In June of 2020, Apple made an announcement: A new iPhone operating system, iOS14, was on the horizon — and it was going to protect users’ digital privacy more strictly than ever before.
“All apps will now be required to obtain user permission before tracking,” Apple explained in an initial statement.
This fit with Apple’s long-standing privacy-first branding, like its 2019 billboard message: “What happens on your iPhone, stays on your iPhone.”
But the announcement still jolted digital advertisers. In previous iOSes, apps had default permission to track iPhone users’ digital behavior and purchases via Apple’s anonymized identifier for advertisers (IDFA).
Under Apple’s new privacy framework, though, online advertisers would have to change how they tracked iPhone users — about half of American smartphone owners.
It sounded like a nightmare.
“Is Facebook and Google’s Worst Nightmare Coming True?” a June 2020 Forbes headline asked, literally.
At first, the precise technical details of Apple’s privacy update remained murky. Then, in September, Apple postponed the update to early 2021, to give app developers (and advertisers) more time to prepare for it.
In mid-November, iOS14 launched — without its most controversial feature.
In December, tensions escalated. Facebook bought furious, full-page anti-Apple ads in major newspapers, including the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, with headlines like “Apple vs. the Free Internet.”
In response, Apple CEO Tim Cook defended the forthcoming “Opt into tracking?” prompt on Twitter.
Digital advertisers weren’t impressed. It’s a “nasty prompt,” Nick Shackelford, a managing partner at Structured Social, told MarketerHire.
Facebook continued its campaign.
In January, though, Facebook started begrudgingly revising its ad offerings to comply with Apple’s new privacy requirements, currently called the App Tracking Transparency framework (ATT). On January 19, Facebook announced an update to its ad attribution settings.
On January 23, we spotted our first user screenshot of an “Opt into tracking?” prompt in the wild — even though Apple’s privacy update doesn’t even have a firm launch date yet. Its latest ETA? “[E]arly spring.”
Adding another layer of complexity, on January 27, Google announced that it doesn’t plan to show Apple’s “nasty” prompt at all — instead, it plans to drop IDFA-based tracking entirely, and lean into Apple’s SKAdNetwork, a newer API for advertisers that anonymizes users even more completely.
Last month, in other words, a cascade of major and confusing events shook up the digital advertising industry. So last week, we asked three digital marketing professionals on the front lines: What the heck is going on?
How would you describe what’s going on in digital advertising right now?
Maurice Rahmey, co-founder of performance marketing agency Disruptive Digital (a Facebook marketing partner):
If Facebook can’t actually see if a user buys something, it can’t use that data and find people similar to that user for advertisers to target. I think that’s the thing a lot of people are neglecting when they talk about this.
Even though Facebook is not going to launch any of the prompts on the consumer side yet, they're getting advertisers ready now for the fact that things are going to be different.
Thomas Larkin, growth engineer at MarketerHire:
You’re watching two multi-billion-dollar companies battling each other right now. Apple’s creating what’s very obviously a huge problem for Facebook with this privacy update — though I don’t think they really care about anyone’s privacy. It’s just a marketing push for Apple. They know that enterprise clients use their phones, so they have to be able to market privacy. What better way to do that than to send an F-you to Facebook, the world’s biggest privacy infringer?
“You’re watching two multi-billion-dollar companies battling each other right now.”
I think Facebook’s ahead of the issue, though. They’re obviously not going to announce everything they’re doing; they’re keeping people aware of what’s going on, but they’re not getting super-granular and saying, “We just rolled out this new tracking key.” We won’t know that type of thing until whatever they’re testing succeeds.
Nick Shackelford, managing partner at Structured Social:
People are freaking the F*&% out. I hate to be all doom and gloom, but the only positive sign we have as advertisers so far is that Apple has postponed their initial rollout of this until springtime. That suggests to me that they’re worried their App Store ad revenue could drop, if major companies spend less on promoting their apps after the update.
How has it impacted your marketing efforts so far?
Rahmey: I really hadn’t seen any changes until last week, on January 19. At that point, the reporting window on Facebook ads changed from at most a 28-day click and one-day view to at most a seven-day click and one-day view. In the past, you could see if someone bought your product three weeks after they saw an ad for it. But moving forward, if a user waits more than seven days to buy your product, Facebook won’t report a link between the ad and the sale, even though those longer consideration phases are still obviously going to happen.
The other big change is that now attribution on Facebook happens at the ad set level instead of at the account level. So each individual campaign or ad set has its own attribution data, and it’s harder to compare campaigns and aggregate campaign data. Facebook used to total up all my campaign data for me — now, I have to do that math.
Larkin: Our cross-site tracking abilities took a hit starting in mid-November. As soon as iOS14 and Big Sur came out, our ability to attribute via UTM tracking or anything else dropped to almost zero for Apple devices. It’s just a correlation — we’re not sure exactly there — but we’ve boosted performance since then with a couple special data libraries.
"Our ability to attribute via UTM tracking or anything else dropped to almost zero for Apple devices."
I don’t personally buy our ads, and I haven’t seen a major impact on our funnel since Facebook’s update last week. But I know that the week of January 22, a ton of Facebook users got logged out of their accounts and asked to sign in again.
