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Picture this: Your company's email campaigns have an average open rate of around 15%. Then one day it suddenly skyrockets to 40%.

Maybe it's just a fluke, you think... until it happens again. And again.

Anyone with marketing chops will know it's not a cause for celebration. Something is just not right.

For companies that send emails, that scenario may play out as early as mid-September. But it won't require much detective work to solve: Apple's forthcoming iOS 15 privacy update will soon render open rates irrelevant, and marketers need to start adapting now.

Why Traditional Open Rates Will Die

You might be wondering how one tech giant's move could obliterate a metric that marketers have depended on for two decades.

Here's how: Apple users who upgrade to iOS 15 will choose whether they want to activate "Mail Privacy Protection" for any Apple Mail apps they use to read emails. Language in the beta version makes the convincing case that most users will choose to do so, and in that case all emails will be marked "opened"—even if they aren't.

The change is understandably rattling e-commerce merchants, whose clientele is more likely to check their emails via mobile app. But it also matters to B2B businesses, even if just a small portion of their email subscribers fit that profile.

To put it plainly, open rates will lose their value as a universal metric.

Yet, though it may be adept at gauging initial interest in what you have to say, open rate doesn't disclose what truly matters: how recipients are engaging with and responding to your communication.

How to Prepare Your Email Marketing for iOS 15

Initial grumblings aside, marketers recognize that the impending change is an opportunity to improve and renew their focus on the end goal of emails.

Here are five things you should do now to enhance your email marketing program for better results when iOS 15 is released.

1. Test your subject lines

Enticing people to open your emails will always be important. As long as open rates are still a measurable metric, experiment with A/B-tested variations of your subject lines to decipher what type of messaging works best for your business. A/B-testing works whether your emails are solely of the promotional variety, triggered by marketing automations, or a mix of both.

Switch up components such as length, tone, featured emojis, and special characters. It's also a good idea to use your preheader text to its full potential as a valuable extension of the subject line.

2. Scrutinize your content

Your work doesn't end with an optimized subject line. You need to encourage email openers to take the next step.

Is your content compelling? And does it match what you project in the subject line?

Promote your differentiators—i.e., whatever separates you from your competitors, such as customized assistance if you deal in business services, or a value-add of free shipping if you're in the B2C space. The main point of an email is to ensure readers respond, so ensure your calls to action are clear and strong; that way, your recipients know exactly what you want them to do.

3. Analyze open-based automated workflows

Many businesses use marketing automation for things such as lead nurturing, whereas open-based criteria commonly determine subsequent messaging (e.g., Contact didn't open, resend the message).

Reassess your workflows. Shy away from open-based criteria and move toward engagement-based logic, such as click activity. That will be a stronger indicator of both your subscribers' interest in your offerings and your emails' success in conveying the right message for the stage of the customer journey they are in.

4. Clean out your contact list

Email open rate data often plays a role in list management. Take advantage of it now by ridding your list of unengaged contacts, so come iOS 15 you'll start off with the cleanest slate possible.

And it's not just for the sake of housecleaning. If you continue to send emails to uninterested recipients or defunct addresses, you'll be on the verge of being tagged for the junk folder—and spam labels and blacklisting are a messy path you don't want to take.

5. Adopt SMS as another opt-in channel

Businesses of all types—whether B2B, B2C, or service—are embracing text messaging as a secondary source for tracking click activity. And why not, when cell phones consume a large chunk of most people's day? In fact, 48% of people say that SMS is their preferred channel for receiving updates from brands.

SMS can bolster emails, replace the tactic of "remailing" the non-openers, deliver important updates, or fulfill transactional purposes. SMS delivers results, too: In 2020, year-over-year SMS conversion rates increased more than 100% for e-commerce brands, according to data from Omnisend.

It's Time to Focus on Relevant Marketing, Not Email Open Rates

The impending loss of email open rate as a viable metric might feel like a blow to marketers who have used it to guide their strategies. But it doesn't have to be.

I hope the iOS 15 update will nudge companies closer to what is most important: making the customer experience relevant and engaging.

Optimize your content, subject lines, and lists, and explore other modes of communication. And when you do, a question will arise: Why, for so long, have we given so much prominence to the email open rate?

More Resources on Email Open Rates

Seven Ways to Increase Email Open and Clickthrough Rates [Infographic]

Increase Your (Mobile!) Email Open Rates: How to Optimize the Only Three Lines That Matter

The Email Tactics Used by Senders With High Open Rates

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How iOS 15 Will Kill Email Open Rates—And How Marketers Can Prepare

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image of Greg Zakowicz

Greg Zakowicz is the director of content at Omnisend, an email and SMS marketing automation platform trusted by over 55,000 brands.

LinkedIn: Gregory Zakowicz

Twitter: @whatsgregdoing