

You should also look for any behavioral differences between recipients. Do those who use Apple devices donate more often? Do you count more clicks from non-Apple users? Do they open emails more or less frequently?

  1. REVISE AUTOMATED TRIGGERS

Update campaigns or tasks auto-triggered by opens, such as resends. Instead, set them up to fire based on clicks or time-based triggers like:

  • Dates, such as donor birthdays
  • Time, e.g., deploy email #2 three days after email #1
  • Behavior, like abandoning a donation page 
  • When the recipient clicks on a link
  1. RETOOL YOUR PERFORMANCE METRICS

Open rates have long been a measure of engagement for marketers and fundraisers, and while the artificially inflated increase in your open rates from Apple’s changes may be thrilling initially, you know they must be replaced with other metrics. Choose those best aligned to your organizational goals and consider the following:

  • Conversion rate. At what pace are you growing your recurring donations? How many sign-ups are you getting for volunteering opportunities?
  • List growth rate. How many new subscribers does your newsletter gain per month? How many unsubscribe?
  • Click rate. Does your copy or content compel recipients to click?
  • Overall ROI. Dollar for dollar, do your email initiatives equal or exceed the investment in time, staff, and budget your organization allocates? How might you improve?
  1. REJIGGER YOUR APPROACH TO A/B TESTS

Fundraisers and marketers often used a 10-10-80 split to A/B test email subject lines. Ten percent of their list would receive an email with A subject line, while another 10 percent would receive an email with B subject line. The 80 percent remaining would receive an email with the subject line that had a higher open rate. This was an attractive practice because optimization could be quick and the payoff of higher open rates rewarding.

But its utility has always been questionable because opens don’t correlate that strongly with bottom-of-the-funnel actions like conversions, and with Apple’s updates, A/B testing email subject lines is even less meaningful. A better signal of recipient intent has always been clicks, though raising that metric is slower going. Now’s a good time to focus A/B tests on it, though, so spend more time testing copy for CTAs or the color you use for the CTA button.

For important asks where open rates play a more prominent role, you might A/B test email subject lines among non-Apple users on your list and then use the winning subject line for everyone on your file. While the numbers may be less statistically significant because you’re only A/B testing, say, 50 percent of your file, the overall results in opens and clicks could be a net positive. It’s worth trying.

  1. RECONSIDER OR PAUSE SEND-TIME OPTIMIZATION (STO)

Whether you study your own send-time success or apply STO based on recommendations from your email provider, Apple’s MPP will affect them in the short term because STO algorithms, which are based on (surprise!) open times, need time to recalibrate to the new environment. Algorithms may weigh clicks and other behaviors more heavily in the future, so be patient as email providers adjust their formulas or pause your own STO practices until the industry has more data.

  1. GATHER MISSING DATA DIRECTLY FROM YOUR AUDIENCE

MPP requires Apple to use proxy servers, which means fundraisers and marketers no longer have detailed data about where exactly their audiences are located. You’ll still have access to national and state-level information, though, so you can comply with laws like GDPR and CCPA. Plus, you can use that data for broad-based geo segmentation, so if your nonprofit offers social services that can provide direct assistance ahead of an extreme weather event like a hurricane or blizzard, you can still get your message out to relevant subscribers.

But you can also begin to use surveys or other interactive methods to gather more precise information from your audience, such as their zip codes. Perhaps let them know about the changes Apple has implemented and their effects on your ability to provide more targeted, personalized communications. For-profit companies like Amazon, Netflix, and Spotify have accustomed many of us to more personalized experiences, so don’t be surprised if your audience prefers the same treatment from nonprofits.

  1. RECONSIDER YOUR SEGMENTATION

There are multiple ways to segment your file, with most to least engaged being common categories that have relied on open rates to guide the divisions. Apple’s MPP clearly requires a different metric — clicks, for instance — but, more broadly, your segments need to be reevaluated because of the weakening or disappearance of other data points, such as audience location.