If Facebook didn’t completely refresh how they're doing attribution, they launched some kind of beta test that we're all in right now. Hopefully it’s going to work out, because if Facebook doesn’t get ahead of this issue, it’s going to hurt a lot more people than their investors.
What are the remaining big unknowns?
Rahmey: Opt-in rates are definitely an unknown. Some people are guessing between 10% and 30% of users will opt into tracking.
I also want to know why attribution had to be moved from the account to the ad set level on Facebook. I understand why we can’t get 28-day click data anymore — so why couldn’t Facebook just make it seven-day click and one-day view for my entire account? As is, if I use different attribution windows for different ad sets, I’m not sure how to compare their performance.
Facebook also has tools outside of their ad reports — analytics tools that let you compare Facebook ad performance with other paid media channels. They have a tool that lets you measure the lifetime value of a customer that comes through Facebook. I’m not sure yet how those tools are going to be impacted by Apple’s privacy update.
"The biggest issue is that we don't know what all these changes will mean from a performance standpoint."
To me, the biggest issue is that we don't know what all these changes will mean from a performance standpoint. From a reporting standpoint, it’s clearer, but from a performance standpoint, it’s all very up in the air.
Shackelford: How many users will opt out of being tracked? That’s important because as we lose data points across major social platforms, the effectiveness of paid social ads, the price of paid social ad impressions and basic decision-making capabilities will all be impacted.
Another unknown: Will Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, Instagram, Snap, TikTok and all other major advertising platforms find a fix for Apple’s privacy update fast enough to save the average advertiser from spending phenomenal amounts of money?
Looking at the big picture, it’s also not clear whether this signals the end for per-platform pixel audiences and remarketing pools. We’ll see.
Do you see potential workarounds that give you hope?
Larkin: The only real workaround I can give you is: Make sure that you have professionals working for you, who know what they’re doing right now. Not last year — right now. If attribution is important to you, you can't cut corners anymore. You have to invest in great software, too. Segment is a great one that we're using. It's a customer data platform, recently bought by Twilio. We get a ton of meaningful data out of that, that helps us deliver a great customer experience.
Shackelford: If I was asked to put all my eggs into a basket, it would be into the basket of creating high volumes of content. Tools like Konstant Kreative, Design Pickle and Video Husky all make it much easier.
If you ask any affiliate marketer or advertiser from the pre-Facebook era what they did, they’ll tell you they focused on creating content and assets that persuaded. They couldn’t create lookalike audiences based on four-time purchasers of a specific product within the age range of 18-34. They had to make ads and evaluate how persuasive they were based on conversions.
Not many companies will be willing to invest in a content team or a content solution, but I think by even the middle of 2021, we’ll see that the businesses willing to do it are going to be the ones thriving and accelerating their growth.
What do you think are of as likely long-term consequences of Apple’s privacy update?
Rahmey: I think it’s going to make Apple a bigger player in the digital advertising space. It’s all a bit of an abusive monopoly power move from Apple, really, because Apple is only giving advertisers access to certain data points through its new API, the SKAdNetwork. But Apple also sells ads in their app store, in its stock app and in its news app. If you want to measure the effectiveness of those ads that you buy directly from Apple, they offer a different API that has a couple more data points than the SKAdNetwork.
“It’s all a bit of an abusive monopoly power move from Apple.”
So Apple is basically saying, “We care about privacy, but we care about it less when you buy our ads.”
I also think Apple’s update is going to entrench Facebook as the default digital advertising channel. The update will hurt Facebook, but I think it's going to hurt everybody else even more. Snapchat, for instance, is a lot more nascent in terms of adtech. Facebook is way ahead of the game.
Ultimately, the update will have two separate impacts: one on the app ecosystem, and one on the website ecosystem. I think app developers are going to have it a lot worse, because app developers need users to opt into tracking twice — once on their app, and once on the social app — to see how their paid social ads perform. It’s easier to track conversions on ads that lead to a website; that just takes one opt-in.
Larkin: My hunch is, we'll see an Apple ad network — I think that that's the long play here. They really can't come out with an ad network when they have a competitor like Facebook on their hardware. You can't ever expect a company like Apple to make a huge move like this without trying to see the business play in it. That’s a tinfoil hat theory, but that's where I think it's going.
I also think it’s going to edge out the tiny shops advertising through paid social. The margins that they're running on are too thin — it’s not going to be possible anymore. If they can't afford the legitimate customer data platforms, which are legal and CCPA-compliant and respect people's privacy, they’re going to turn to sketchy stuff. Like attaching a tracking pixel to a favicon.
Do you see the ATT framework as an existential threat to digital advertising?
Larkin: I mean, Apple can take away anything they want at a device level and marketers are going to find better ways to track you. They can't use IDFA? There's many other means and methods to get around that. What Apple calls “privacy” is a BS trophy and will ultimately lead to more invasive tracking methods.
Shackelford: The digital advertising industry is resourceful. I can attest from traveling to Bangkok, Kyiv, Mexico City — there are marketers with minimal budgets and resources who still find ways to build profitable companies and brands. This will only be a minor speed bump in the grand scheme of advertising. We are still very early in this world; the first online ad ran on October 27, 1994. We have so much left in the tank.