Don’t Worry, Newsletters Aren’t Going Anywhere

Everyone and their mother has already written about how Apple’s new privacy policies that will roll out with iOS 15 mark the end of email marketing as we’ve known it.

ICYMI:

Mail Privacy Protection — Apple will not share data about when you’ve opened an email by blocking the image/tracking pixels that most email senders have. Apple will also block platforms from accessing your IP address, reducing the amount of information they have about you.

As an individual consumer, I’m excited for big tech companies to finally respect my data and privacy. But, as a newsletter writer and email marketer, I was more than a little concerned when the news dropped.

But now that I’ve had time to absorb it, I’m not too concerned about the new Apple updates. I recently began my newsletter (it’s a whopping seven weeks old!), but I’ve been writing newsletters and email campaigns for clients for a while now.

Here’s are my two cents on this whole thing and why I think these policies will make email marketing better than ever:

Open rates are vanity metrics

I subscribe to nearly forty newsletters, so my inbox is perpetually flooded with emails, and I’m someone who hates having unread emails in my inbox. But, I also have FOMO — I don’t want to miss anything useful, so deleting an email without opening it is not something I can do.

So, what do I do? More often than not, I open emails, skim through, and instantly delete them. Out of inbox, out of mind. I have gained no value, and the email sender has made no impression on me (as a consumer/reader/anything).

But, they’ve got an open!

Their open rate counts me as an engaged reader when I am anything but that. Most email platforms will tell you who opened your email and how many times. But there are so many readers who open and don’t read — we all have multiple tabs of things we’re hoping to get round to reading open right now. Are we going to read them? Maybe. Probably not, though. Unsubscribing is another headache, let’s not even get started on that.

We rely on open rates because they’re the easiest metric to track. I’ve proudly displayed my open rate because I’m thrilled at how many people opened my email! But do I know if they’ve read the email? No, not really.

Open rates depend on subject lines

Good copywriting decides your open rate. Your email could have news about the second coming of Jesus, but if you’re not able to convey that with your subject line, Jesus may as well reschedule. So, an open rate isn’t an indicator of how good your content is, just the subject line.

That’s why split tests exist. A/B campaigns tell you which subject line will perform better, i.e. land more opens. A client recently had me switch from resends (launching an email campaign and resending it to those who didn’t open the first email with a different subject line) to A/B Split Testing. It’s been an illuminating experience because this tells me which of my subject lines are better at convincing the reader to open our email.

Your subject line is a foot in the door. People want to know what they’re getting into, and your subject line should be clear, concise, and crisp. Whether or not you can track them, your readers will open your emails and go through them if you’ve cracked that code.

Open rates ≠ feedback

You could have an above-average open rate but are people actually reading your emails? Have you asked them? Have you made it easy for your readers to reach you?

When I started my newsletter, I picked Substack because I thought it was the best platform for my long-form editorial newsletter. Because it’s a free newsletter, I have certain limitations. The two ways for my readers to give me feedback were to reply to my email or to comment. But replies cannot be displayed, and really, who wants to write another email? If they wanted to comment on or “like” the article, Substack makes them login into their accounts (or something like that).

Way too many steps that nobody’s got the time for when the pandemic has destroyed our attention spans. Plus, I’ve written about topics that people aren’t willing to comment on publicly or show support, for example, job loyalty or why we need to talk about money openly.

I wanted to make it EASY for my readers to give me feedback. Easy as clicking a link and, if they’d like, to drop me a note about what they liked/didn’t. When I came across Feedletter, a tool that did exactly that, I was excited to try it out.

Here’s what my version of the link copy looks like:

3 different links with different copy (Great read, was okay, and didn’t work for me) as an example taken from niacarnelio.substack.com.
3 different links with different copy (Great read, was okay, and didn’t work for me) as an example taken from niacarnelio.substack.com.

Readers can click on any of the three options and anonymously share their feedback. They can also add their name if they wish. Since I began adding this to my newsletter editions, the number of people sharing feedback has floored me. Here’s an example (also the longest feedback ever received on this tool at 1093 characters!):

My open rates don’t give me this precious data. All they tell me is that someone opened my email — and while this is useful in some ways, it really doesn’t offer much. We could do without open rates (with tech companies finally backing up their privacy campaigns with action, we might just have to) and still have enough information to see how our emails perform.

The default should be opt-in, not opt-out

As a marketer, I know the value of data and how it impacts advertising and marketing. But tracking opens isn’t something only marketers do anymore. Services like Mailtrack and HubSpot allow individual users to embed tracking pixels into daily email platforms Gmail and Outlook, letting them know when you’ve opened their email.

I’ve toyed with that idea briefly — I’d love to know if a prospect or client has read my email and is ignoring me or if it’s simply slipped through the cracks. But the idea of someone knowing when I’ve opened my emails was way too invasive for me to consider, so I dropped the idea.

As someone who checks her email an unhealthy amount throughout the day (and night), I don’t want people to expect answers immediately/first thing in the morning simply because they know I’ve opened their email.

When Apple made users opt-in to be tracked, only 4% of US iPhone users opted in. That should tell you that many of us are freely giving away our data because we didn’t get that choice in the past, and the hassle of opting out is both inconvenient and time-consuming.

Conclusion? Focus on engaging readers

Even though I’m not an Apple user, I’m glad they’ll roll out these policies in the fall. Since Apple commands nearly 60% of the email market share, these “false opens” will skew open rates enough that we’ll have to figure out new ways to see if our content works for readers.

Some newsletter writers I know routinely go into their subscriber list and delete those who aren’t engaging enough so that their emails don’t get categorized as spam by ESPs. That’s where open rates come in handy, because like Dan Oshinsky says, “Open rate is the “check engine” light of email metrics. It won’t tell you what’s wrong or what action to take next, but it’s a sign that you need to start digging into the data for more answers.”

I wouldn’t worry too much about what will happen with open rates — necessity is the mother of invention. I have every faith that email marketers are an ingenious lot and will come up with new ways to figure out the first indicator of engagement.

When it comes to split testing, once the Apple updates start rolling out, email marketers will switch to tracking clicks instead of the subject line performance, which are a more accurate representation of reader engagement. For long-form editorial newsletters like mine, this is an opportunity to embed an easy form or a feedback link for readers to share their thoughts easily.

Now, newsletter writers and email marketers need to focus on engaging readers better. For example, Robert Allen, who writes the Kings of Conversion newsletter and Oshinsky, who writes Not a Newsletter, both engage with their readers in their very first email — the welcome email. They ask meaningful questions and form a connection, making the reader feel valued.

It’s not just individual creators who do this — Revue’s newsletter, written by Anna Elliot, is one of my favourite newsletters (about newsletters & writing). In their first email, Revue makes a point of making you feel welcome and asking you about your challenges and anything they can help with.

All this + consistently great, valuable content = a loyal reader who will open your email every single time and then, even read it.

At the end of the day, open rates reflect real readers, not just numbers and metrics. Engage with them.

Further reading:

Freelance writer & content creator. Also into books, using the oxford comma, reading fanfics, wearing black in the summer, & bts. She/her.