For many, Apple update announcements are a time of great excitement. After months of rumors and speculation, people love hearing about all the cool new features for their mobile devices. However, iOS updates have become a little more complex for marketing teams.
The iOS14 update hit tracking on Apple devices. The iOS15 update hit email marketing. And now, it looks like iOS17 has marketing attribution in its crosshairs.
These updates reflect a broader pattern toward user privacy. But for data-driven marketing teams used to operating with incredible amounts of data, these updates can cause some problems.
So, let’s have a look at the iOS17 updates, which will come into effect around mid-September, to see how they affect digital marketing teams.
#1. URL tracking just got more complicated
The most important iOS17 update for marketing teams is Link Tracking Protection (LTP). These changes will affect Mail, Messenger, and the Safari Browser when set in Private Browsing mode.
Basically, Apple is removing specific tracking parameters. Affiliate marketing platforms and ad platforms like Meta and Google embed extra information in URLs that allow marketing teams to track user journeys and their advertising campaigns. While URL parameters will still be trackable for marketers, users’ personally identifiable information will be stripped from these links.
Let’s look at how it affects Mail, Messenger, and Safari Browsing
Currently, you can send out a newsletter, track clicks, and then conversions. That’s a good method for demonstrating the effectiveness of email marketing.
The iOS17 update can hurt your ability to track whether your visitors come from your email campaign or even help you understand which particular campaign is producing results.
Apple wants to remove identifiable links sent via Messenger. Again, this hurts marketing teams’ ability to track user journeys accurately. Most marketers use multi-touch campaigns with a mix of channels. Removing personally identifiable information in URLs leaves an attribution chasm. Once again, teams will need to find new ways to track users and campaigns.
Safari Browser’s market share is about 24%. While that’s a significant chunk of overall browser users, it’s important to remember that Link Tracking Protection only applies when users are using Privacy Mode in the browser. So, in reality, these restrictions will only affect a small number of users. It’s not insignificant, but it’s not a disaster.
How does Link Tracking Protection work?
Some links that are shared by marketing teams, businesses, and users contain what are known as “query strings.” These query strings are extra information that is added to URLs. Lots of information gets added to these query strings, including customer ID information. Once a customer lands on your website, you can see the path they took to get there.
This information helps teams track campaigns and the user journey. In short, Apple will remove the information that helps track the customer IDs and other parameters. This excellent blog post details which parameters will be removed by Link Tracking Protection.
#2. UTMs aren’t going anywhere
While attribution might be a bit more difficult, UTMs aren’t going anywhere. So you’ll still be able to track traffic sources from your marketing campaigns. Sure, you might not know who these people necessarily are, but you will have an idea about which marketing channels are working for you.
There were rumors floating around that all UTM parameters would be removed. However, research has suggested that only specific Click IDs will be affected, and UTM tracking will still be possible.
#3. Modeling and retargeting will become more difficult
One of the big problems for marketing teams is that tracking parameters will be removed from ad platforms like Campaign Manager 360 and Google Ads. Stripping these parameters will hurt the effectiveness of campaign attribution and management. But again, we must bear in mind that it’s only Apple Mail, Messenger, and Privacy Browsing in Safari. While Apple has a large market share, only certain properties will be hit, and overall, tracking within browsers is still possible.
#4. Apple is extending Private Click Measurement
Apple understands that these changes could hurt digital marketing teams. As such, they are positioning their Private Click Measurement (PCM) as a solution to the current problem of removing URL parameters.
PCM has been around for a few years. However, its relevance is growing thanks to Apple’s policy toward user privacy. An excellent paper from Mozilla’s Martin Thomson titled An Analysis of Apple’s Private Click Measurement goes into the specifics of PCM. It’s essential reading for marketers.
Now, Private Click Measurement will be added to Safari. It will help businesses by providing anonymous click attribution. However, it’s understandably limited and won’t allow the granular attribution that marketing teams have grown used to. However, for some teams, it will be better than nothing.
#5. Zero and first-party consent is still the Holy Grail
After the iOS14 update, the importance of zero and first-party data increased. iOS17 just adds to the fact that you can’t track users across various web properties and target them with ads.
Getting customer consent for data is still hugely important. Collecting Customer-First data should be a priority for any marketing team still relying on third-party data. The days of tracking prospects all over the web are a thing of the past. Marketing teams need to move on: The iOS17 update is just one in a series of mini-blows for marketing teams in the name of user privacy.
Apple’s marketing communication around user privacy has an almost Miss World veneer of insincerity. They suggest that user privacy is a “fundamental human right.” However, let’s be honest, it’s a business strategy.
Apple’s interest in ensuring users’ data stays secure is about keeping the data out of its rival’s hands. Many people interpreted the iOS14 update as an attack on Facebook’s business model, and revenue data for the social media giant over the last few years certainly suggest it worked. Privacy is important to users, and Apple wants to position itself as the business that cares about your privacy, in contrast to other tech giants.
However, Apple uses historical user data to deliver pinpoint Apple Search Ads. As we said, Apple isn’t against the idea of using personal user data to drive revenues on an ethical plane, regardless of what their marketing materials suggest.
iOS14 reduced the effectiveness of digital marketing, resulting in teams having to spend more to land precious conversions. Similarly, iOS15 hit email open rates. Now, iOS17 will harm attribution, meaning advertising campaigns will suffer from a lack of clarity.
For teams who are still reliant on third-party data, this update will be unwelcome. However, the writing has been on the wall for a while, which is why machine learning-driven alternative attribution models have never been more relevant.
Our advertising robot uses impact-driven, real-life effect modeling to measure and allocate resources to your campaign. If the iOS17 updates affect your marketing, it might be time to use a radically different yet effective approach.