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Necessary Update or Digital Debacle?: App Tracking Transparency

apple app tracking transparency

“I believe people are smart and some people want to share more data than other people do. Ask them. Ask them every time. Make them tell you to stop asking them if they get tired of your asking them. Let them know precisely what you’re going to do with their data.”

– Steve Jobs, 2010


Apple recently flipped the switch on a new era of digital advertising. On April 26th, the world’s most profitable technology company released its app tracking transparency (ATT) framework alongside iOS 14.5.

The update gives iOS users more control over how their data is collected, tracked, and shared by app developers (that’s the simplest way of putting it.)

Maybe you haven’t heard of the update or don’t own an iPhone. It doesn’t matter. Regardless of your personal relationship with Apple, if you own a business, this update is going to affect you. 

Want to know how? Keep reading.

What’s this update everyone’s taking about?

att update

Personal preferences aside, you have to give it to Apple – they’re master marketers with a vision.

The company’s tour de force is selling hyped-up, highly-anticipated, much-coveted products, putting them at the top of the mobile market.

But Apple’s greatest innovations aren’t just the products themselves – it’s how the products are run.

And as we’ve seen with the 2021 app tracking transparency (ATT) update, Apple is receptive to concerns regarding its software.

Since 2015, countless parties have implored Apple to strengthen privacy settings across iOS devices.

The trillion-dollar company announced it would make the pro-privacy change in 2020 after companies called on them to protect consumers and stop giving away their information to third parties.

According to Apple, apps have an average of six trackers (2020).

Following an outcry from major companies like Facebook, Apple pushed back the deadline to April 2021, giving developers more time to get their apps in order.

So now that we know the goal of the ATT update (to protect users’ privacy), let’s uncover why a change was needed in the first place.

How Apps Access and Use Your Data (Pre-iOS 14.5)

If you haven’t updated your iOS device, this is how advertisers are currently tracking your data:

  • The app attaches a unique identifier, known as an “identifier for advertisers” (IDFA), to your device. Apple assigns the IDFA, which is used to identify and track a user without giving away their personal information. IDFA is unique to Apple devices; the Android equivalent is called GPS ADID (Google Play Services ID for Android).
  • The advertiser is notified when you perform an action within the app (clicking on their ad in an internet browser, then installing the app and interacting with the ads inside).
  • The advertiser can then serve you ads across different platforms, the goal being to deliver customized adverts tailored to your interests and previous actions within the app.

How Apps Access and Use Your Data (Post-iOS 14.5)

If you’re like the 133 million iPhone users who received the iOS 14.5 update, you’ve probably seen this message:

app tracking transparency

These pop-up notifications require users to allow or disallow third-party tracking in order to continue using the app. Previously activated by default (when the user opened the app), the IDFA has now been switched off by Apple, meaning users have to give explicit permission for apps and advertisers to track their data.

According to Apple, iOS 14, iPadOS 14, and tvOS 14 have garnered support from privacy advocates across the world. Of the update, Apple says ATT “allows users to make more informed choices about the apps they use and the permissions they grant to those apps.”

That’s great for users, but maybe not so great for companies that rely heavily on online advertising.

How to Opt-Out of Ad Tracking

Don’t worry, you’re not signing your life away, and you don’t have to do anything besides waiting for the update (if your phone hasn’t already been updated). Any app that wants to track your data on the internet or across other apps will have to ask you first.

The pop-up notification looks a lot like other messages you might receive regularly, so take a good look to make sure you’re not agreeing to something that you didn’t want.

When prompted with the message “Allow (app) to track your activity across other companies’ apps and websites?” you’ll simply press “ask app not to track” or “allow”. Easy.

You can even turn off tracking for all apps so you won’t be asked every time you download a new one. In Settings, just go to Privacy, then Tracking. You can turn off the button “allow apps to request to track.” Once disabled, apps will automatically be denied tracking abilities.

Now, here’s something you should be aware of: Apple does allow apps to make their case for tracking – at least for the time being. On some apps, you might notice a screen similar to the one below, where Instagram (owned by Facebook) implores users to allow tracking “to keep Instagram free of charge.”

app tracking transparency update

Some users claim that the messages displayed by Instagram and Facebook such as the one above are a direct criticism of Apple’s ATT update. Facebook has long argued that the update could harm small businesses that rely on Facebook’s ad network to reach customers, going so far as to publish an article called “Apple vs. the Free Internet.”

That might be a little extreme, but it’s a valid concern brought to the table by numerous advertisers and companies. We’ll discuss more below.

Implications for Businesses

Let’s face it – most people are going to opt-out of app tracking. Thanks to a handful of high-profile and thousands of low-profile data leaks, most people are extremely wary of online advertisements.

App tracking transparency provides a new, stronger sense of control, but low opt-in rates will likely be a cause of concern for advertisers. They’ll reach fewer people and have a harder time measuring their marketing efforts.

As Harvard Business Review explains, ATT will make it much harder to link user behavior across apps and mobile websites. As any digital advertiser knows, a meaningful link to user behavior is invaluable to a company’s success.

Advertisers can also expect to be cut off from seeing which ads users view and click on and who proceeds to take action on the website or in the app. That’ll lead to less relevant ads being displayed to users, which will likely result in less business for advertisers. 

For many, that’s a huge blow. But for other, more innovative advertisers, that’s just a part of the game.

Tools to Help Your Company Adapt

We’re not just going to say all that and leave you high and dry! Thankfully, several platforms can help you navigate the turbulent waters of the next few months:

SKAdNetwork (SKAN)

Apple’s own platform is a privacy-friendly way to attribute impressions and clicks on iOS apps. The only information given to advertisers is conversion data, not user or device-level data. 

It’s important to note that there is a limit on the number of available campaign slots per advertiser, as well as a random time delay on events (purchases, etc.) and how many of these events an advertiser can view per campaign.

Marketing Mix Models (MMMs)

MMMs are privacy-safe in nature and will likely increase in popularity. MMMs help quantify the impact of marketing inputs on sales or Market Share and don’t require any linking of lower-level data. They utilize and work for aggregate advertising and sales data observed over time. 

To learn more about MMMs, check out this article published by Towards Data Science.

App Tracking Transparency Isn’t the End of the World

Online privacy isn’t a fad, and it isn’t going anywhere. Advertisers should expect to see more and more user-focused, privacy-centric platforms roll out in the near future (you’re next, Samsung).

If there’s one thing advertisers know how to do, it’s adapt. It’ll take some tweaking and compliance with rules that probably seem excessive, but a long-term plan for improved user experience is worth the effort.