The newsletter industry is riding high. Big-name journalists have been signing six-figure deals with email subscription platforms such as Substack. And so is former government adviser Dominic Cummings. At the same time, publishers – WIRED included – have invested in newsletters that bring the best of their content directly to audiences, rather than expecting them to proactively visit websites.
But the boom times could be about to end. A shift by Apple in the way it handles emails, and tracking pixels hidden within them, could spell the end of the newsletter industry.
At WWDC earlier this month, Apple announced a new initiative called Mail Privacy Protection. The move stops senders from using invisible tracking pixels within emails to collect information about users. It’s a shady move that has become standard practice, allowing newsletter senders to see how many people open their emails, how often and at what time, all of which helps tailor content to users. Some tracking pixels do even more than that, including monitoring users’ online activity and interests based on the types of links they click on. Apple justified banning the pixel by saying it was aiming to protect users against the most invasive tracking practices.
The decision is made all the more significant when you take into account Apple’s stranglehold on the email ecosystem. Between the iPhone and Apple Mail apps, more than 60 per cent of all email accounts are opened in a piece of software controlled by Apple.
It’s not Apple’s only big privacy move in recent months. The company’s App Tracking Transparency initiative, introduced with iOS 14.5, requires apps like Facebook to notify users that they are tracking them across the internet, and giving them the opportunity only to opt back in if they so choose. Early indications are that the move has hobbled Facebook’s ability to follow us online: only seven per cent have opted in to being followed, according to data collected by Flurry, an app analytics firm.
The worry among newsletter publishers is that at a stroke, Apple is about to do the same thing to the newsletter industry, removing one of the major benchmarks upon which newsletter advertising is sold – and therefore, the production of newsletters is funded. Not Boring, a newsletter about finance and tech, for example, charges $2,000 to reach 14,000 subscribers, half of whom open emails sent to them. Newsletters are big business – and Apple’s changes are significant.
“I feel like Apple had the opportunity to approach this in a publisher-friendly way and provide aggregated data and they chose not to,” says Matt Taylor, product manager at the Financial Times – who spoke in a personal capacity. “I don’t think it’s the death of the newsletter, but it’s going to become much more difficult to operate a free or partially-free newsletter in the future.”
Those who help people tailor their newsletters worry about the impact on editorial content as well as the bottom line. “The beauty of email is that it’s a tool that provides creators a near-immediate feedback loop, and blocking pixels takes this advantage away,” says Janel Loi, the creator of Newsletter Operating System, a project management tool. Removing pixels, Loi argues, “makes it trickier to gauge what content resonates with subscribers”.
But there are other ways of obtaining information about subscribers that don’t require monitoring them without their knowledge. Packy McCormick, the founder of Not Boring, surveyed his readership to learn more about them.
“The only people that are affected in a bad way by this change are the ones measuring the wrong stuff,” argues Jens Lennartsson, an email marketing expert. Lennartsson says that knowing how many people opened your email is “just slightly more interesting” than knowing how many people are subscribed to your newsletter. Sometimes we get bills through the post that we don’t like, he says, but we open anyway. The act of opening something gives no indication of whether someone found the contents engaging or entertaining. Instead, Lennartsson believes Apple’s decision will force a move towards alternative metrics that better reflect user interest. “Showing how many people actually clicked on previous ads is – and always was – a better metric.”