App Tracking Transparency: The Slow Death of the IDFA

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Update March 3, 2021: After initial publication Apple updated their guidance and now state that publishers need to prompt the ATT framework if they are going to access any customer information that could be used for tracking (previously it was thought that it would just be the IDFA). There are still many questions that need to be clarified (which is shocking, seeing how close we are to ATT being enforced). For example if an app collects email addresses and uses them only for communicating with their customers (doesn’t share with a third party for the purposes Apple states require ATT) will they need to prompt the ATT framework? It could be argued both ways and seem we will only find out in ‘early spring.’

If you work in the mobile app advertising industry then you’ve heard of the upcoming changes on iOS14. Specifically the addition of the App Tracking Transparency Framework (ATT), which will be required sometime in early 2021. As well as the introduction of the SKAdNetwork for marketing attribution purposes.  

Customers of reputable mobile measurement partners (MMP) are not likely going to face any major problems when it comes to preparing a strategy with Apple’s SKAdNetwork. And I say not any major problems because there will be problems. Less data to start with, alot less to be sure. Advertisers can say goodbye to the days of robust user level data for their marketing efforts. 

But the one thing that is bothering me about this whole conversation is when I hear this:

‘How can we persuade our customers to opt into ad tracking?’

Wait a minute.


Let me get this straight. We are applauding Apple’s updates to user privacy and then we are automatically talking about persuading customers into app tracking? Surely I’m not the only one that sees this as being pretty hypocritical? 

Yes, I agree there is a value exchange when a customer is providing their personal information for ad targeting and marketing attribution. Is it a fair value exchange? That’s up for discussion. But for sure it was never well communicated to customers and thus, here we are.

SKAdNetwork has many limitations. Postback delays, no re-engagement support, difficult to measure return on investment, to name a few. But it’s still a viable option to measure advertising channel performance. 

Should the App Tracking Transparency framework be called? 

In other words, should advertisers ask their customers to opt into ad tracking thus relying less on Apple’s SKAdNetwork solution? The short answer, in my opinion, is no. The long answer is, maybe, but still probably no. Let’s be honest the Identifier for Advertisers (IDFA) is on life support. 

The only reason for advertisers to prompt users to opt-in to ad tracking is so they can get at least some data. They can then use this data along with a probabilistic model to make assumptions about their more opaque data. This makes sense and will allow for some more insights. However, the problem comes with the value exchange with the customer and the cost-benefit of asking to track. 

Do ‘personalized ads’ really provide enough value? 

In my opinion, personalized ads aren’t enough to encourage customers to opt into ad tracking. The reality is that most customers don’t care. The perceived value they receive from ‘personalization’ doesn’t outweigh giving away their information, it’s that simple. 

When Apple first made their announcement I thought the answer was clear. Developers would update their monetization strategy and wall content behind the customer tracking opt-in. For example: 

  1. Free Version – Limited functionality 
  2. ‘Paid’ Version (‘Paid’ meaning customers are paying with money, or data)
    1. Personalized Ad Supported
    2. Subscription and no ads

Unfortunately Apple dismissed this idea, stating clearly in their documentation that in app content cannot be walled based on a customer’s ad tracking preferences. 

Where does that leave us? 

Quite simply I think 95%+ of advertisers should not prompt customers to opt-in to ad tracking and the others should do it very strategically. For a few reasons: 

  1. In order to get any robust amount of data apps would need to prompt users as soon as possible once they have downloaded and installed their application. This is a poor user experience and it’s no surprise that opt in rates will be low.
  2. Developers also need to rely on the publishing app (where the customer came from on their journey) to collect IDFA in order to complete attribution. As you might know, Facebook has planned to stop using IDFA (Dec 17, 2020 Update: Facebook has changed course and will call the ATT Framework). Google is still yet to decide. 

From this viewpoint asking early isn’t worth eroding customer trust for the low likelihood that they will opt-in. Not to mention the question around value and if ‘personalized ads’ are really providing the customers with enough value in the exchange. You can use terms like ‘the data is always in your control’ or ‘you can change your preferences whenever you want.’ But let’s be honest, these are becoming superficial as consumers become more savvy around their data and online privacy.

If your monetization model relies completely on personalized ads then you have some thinking to do. (Stay tuned, I’m working on another blog post to cover this topic). 

Some advertisers might say “we need to request opt-in so we can attribute some data to use for probabilistic modelling”. Well this might be true but the long term implications need to be considered

Customer trust vs. robust marketing data

Which is more valuable for your company from a long-term growth perspective?

Would you rather grow more, with less data? 

Or, grow less with slightly better marketing insights? 

Or. maybe having those additional insights will result in better long-term growth? 

These are important questions to consider, but not easy questions to answer. 

What if you should call the App Tracking Transparency framework?

So you’ve read this and have decided that you still should prompt for IDFA opt-in.

If it’s of any additional motivation, according to Appsflyer, 99% of users opted out of the ATT framework when asked to opt-in to ad tracking. And, according to Singular, you’ll need about 5% of customer opt-in data to reach any sort of statistical significance

There is a gap to fill in terms of volume of data. How should you do it? 

I think the answer is simple. Wait, as long as possible, before prompting customers to opt-in to tracking. Show them how great your app is and then ask them to share their data to support your mission. Opt in rates might still be low but at least you will reduce the side effect of putting off customers who don’t want to opt-in. 

The easiest way to achieve this is to use an alternative user journey. Have customers use your app clip (also new with iOS14) first, or maybe engage with your brand on mobile web before installing your full app. This allows you to prove value before the customer commits to installing your full application and will also shorten the time from install to when it makes sense to prompt the App Tracking Transparency framework. 

After they’ve installed the full app you can find a strategic point in the customer journey where prompting the ATT framework makes sense. Best practice will vary by app, but it’s probably not going to be the first dialogue box that the user is prompted with. 

This workflow is less about persuasion and more about proving the value that you are providing in exchange for customer data. 

Having less data might be better

Ironically, having less data from all these changes might actually be better for some advertisers. It pushes the focus onto incrementality of their marketing efforts as a whole rather than granular channel performance. Because let’s be honest, a lot of the attributed activity we see from paid marketing efforts probably would have happened organically. That’s what happens with today’s (but not for long!) targeting options.

Developers that truly respect customer privacy, build customer trust by not calling the App Tracking Transparency framework, work with the data that they have, and focus on true incrementality from their marketing efforts are going to come out on top.

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