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By Thomas Baekdal - June 2021

The reality distortion field we put ourselves in, future of event trends, and Apple blocking open rates

This is an archived version of a Baekdal Plus newsletter (it's free). It is sent out about once per week and features the latest articles as well as unique insights written specifically for the newsletter. If you want to get the next one, don't hesitate to add your email to the list.

Welcome back to another edition of the Baekdal Plus newsletter.

Today, I have three things for you. We are going to talk about the way the media talk about the tech world, and how that impacts us. I'm also going to expand on my previous Plus report about events. And, we need to talk about Apple blocking newsletter 'open rates'.

The lies we (publishers) tell ourselves about the tech companies

There is a new study out from John Wilkers, titled "Big tech and you". It's a wonderful study exploring the sentiment and the struggle that publishers face when dealing with a 'tech dominated world'. What's great about it is that it interviews a large group of important media people, and you get to hear and better understand what everyone is thinking.

(Of course, I'm biased because I was also one of many people interviewed for this report.)

However, while I appreciated being able to read all these statements, I also found it to be very frustrating, because so many of the quotes were misleading.

Things like "Google is monopolizing our world" (they are not), that "we can't live without the tech companies" (we can), that there is "nothing we publishers can do about it" (again, we can), and that "none of the experts know how to fix this" (we do).

In my latest Plus report, I do a bit of myth busting to try to explain why so many of these statements are misguided.

So take a look at: The lies we (publishers) tell ourselves about the tech companies.

What about socializing when it comes to (virtual) events?

In my previous Plus article, I wrote about how I would completely redefine the way we think about virtual events. In fact, instead of thinking about it as an event, I outlined all the individual elements and showed you how we could optimize them individually to make each one more effective, and then I suggested using these updated concepts to turn a virtual event business into a monthly subscription.

In doing this, however, I pretty much destroyed the concept of doing this live, and this led several of my readers to ask me "but what about the social element?", which is what many people associate events with.

So let's talk about that. Is this important? When is it important? And why would I cut that out?

There are several reasons why I wrote what I did.

The first reason is that I was focusing on virtual events where I don't see much of a future for socializing. Mind you, over the past year, socializing online became a necessary workaround to the pandemic. But when you analyze it, it doesn't really work that well.

The problem I see is that whenever virtual conferences have tried to add a socializing session, only a tiny fraction of the attendees contribute. So, in general terms, if you have a virtual event with 500 registered attendees, only about 50% of them actually show up (250 people), and then only about 5% of those actually do any socializing (about 12 people).

It was nice that we could do this during the pandemic, but this is not a business model for the future. Now that people are getting vaccinated and the pandemic is coming to an end, I don't see socializing as a key feature of online events.

Some of my readers also mentioned Clubhouse as an example of virtual socializing, but here we have the same problem. Yes, you can invite people to contribute, but in reality, it's never more than a handful of people who ever do so.

Clubhouse reminds me less of the future of virtual events, and much more of a digital equivalent to talk radio shows. Remember Frasier? That's what Clubhouse reminds me of.

Again, the problem I have is that I don't see the business model. To me, it's just too limiting, too proprietary, to close a platform, and every time I see publishers do something on it, it seems to help Clubhouse much more than it helps publishers.

I could be completely wrong about this, of course.

The second reason for not focusing on socializing in my previous article is that physical events are coming back. Again, once the pandemic is over, there is a massive demand for social activities from millions of people who were going out of their mind from social distancing. So, from a trend perspective, physical events will be the social elements that people so desperately need.

But this is also very interesting. What we see right now is a future trend around events where they are divided into two parts: Physical and virtual.

Physical events: In the future this will have a much bigger focus on the social elements. So things like getting together with other people, face-to-face meetups, community workshops, discovery tours, and many similar elements will be driving this future.

What will become less important, though, is the focus on simply conveying information because the pandemic taught us that this could be done far more efficiently (and much cheaper) online.

Virtual events: In the future, this will be where you focus on getting value and information. Want to learn something? See some data? Explore solutions? Virtual events will be the perfect place to do that.

But, as I just explained, what will be less important are the socializing elements.

There are exceptions, of course. In the cases where you truly have a global audience, and where travelling is unfeasible (because of the cost or time), virtual events have now shown that they can be a stand-in for that.

But the future I see is this:

Anyway, take a look at my previous article: What if virtual events were not an event?

Apple will block newsletter tracking ... or so they claim

Apple recently finished their WWDC conference, and among the many things it presented was even more focus on privacy (no surprise there). One of the things they said was that they would start to block newsletter tracking, by blocking IP tracking, location tracking, and open rates.

