Apple Has Killed IDFA, Dropping a Bombshell on the Mobile Ad Ecosystem. What Happens Next?

Speculation has been rife over the last year that Apple would kill the Identifier for Advertisers (IDFA).

Well, they did.

At Apple’s recent WWDC event a number of new privacy features were outlined for iOS 14 which will launch later in the year.

The most important and worrisome for marketers and publishers is the AppTrackingTransparency framework.

Let’s have a look at what it means and how it will impact the $80 billion app install advertising industry.

What is IDFA?

Apple created the IDFA years ago so that mobile marketers could attribute ad spend.

The IDFA allows publishers and advertisers to track users through their unique mobile device ID, and connect a click on an ad with an app install at a later point in time, so results from marketing campaigns can be measured accurately.

It’s something like the iOS version of a cookie.

The data not only helps to properly attibute conversions, but also to gather data that can be used to boost and optimize future campaigns.

All of that is going to become a thing of the past with iOS 14.

How Apple Crushed IDFA While Maintaining Plausible Deniability

This is a similar story to what we saw earlier this year with the death of the third party cookie. 

We’re in the middle of a wider shift in the entire digital world toward greater user privacy – or at least the appearance of it.

Apple launched the latest salvo by announcing that IDFA would be an explicit opt-in for every single app.

Before users would have to go into their settings app and switch on Limit Ad Tracking (LAT), introduced in 2013.

It was something the majority of users were not particularly interested in, or indeed aware of – although there has been an increasing trend in finding it and turning it on (interestingly – the opposite is true on Android).

That all changes with iOS 14.

Now, if an app is using IDFA iOS will present the user with an alarming looking message.

an image showing the pop up permission dialogue box in iOS 14
It’s hard to imagine most mobile users, conditioned as they are to be suspicious of ad tracking – being thrilled to click “allow tracking” here (Source)

Note the loaded language that seems specifically worded to deter users from opting in.

In this informative piece, media strategist Eric Benjamin Seufert predicts that opt-in rates for IDFA will fall to 10-20%.

This indeed seems likely.

“Opt in rates will dictate the impact of these privacy changes on all aspects of the mobile advertising ecosystem, but with opt-in rates at the 10-20% level, the IDFA is effectively dead”

As argued by John Koetsier in a recent Forbes piece, this is a smart move by Apple. Technically, IDFA is still there, so advertisers can’t complain too much, but it’s effectively useless and Apple have a big ‘pro-privacy’ PR win in a charged cultural climate.

“Apple gets to burnish its privacy credentials while not taking huge amounts of flack from brands and advertisers because, after all, who can argue with giving people more rights with their personal data? And make no mistake: this is a great move for user privacy”

– John Koetsier, writing in Forbes

We can safely assume that few users will opt in from now on. So what does it mean for advertisers and publishers?

The Impact

Although iOS accounts for less app installs than Android, iOS users are more valuable and spend a lot more. 

It’s also likely that Google will implement similar measures on Android in the not too distant future, as Google and Apple seem to be in lock-step when it comes to privacy measures.

Industry insiders are concerned.

Mobile Consultant Eric Seufert, speaking on the Techfirst podcast, did not hold back:

““This is book of Revelation stuff. This is like a new era, new paradigm, rebuilding the entire tech stack that you have been operating with and hoping that you can sort of apply that to a similar looking strategy, right? This is a big deal. It’s like an earthquake, I mean, it’s a massive shakeup.”

His comment about the ‘entire tech stack’ is key.

Mobile ad tech is a huge and constantly evolving industry. High level advertisers rely on a wide suite of tools and partners to eek out every last drop of return on ad spend.

Many of the tools and platforms in this ecosystem lean heavily on the IDFA and Google’s equivalent GAID to measure, track, bid, segment, and optimize.

According to John Koetsier, the major pieces that will be impacted are:

  • Retargeting
  • Fingerprinting
  • Device Graphs
  • AEO and VO on Facebook, tROAS on Google
  • Header Bidding
  • App Onboarding
  • MMPs

The finer details of this are beyond the scope of this article, but you should read John Koetsier’s piece to get the full picture.

