How Email will Thrive in a More Privacy Centric World


Privacy. Consumers want it (or at least say they do) and in many cases they feel that companies know too much about them and their activities. Admittedly, you can create surveys that will demonstrate how much consumers value their privacy and others that show how much consumers enjoy marketing that is actually relevant to them. So the results can be contradictory. Regardless, there is an inexorable march toward a more privacy centric world in the months and years ahead. In many ways, this will be challenging for marketing strategies and campaigns in virtually every channel. However, as Albert Einstein said, “In the middle of every difficulty lies opportunity.”

This is certainly true for email marketers. While the upcoming developments in digital privacy will impact how email marketers target audiences and track performance, it also offers some intriguing opportunities to grow the channel and drive results.

While emerging initiatives around digital privacy continue to evolve, many of those changes revolve around a few key areas.

The End of the Third-Party Cookie

The third-party cookie has been painted with a big neon target for years. We’ve seen various browser plugins or software options that seek to limit the ability for third-party cookies to be accepted and stored on a user’s device (desktop, laptop, etc.) or that regularly go through and delete these types of cookies. So, it’s no surprise that the official demise of the third-party cookie may finally be on the horizon.  Firefox began blocking third-party cookies by default in 2019 (although users can turn off the feature). Safari browsers fully blocked these types of cookies back in 2020. Chrome browsers are currently scheduled to phase out support of third-party cookies 2022. At that point, the vast majority of internet users will likely be using a browser that blocks these cookies by default (although there may be settings that allow users to turn off this feature).

Digital marketers have been adapting to this change for the past year or two, but it will still be a major development when third-party cookies become effectively useless for the majority of website users. This is where email marketing comes in. While marketers may have found ways to leverage third-party cookie data in various types of email campaigns, it isn’t a required part of email’s core functionality. So, while channels like display or video may have to find alternative ways to accommodate various types of performance tracking and targeting, email will continue with little or no impact.

As marketing teams devise their strategies in an environment without third-party cookies, many are likely to turn toward email marketing as a proven channel where marketing budgets could be expanded.

Changes to Email Tracking Capabilities

While the demise of third-party cookies may not have a huge impact on email marketing performance and tracking, another upcoming change will. If you’re in the email marketing industry you already know that Apple’s upcoming Mail Privacy Protection feature will dramatically impact the ability for marketers to track certain recipient engagement with their campaigns. Because of the way the service will remotely download all of the contents of an email before it reaches recipient inboxes, the ability to track email opens will be rendered largely ineffective. Every email delivered to a user of the new Apple feature enabled will appear to have been opened immediately upon receipt by the recipient. So, any data that came along with a recipient opening an email (the open itself, IP address, etc.) will now be flawed.

Email marketers who relied on open rate as a key-performance-indicator are going to need to adjust their programs. Beyond simply open rate, many email marketers use opens as a simple flag for engagement, which drives a variety of email campaigns geared toward those recipients who at least open an email or those inactive recipients who don’t engage with their email on even this basic level. Similarly, some email marketers use IP address as a way to identify a user’s general geographic location when they open an email. This will also be inaccurate, since the IP address will be tied to Apple’s remote servers where the email contents are opened and stored.

This all sounds like bad news for email marketers, but looking beyond the difficulties reveals plenty of opportunities for email marketers to improve their campaigns and overall email program performance. Tracking email opens has always been flawed. Because the simplest way of tracking an email open is to place an invisible tracking pixel on the email creative, it has always meant that anyone who receives an email as text-only will not receive an email with a tracking pixel. Similarly, using an IP address as a means of identifying someone’s geographic location is highly inaccurate, especially when it comes to mobile devices.

By moving away from metrics and data that already has accuracy issues, email marketers can focus on metrics that are more reliable and that are tied to more important recipient actions - like clicks and conversions. If you have a 100% open rate, but no recipients ever click on a link or buy a product promoted in the email, is that a successful campaign? This isn’t to say that open rate hasn’t had a place in measuring and optimizing email campaign performance. It’s just that an overreliance on this metric can easily distract email marketers from driving conversions - the ultimate goal of most email marketing campaigns. So, by forcing email marketers’ attention away from open rates, there may be a stronger focus on true email marketing performance metrics, leading to more effective and profitable campaigns.

Developing Data Privacy Regulations

Hand in hand with technological developments around data privacy, numerous states in the U.S. and countries around the world are passing new data privacy laws and regulations that impact the ability of companies to collect, store, and use consumer data for any number of purposes, including marketing. While individual laws each bring their own challenges for marketers to navigate, the general evolution at this time is toward more restrictive governance of how companies can use consumer data. Marketing is powered by data, for everything from audience targeting, personalized messaging, and numerous types of audience segmentation, to detailed performance analysis. However, if consumer data is less available to be used by marketers, what can they do to continue creating successful campaigns?

Much like with the third-party cookie, numerous marketing channels are going to be heavily impacted by increased levels of privacy restrictions. However, for many of them, dealing with specific guidelines and laws around how they can function is a relatively new challenge. Email marketing, because of its longevity, is already regulated by a variety of channels specific laws in the U.S. and around the world (CAN-SPAM, CASL, etc.). So, email marketers are already well-versed in compliance and creating campaigns that facilitate opt-out requests and meet other specific legal requirements. In fact, many of these compliance initiatives are second nature for email marketers and fully integrated into every campaign and initiative.

Email marketers will still be challenged by a potential reduction in their access to data used to better target their campaigns and messaging to specific audiences. However, the foundation of email marketing is, of course, the email address. Unlike many other channels, where identifying the viewer/recipient of an ad may start with no information, email marketers have a leg up by having one of the most vital pieces of personally identifiable information available. This also means that email marketers are still positioned to take best advantage of the consumer data that is still available for use under various privacy regulations. Once again, the email marketing channel looks well-positioned to continue performing and potentially gain an even more prominent role in the marketing strategies of countless companies in the years to come.

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Photo by Jason Dent on Unsplash