This, of course, sent the publishing world into a bit of a frenzy. But let's look at this.

What Apple promised to do are three things. They will hide your IP address and your location. This is nothing new. Google implemented the same in Gmail all the way back in 2013. So no tracking system is using this today anyway.

This is just a PR spin.

But they also plan to hide open rates ... hmmmm....

At first, I was a bit confused by how they planned to do this because, if they were merely caching external images (like Gmail) and blocking tracking pixels it wouldn't really prevent tracking at all.

So what is going on? Well, Benedict Evans dug up the details ... and Apple is being nasty about this.

The way tracking works in emails is not really that it's done by a tracking pixel, but instead that the email can contain external images. And as soon as someone opens an email, those images are requested by the email app, which then tells the publisher: "hey, this person just requested this image ... meaning, they just opened the email".

What Apple will now do instead is to pre-fetch all external images the moment the email is received, rather than when it is opened. This means that you end up with a 100% open rate for all iOS/Mac users because it will look like every newsletter was opened.

So, they are not actually preventing tracking. Instead they are giving you garbage data so that you have no idea what it means.

That's nasty!

This is very different from what Gmail is doing. Gmail is loading the images on demand, so while they do the same as Apple (technically), because the images aren't actually loaded until the email is opened, you can still track people. But, by loading them before that, 100% of the time, Apple is making this data useless to publishers.

Mind you, for brands this is less of a problem because you still have click-tracking. So if a brand sends out a newsletter about a new product, they can still track how many customers click on that item to go to the web shop.

For publishers, however, and in particular, for independent publishers (like those using Substack), this is a huge problem. For them, the newsletter is the product. They are not writing a newsletter with links. They are putting the story itself in the newsletter (like what I'm doing here).

So with no open rates, we no longer have any idea which articles people liked. In other words, as a publisher, you have zero insight into your newsletter audience.

This is a big problem.

What makes me angry about this, though, is not just that Apple is blocking an essential business metric that is key to the growing importance of newsletters, but that Apple is doing it while not blocking anything they do themselves.

For Apple's own services, they use tracking data all the time. For the Apple store, they track what apps you buy. For Apple TV, they track what you watch.

Apple collects information about your purchases, downloads, activity in the Apple TV app, the content you watch, and where you watch it in the Apple TV app and in connected apps on any of your supported devices. We use this information to provide the service and to improve the Apple TV app for you and others.

For Apple Podcasts, they have built a comprehensive analytics suite. For instance, this is the data that it tracks for podcasts:

In Apple News Dashboard, you get a shitload of data, including how many unique people have seen each article. Data that is also used for Apple Ads.

All of this is exactly the same as the newsletter open rate.

So think about this. Apple is saying: "Oh we care so much about privacy." ...and then two seconds later they say: "But we are, of course, tracking everything we can for all our own products, because this gives us a massive competitive advantage. Now publishers will have to give up sending newsletters to Apple users (where they are blocked from knowing anything) and instead use Apple News where we will give them the data".

This is simply not acceptable.

Of course, as soon as I tweeted about all of this, tons of people told me that "it is different with Apple because they only use aggregated data."

But no, they don't. While Apple is only giving others aggregated data, they have designed their tracking in such a way that it can personally tailor their service just to you.

Again, one example is Apple Podcasts, where a key feature they offer is personalized recommendations based on your listening. The only reason why they can do this is because they are tracking podcast open, download, and listening rates.

So Apple doesn't care about privacy. None of their own apps live up to these high and mighty principles they talked about at WWDC. All of this is just another way for Apple to use its monopoly on iOS to be anti-competitive and force publishers to use their services instead.

Don't get me wrong. As any long time reader of mine knows, I'm a big proponent of privacy. I have written many articles about the need for more privacy. But what Apple is doing here isn't privacy. It's a PR spin designed to get people to use Apple's services instead.

Apple needs to be held to account for this. None of this is acceptable.

This is an archived version of a Baekdal Plus newsletter (it's free). It is sent out about once per week and features the latest articles as well as unique insights written specifically for the newsletter. If you want to get the next one, don't hesitate to add your email to the list.


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Thomas Baekdal

Founder, media analyst, author, and publisher. Follow on Twitter

"Thomas Baekdal is one of Scandinavia's most sought-after experts in the digitization of media companies. He has made ​​himself known for his analysis of how digitization has changed the way we consume media."
Swedish business magazine, Resumé


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