Facebook and Google

The two biggest platforms for mobile user aquisition are Facebook and Google. They have vast amounts of data and equally vast opportunities to drive app installs in the optimal context. This new move by Apple will potentially make things harder for them though.

For example, if Apple refuses to give Facebook data on user behavior in-app after install, this makes their App Event Optimization and Value Optimization tools impractical, since they rely on in-app user data to create ‘lookalike’ audiences.

Similarly for Google, their Target Return On Ad Spend setting relies on post-install data from users who have come through Google Ads in order to measure and optimize. This will be very hard to get on iOS 14.

Both have SDKs installed on a huge amount of devices, but it is unclear if this alone will allow business as usual with some workarounds.

What about Apple itself though?

Apple makes billions annually with its own Apple Search Ads – so needs to have some way that advertisers can measure effectiveness. Apple’s answer is SKAdNetwork.

Introducing SKAdnetwork

For the last two years Apple has been working on SKAdnetwork, a privacy-safe attribution system for advertisers.

It is essentially a way to track installs, conversions and attribution without any device ID or personal information. Advertisers will know that a specific event has happened, and how it happened, but will not be able to connect specific events with specific devices.

Marketers will be able to get data about which publisher drove which install, and there is limited support for post-install tracking.

As noted in this blog post by Gadi Eliashiv, marketers used to get all the data they needed from mobile measurement partners (MMPs) and from ad networks. That is no longer the case though.

“All of this means major change for marketers. Whereas previously MMPs collected all the data they needed, now iOS advertisers will need to collect all install postbacks (and any post-install conversion data) from every ad network they run campaigns with. Plus, advertisers will need to validate these postbacks, store them, translate the attribution parameters to human readable data, and then connect it to campaign spend data to determine return on ad spend. Oh, and the closer you can do it real-time, the better you can be at optimizing your future ad spend”

This sounds like a challenge, no? SKAdnetwork is sure to evolve though, and with countless billions at stake, ad tech providers are sure to help marketers and publishers to adapt to the new reality (and make a killing in the process).

What Does the “Death” of IDFA Really Mean?

This really represents the latest major change in a wider industry trend towards greater privacy for users.

It is indeed good for privacy, and gives iOS users more control over their data. It will also make ad fraud more difficult – under SKAdnetwork Apple themselves vouch for app installs – so it’s not all bad news.

If fact, the overall impact on advertisers, according to Eric Benjamin Seufert, will be ‘neutral to slightly negative’.

He argues that the current paradigm leans too heavily on “last click attribution”, which provides advertisers with only a ‘veneer’ of control, and allows Facebook and Google an unfair advantage in hoovering up ad dollars.

A new top-down ‘mixed media’ model is emerging. Mixed media is:

“An advertising measurement methodology that attempts to quantify the incremental business impact of spend on any given channel within the context of a multi-channel advertising environment. Media mix modeling is often referred to as a “top down” approach to measurement (versus “bottoms up,” click-based attribution) because it evaluates advertising performance through the correlation between broad inputs: media spend per channel and some conversion metric (usually sales). A media mix model often also takes time-based, economic, and exogenous factors into account, such as competitor spend around a new launch or seasonality”

The move away from device IDs and last-click attribution was coming already, Apple have just nudged and accelerated it.

Seufert states that in two or three years:

“I don’t think the mobile advertising ecosystem — from an advertiser’s perspective — looks meaningfully different now than it would have if Apple had announced business as usual for the IDFA at WWDC 2020. This trajectory had already been established”

As with the demise of web cookies, a range of solutions will spring up to solve problems for advertisers and keep this multi-billion dollar industry powering through. There will be winners and losers as always, and as marketers and publishers it is our job to understand and adapt to the cultural, legal and technological shifts happening around us.

This article was intended to give context, for more detailed analysis please read the articles from the thinkers cited – they offer some excellent perspectives.

Written by
Thomas Goss

I'm MobiLoud's marketing manager.

I write about media trends and business models - and host the Digital Media Growth Podcast, where I interview fascinating people from the world of digital publishing.

When I have time I like reading, skiing, fitness, cooking and learning languages.

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