The end of marketing attribution for iOS? - not now, but maybe later

Oh, what a year for mobile ad and attribution vendors. First, the global lockdown with reduced ad budgets and then Apple’s WWDC.

I already showed the slide that was visible for 3s in my post about server-side tracking. It was within the part where Apple talked about how they continue to improve the user’s privacy. There is a screen with a consent dialogue - and I guess everyone involved in ad or analytics business was like:

Wait, what?

Then the stuff happens that always happens during WWDC. People will attend sessions that would go deeper into the features, and they will install the betas to check how it looks for them.

The blog post that Paul Müller, CTO of Adjust, put out some days afterward, describes the situation like this:

"We are working closely with Apple to gain clarity on several areas. 
Yet the nuances of Apple’s proposed regulations become much clearer 
once we break these new rules down into their individual elements and 
analyze their impact on the different players in our ecosystem."

The future of the ad ecosystem on iOS 14 | Adjust

Appsflyer describes it like this:

"We are fully committed to working on these solutions in collaboration 
with Apple and the rest of the community, to help app developers flourish, 
and build trust through better privacy."

The App Store Economy in a Privacy-Centric World | AppsFlyer

So the attribution tech vendors are looking into a solution they could propose to Apple that would align with Apple’s purpose but still enable marketing attribution.

After just a few days, Paul Müller published a next post describing Adjust’s proposal for a new attribution tracking method:

"The idea is fairly simple: once opened, the advertiser's app reads the IDFA and the IDFV.
It then calculates a SHA256 (Secure Hash) of the IDFA and IDFV to something we will call the “attribution hash”.
[...]
Due to its limited nature, the attribution hash would only be used internally by MMPs.
"

Granular attribution compatible with iOS 14 | Adjust

They are presenting this to Apple and see if this gets approved.

Just as a sidenote.

I like how Adjust is doing the communication here (compared to Appsflyer (AF) - I am not biased here since I more often introduce AF when working on attribution). They try to be transparent and to the point.

AF itself claims,

"In the last two years, we've been preparing for an IDFA-less ecosystem. 
We've been investing in multiple products and solutions, which along with 
our lifelong investment in privacy and security, make us very well prepared 
for the upcoming iOS14 updates." 

Does privacy have to come at the expense of UX? | AppsFlyer

This might be true, and they likely communicate the details in mailings to the customers directly. But for me, it’s a bit too fuzzy and PR BS.

Let’s take a step back to look at what we are talking about.

Setting the ads aside for a second, we will come back to them later.

What is Marketing attribution for mobile apps?

Compared to website marketing, doing marketing for apps is technically more complicated. The reason for this is the App Store.

The user clicks on an ad for your app. She will then be redirected to the App Store, where she installs the app, your apps open, done. But the information which ad she has clicked is lost in the App Store.

appsflyer_mobile_attribution_explained Mobile Attribution Explained - by AppsFlyer

Mobile Attribution providers help with that. They store an identifier (IDFA - What is an IDFA? Find out what and IDFA is here) when a user clicks on an ad, and later when the app is installed you provide them ID back to the provider, and they match it with the ad. Simple said, of course, it is a bit more sophisticated.

So, the IDFA was the golden nugget for the ad and attribution software. It’s like a permanent cookie with a unique identifier. Well, what “cool stuff “you could do with that. Yes, attribution, but what if we use this to build things like lookalike audiences, crazy retargeting… you can imagine it.

Apple is introducing new measures every year that give more control and visibility to the users which data they share (e.g., warnings about location sharing). Or now with iOS14, who is accessing your clipboard.

What does the adjust approach improve?

Adjust’s proposal combines the IDFA (the unique device identifier) with the IDFV (the unique app vendor identifier) and creates a hash. This hash is the only thing that gets sent to the Adjust server. By that, it limits its usage to the specific app and can’t be used with other apps.

Is that an improvement to privacy

Yes, it is an improvement, but it still connects you with marketing activities. If you don’t want that, there is already a way to do it in iOS: you can activate the option “limit ad tracking” in iOS. This setting will prevent access to the IDFA.

Will that resolve the issue?

Well, there are two sides. For the part “a user installs the app, and we send the hash to get the marketing campaign data,” this might be sufficient (if Apple accepts the proposal).

But there is still the part “a user clicks on an ad in an app”. The ad’s tracking also needs a user’s consent because the IDFA will be sent to a server. It might be sufficient that this consent can be asked by accepting “Terms of use”. If it works, it will be positive for the big players where users have to sign up and usually have to accept the terms. We will see in September how this looks like. But if the user does not consent with the ad tracking, there will be no attribution in the end.

Do you need the IDFA to do attribution?

That is a good question. It depends.

Remarketing tracking without IDFA

There is a “simple” workaround for remarking or re-engaging campaigns that work without IDFA and respect user privacy in a better way.

By using deep linking, you can create landing screens for each campaign you are running. The creation is the tricky part. If you do a lot of different campaigns, some automation will help.

But if you have a landing screen for each campaign, you will send users from links in the apps directly to the respective screens. By that, you can determine in the app from which campaign the user came from. No IDs exchanged.

Install campaigns without IDFA

Attribute install without IDFA is more tricky. Here the user has not installed the app yet. Due to that, a deep link won’t work. The user will get into the App Store, and the deep link information gets lost.

I found this approach by Mukesh Yadav:

Deferred Deep Linking in iOS Swift 3.0 with Universal Link

Deferred deep links

They use some particular function that can hold the deep link info and can be used once the app is installed.

Unfortunately, I am no iOS developer, so I haven’t checked if that works. But for everyone with these skills, it’s worth a test.

If both works, you can build an attribution system without using the attribution services and the IDFA. But as always, with the home-baked solution, it requires dev resources and maintenance.

I will keep a look at what will come concerning attribution until the launch of iOS 14.

What can you do?

  • Reach out to your attribution vendors and ask them what they plan to do?
  • Follow the updates from the major vendors like Appsflyer, Adjust or Kochava
  • Look at you attribution numbers strictly when iOS 14 gets rolled out

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