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What are the “App Tracking Controls” in iOS14, and what does it mean for advertisers?

September 24, 2020 / Reading Time: 4 minutes /
David Berry
Client Performance Director

With iOS14, Apple has unveiled a host of new tools and features to help users protect their online privacy, and safeguard their data. Within this article, we’ve explored one measure in particular that Apple has taken – “App Tracking Controls” and the decision to ask users to “opt-in” to ad tracking. We’ll look at the announcement, and what this means for online advertising.

The update

Apple initially gave online marketers a big scare back in June, when they announced that iOS14 would display a prompt that would “allow users to opt-in and out of ad tracking.” This was a worrying thought for many advertisers – and particularly advertising platforms, with Apple’s iPhone accounting for around 13-14% of all phone sales in 2020. 

Since then, Apple has announced that it won’t begin to enforce the feature until early next year. However many app developers are already looking at the required functionality they need to implement in order to comply.

Once the feature comes into play in iOS 14 next year, users will begin to see a prompt when interacting with apps. Users will be given the option as to whether they would like to opt in to “targeted ad tracking.” Apple stated:

We believe technology should protect users’ fundamental right to privacy. That means giving users tools to understand which apps and websites may be sharing their data with other companies for advertising or advertising measurement purposes. As well as the tools to revoke permission for this tracking. When enabled, a system prompt will give users the ability to allow or reject that tracking on an app-by-app basis.

What’s the concern for advertisers?

The concern for advertisers, naturally, is that key personalised ad placements on platforms such as the Google Display Network or Facebook Advertising Network are within iOS apps. 

Facebook has already warned that the ability to target and measure app campaigns on the platform could be compromised.  They have also highlighted that this could be a loss for app publishers too. Many rely upon the advertising revenue from the ads that platforms such as Facebook or Google run within their app. 

If you’re reading this as Apple taking a swipe at ad publishers like Facebook, well, you’re probably on the right track. The new feature will show users an explicit prompt when an app has requested their IDFA (Identification For Advertisers). This allows advertisers to target users with personalized ads, without needing to access personal data*. Naturally, most users will “opt-out” when presented with this visual option.

A very important distinction to raise, however, is that we’re not yet fully aware of what data is being caught here. For example, it clearly looks like Apple will restrict the IDFA. As well as other personal data such as email address and device ID, however, Apple says:

It is not considered tracking when the app developer combines information about you or your device for targeted advertising or advertising measurement purposes if the developer is doing so solely on your device and not sending the information off your device in a way that identifies you.

“But wait!” we hear you cry, “don’t advertising platforms like Facebook and Google have app download options, surely Apple won’t stop those?” You’re absolutely right! The last thing Apple wants is for this to stop people from running app download campaigns. Not to worry, they’ve allowed it so that registered advertising platforms can still “receive a signal from Apple,” to verify how many installations occurred from an advertisement and measure which campaigns are effective. So, that’s one positive – you don’t have to worry about your app download campaigns. 🤷‍♂️

Why should you care?

This is a significant step from Apple, and potentially a big headache for advertising platforms like Google and Facebook. Their advertising platforms rely upon allowing advertisers to be able to target ads within apps effectively, and this will make that a lot more difficult. For those users who opt-out, it could make it nigh on impossible.

Put simply, advertising is a fragile ecosystem. Advertisers invest into Facebook and Google’s in-app campaign placements, in the hope that their targeted ads can generate revenue. If Apple restrict their ability to target effectively, then they may reduce their ad investment. This will hurt the app publishers too, as Facebook have pointed out. It’s a very big step from Apple, in the move towards users greater control over their data.

What does it mean for advertisers?

At the moment, user’s have to go into “Privacy,” and then “Tracking” before enabling the setting (as of September 2020). Currently, this is disabled by default, and as such, any app that attempts to ask for your permission will be blocked from asking, and informed that you have requested not to be tracked. This is a pretty bold step from Apple. It will no doubt lead to the advertising platforms being unable to target millions of users with targeted ads. 

We think it’s really important to highlight that at the moment – we’re not fully certain what data this will cover. Naturally, you should restrict any personally identifiable information (PII), which we always encourage. However, it sounds like anonymised targeting and ad measurement might still be a possibility. If this is the case, this could be a well-reasoned, progressive move for the industry, rather than the heavy blow that was first feared. If you’re an advertiser who runs campaigns that have in-app placements, it’s definitely one to keep an eye on.

*The IDFA code is a unique identifier that helps advertisers to deliver personalised ads. This is without knowing any personal information about the user. This is how advertisers can report upon actions that are taken from adverts. For example, when you click to view a landing page or product after seeing a Facebook or Instagram ad. There are other – more complex methods that advertisers can use to track behaviour online, but the IDFA has become the standard. 


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