Apple’s new data protection settings could be a disaster for targeted digital media campaigns.

In the latest of a series of developments in this area, Apple has dealt a significant blow to digital marketers seeking to track and exploit demographic and behavioural data for online advertising campaigns.

Under iOS 14, users will be prompted to authorise tracking when they install an app. This is a change from the previous approach, where tracking was allowed by default and IDFA – which stands for Identifier for Advertisers – could only be switched off by finding it deep in the device settings.

While this does not mean an end to mobile marketing campaigns, it is the latest development in a continuing trend towards user empowerment in online privacy protection and means advertisers will find it more difficult to verify whether, for example, a specific app download is the result of a specific mobile ad.

Who Needs an IDFA Anyway?

Identifiers for Advertisers (IDFAs) are the only way for advertisers to target and tracker user behaviour within mobile apps on Apple devices. Google has something similar called GAID.

They are unique, random numbers associated with a user’s device that provide advertisers valuable information about how users have interacted with an advert.

Major mobile app advertisers, a multi-billion dollar industry, rely on this data to track revenue generated from their campaigns. If results can’t be measured effectively, advertisers may seek other channels for their budgets. More on this later.

Have Apple killed IDFA?

Apple have not killed IDFA in iOS 14, but they have made it opt-in when users install a new app, with a prompt that notifies the user that they will be tracked “across apps and websites owned by other companies” for the purpose of delivering personalised ads.

The user has two options:

  • Allow Tracking
  • Ask App Not to Track

The wording is significant here, as there is no attempt to make tracking sound beneficial to the user, for example by asking: “Would you like to see ads that are more relevant to you?”

By bringing IDFA out of the Settings page and into the installation process for each and every app, and by making it opt-in rather than a device-wide opt-out setting, Apple have made it much more likely that an end-user of any given app will turn off tracking, and that’s terrible news for targeted mobile marketing campaigns.

Why have Apple made IDFA opt-in?

The tide in recent years has been very much towards increasing user awareness and  control of how their data is used, driven in part by EU Directive 2009/136/EC (the Cookie Law) and General Data Protection Regulation 2016/679 (GDPR).

Apple’s move for mobile devices follows their introduction of Intelligent Tracking Prevention to block third-party browser cookies by default. Firefox has its own Enhanced Tracking Protection and Google Chrome is due to follow suit by 2022.

By that time, tracking ad clicks in desktop web browsers using third-party cookies will become even more difficult than it already is, with most present-day browsers blocking those cookies as standard.

Combined with opt-in IDFA, users are regaining more control of their own privacy, but advertisers are losing the ability to attribute revenue generation from mobile app downloads and future in-app spending to specific areas of marketing budget.

Mobile marketing vs. privacy protection

All of these trends mark a seismic shift in the balance of end-users’ rights and privacy protection on mobile and desktop devices alike.

Brands like Facebook, Apple and Google rely on the massive revenues generated by their marketing platforms, but they must also persuade end-users that they are safe, secure and private to use.

It’s a fine balance between Google’s infamous adage “Don’t be evil” and the principle that when you visit a website or install an app, your data is the product.

As consumers become more aware of targeted advertising – and how to deactivate it in their device settings or account preferences – it has become more useful for the big brands to make it easier for them to do so, rather than to persist with tracking user behaviour against their will.

To use the words of senior vice-president of Google Ads & Commerce, Prabhakar Raghavan, in a May 2019 blog post: “People prefer ads that are personalised to their needs and interests, but only if those ads offer transparency, choice and control.”

For advertisers, that means we are moving to a climate where customers buy what they want, instead of what you want to sell them.

What this means for mobile marketing

While some users will continue to opt into tracking in order to receive more relevant mobile app ads, overall the amount of demographic and behavioural data collected from mobile campaigns will fall.

This raises several challenges for mobile marketing campaigns:

  1. Advertisers will find it difficult, if not impossible, to attribute revenue to specific mobile marketing campaigns.
  2. Third-party behavioural data and demographic analytics will be less accessible, and incomplete data will render it less useful for digital marketing efforts as a whole.
  3. Remarketing campaigns and those based on ‘lookalike’ audiences will take a severe hit, with no complete and accurate data to base them on.

In general, if you cannot track the effectiveness of your ad campaigns, they do not offer long-term value as you are unable to verify positive future ROI.

Is digital marketing over?

Mobile marketing is just one digital marketing channel, albeit a lucrative one for certain businesses that use it as their primary source of revenue generation.

The decision by Apple to make IDFA opt-in in iOS 14 is significant for mobile privacy protection and spells a shift for digital marketers away from:

  • Mobile campaigns that track app downloads and future in-app spend
  • Remarketing campaigns that generate additional tracked revenues
  • Lookalike campaigns based on detailed demographic and behavioural data

On a macro level, losing the ability to track users in this way could mean a departure from the channels affected and towards traditional content based contextual marketing (SEO included) and increased efforts to harvest 1st party data.

Some examples of digital marketing channels that are likely to gain from this move are:

  • Traditional organic SEO campaigns
  • Content-based contextual marketing
  • Campaigns based on harvesting first-party data

Targeted mobile marketing is a multibillion-pound channel. If a substantial proportion of that budget is reallocated into content marketing that embraces Google’s recommendations to build detailed, valuable and informative pages, it’s good news not only for organic SEO but for the internet as a whole.

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