If you haven’t been segmenting, then you have a fresh start. Again, most of us experience personalization daily, like the playlists Spotify or the items Amazon recommends based on our past behavior. To the extent that you and your organization can provide the same experience to donors, prospective donors, and other audiences, the better your likely results. Consider, for instance, the findings from an Accenture Consulting survey in 2017: Almost 60 percent of respondents said personalization would raise their donation amount by up to 10 percent, while 25 percent said it would increase theirs by up to a quarter more. Personalization matters, so begin segmenting your file if you haven’t already.

  1. KNOW THYSELF

In every recommendation we’ve suggested, data has played a critical role, so it’s time to recognize the defining truth of our era: All organizations — for-profit or nonprofit — are data companies. Each time you collect a donor’s name or email, review their donation history, or look at which events they’ve attended, you’re using data to guide your decisions about strategy or tactics. Embrace this identity and evangelize it throughout your organization. The sooner you get buy-in (especially from leadership), the sooner you’ll see improved figures across the board, whether that’s in terms of engagement, subscribers, or the all-important revenue. 

  1. FIND THE RIGHT TOOLS

The metrics you gather from email are but one set of data that informs your audience (and prospective audiences’) profiles and personas. There’s a whole universe of additional information — their income, their giving history at other nonprofits, how they’ve engaged with your organization in the past — that can fill in those gaps about who they are and how you can best build a mutually beneficial relationship. Be sure you have powerful tools like GivingDNA from Pursuant to help you understand your data and to craft strategies and plans from those insights.

  1. REVIEW EMAIL MARKETING BEST PRACTICES

Technological advances are occurring at a rapid clip these days, so it’s a good idea to see which tips and tricks the experts are recommending. You’ll also want to ensure you’re implementing industry standards, such as selecting a “from” name that recipients will recognize, as well as customizing the preview text they see.

  1. EXPLORE OTHER CHANNELS

Even as you batten down the email hatches, so to speak, consider newer touchpoints, such as SMS or developing your own mobile app, for reaching your audiences. You might even pair your email messages with a text. For instance, you could send an email that allows recipients to opt-in to receive texts from you about the progress of funds raised for a capital campaign.

A Word About Gmail

Since we’re discussing email and best practices, let’s quickly review an important tic in Gmail: clipped messages. You’ve probably come across them in your own inbox — an email that’s cut off with a link at the end that reads, “[Message clipped] View entire message.”

You and your team have spent too long writing, designing, coding, and testing your email communications for them to to be clipped and only partially read and seen. Plus, if the unsubscribe link is clipped, would-be unsubscribers may not find it, get frustrated, and instead mark your email as spam.

Avoid having your emails clipped by following these easy guidelines:

  1. Keep your email’s HTML size at or below 80 KB. Although 102KB is the baseline, Gmail will sometimes clip them even if they’re a smaller size. Plus, if your email provider adds any tracking links to your code, that will enlarge the email size. Play it safe and stick to 80KB or below.
  2. Keep the differences between ASCII and UTF-8 characters in mind. Both are character-encoding standards that inform how computers understand text. UTF-8 contains special characters within its set, such as accented letters like č or symbols like ©, while ASCII is more limited. So, if your emails tend to use a lot of special characters, reach out to your email provider to make sure they encode your emails with UTF-8.
  3. Modernize your template. Is it more code than content? Strip it of the extra code to shrink its size.
  4. Apply an HTML minifier. Use one that’s made for email, and it will delete white space, comments, and anything that isn’t related to the content of the email itself.
  5. Test your emails. Send a live version to a personal Gmail account and see if the message gets clipped off. Another option is an email preview service.

While Apple’s updates may take some getting used to, it’s worth the effort. The company simply has too big an email footprint to ignore. Of all emails opened on a mobile device in May 2021, for example, 93.5 percent used an Apple product, while 58.4 percent of all emails opened on Mac desktops were via Apple Mail, reported email tech company Litmus. Simply follow the suggestions outlined above and your nonprofit will experience little to no turbulence as it charts a course through these changes.


Want to know how your nonprofit can respond to additional changes to data privacy? Download our resource on this topic: The Data Privacy Conundrum.