As the cookie crumbles

By Transmission |
5 minute read

As the cookie crumbles

Apple’s changing everything about how mobile apps track users. Here’s what’s going on, why, and – most important – what the change means to your marketing plans.

The death of third-party cookies and mobile tracking has been a discussion item among marketers for a long time. However, the impending doom became more real in March 2021, when Google and Apple made announcements regarding their privacy plans. If your marketing programs track users, the changes had an immediate effect.

Google made two announcements. In January 2020, Google announced that by the end of 2022 Chrome would no longer support third-party cookies. And in March 2021 the company announced its intention to end behavioural targeting; it will not develop or allow alternative identifiers that replace cookies on its ad products by third parties. While Google helped create and grow the digital ecosystem that relied on tracking and targeting ads across the web, due to pressure from regulators around data privacy and antitrust, the company cut off an efficient targeting method.

In April 2021, Apple announced that with iOS14.5 it would implement App Tracking Transparency. Cross-app tracking allows advertisers to target ads based on behaviours on other mobile apps – and obviously that matters a lot to marketers who use them for audience creation and conversion tracking. The privacy-centric feature now requires a deliberate opt-in from users to permit software to track them across apps; that is, developers must explicitly ask for permission to track users for ad targeting.

What perpetuated these changes?

Though the third-party cookie was not initially developed with malicious intent (at least in regard to consumer privacy), it evolved to encompass the role of tracking online user behaviour for advertising use. The technology of third-party cookies has become more complex since 1994, and consumer privacy concerns have grown significantly (for good reason) since the idealistic days of the early internet. Consumers are increasingly anxious about the way they are tracked online.

Over the past few years, governments have established laws to promote online tracking transparency and consumer data privacy protection. The 2018 General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which outlined a new set of standards surrounding consumer data protection, is the reason websites everywhere now prompt users for permission to allow cookies. The state of California followed suit with the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), which went into effect in 2020. These pieces of legislation caused businesses everywhere to conform by establishing transparency and compliance for the benefit of consumer privacy.

How will the industry move forward?

Safari and Firefox no longer support third-party cookies. With Chrome’s end imminent, Google is developing a replacement called Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC). FLoC uses machine learning to group multiple users into cohorts that replace third-party cookies used for advertising purposes. As Google explains it:

Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC) proposes a new way for businesses to reach people with relevant content and ads by clustering large groups of people with similar interests. This approach effectively hides individuals “in the crowd” and uses on-device processing to keep a person’s web history private on the browser.

iOS14.5, released the week of April 26, automatically opts users out of tracking. Thereafter, users must actively agree to permit a mobile app to use their Apple Identifier for Advertisers (IDFA) and any other identifiers. These identifiers can include hashed email addresses. This forces apps to be more transparent with how they use and track users’ data. If the user does not grant permission, outside data cannot be used and data cannot be shared outside the app.

This is not generating a knee-jerk acceptance in the user community. According to data collected by Flurry Metrics, 96% of iPhone users opted out of app tracking in the latest iOS 14.5 update. Businesses of sizes have to adapt quickly.

How does this affect Transmission’s activation strategies?

In short: Expect changes.

iOS14.5 affects targeting. It also affects the conversion data resulting from users who see ads inside an app, including Facebook, LinkedIn, and View Through Conversions measured by floodlights in ads served in-app. This does not affect Chrome web-based advertising, as that data is housed in the Chrome app. (However, Google Analytics and site APIs are not affected; they can still be used to measure on-site actions.)

Prepare yourself for conversion decreases that are registered in the platform.

Geolocation targeting that uses GPS data collected from other apps is no longer viable. The new App Tracking Transparency requires changes for in-app ad activation plans that include frequency caps, sequential messaging, and optimizations.

The effect you’re most likely to notice is that retargeting audience will shrink. The IDFA that identifies users across apps and platforms will not be available unless a user grants tracking access. Campaigns based on lookalike audiences may also suffer. The loss of conversion data gathered from an advertiser’s website may no longer be able to trace the full path of conversion. This would cause targeting systems to have less data with which to develop lookalike audiences.

On the other hand, Google’s cookie policies will have more of an impact on third-party audiences used for targeting or if email messages consensually collected from advertisers are used for targeting.

Not every activation plan changes. The LinkedIn platform is unaffected, for example. LinkedIn has its own opt-in data, which marketers can continue to target by account name, job title, seniority, and so on.

Nor do the App Transparency policies touch every marketing program. As of April 2021, only 21% of Transmission’s programmatic impressions in 2021 were on iOS; 71% of impressions are on a Chrome browser. In other words, most impressions are being served outside the Apple ecosystem; do not expect programmatic buys in the short term to be affected.

Here’s what Transmission can do – in the short and long term

For most of our clients, the immediate concern is with iOS14.5; Apple made that change on April 26. Google’s changes are still a year away.

But privacy-related policy changes aren’t surprising. Transmission and the industry have been preparing for them for years.

In the short term, Transmission will help clients respond with a greater focus on the following:

  • We will monitor conversion data and consumer behaviour. It’s important to learn whether opt-in rates are different from projections, and how that affects reporting and optimization quality.
  • We will continue to use partners that use non-cookie third-party data, such as IP addresses, opt-in website login information, and sourced data sources like Clearbit.
  • Nothing needs to change in regard to buys with direct publishers or content syndication. Demand-gen tactics on platforms like LinkedIn will not be affected. They are housed inside the apps already, and users are already opted in to share that information.

But we all know that Apple, Google, and other online platforms are responding to pressure to protect consumer privacy. We can work with you on long-term activation projects, too. Among the possible directions:

  • We will keep you apprised of upcoming changes like this one, including what it means to your marketing programs.
  • We can help you put more focus on contextual targeting strategies to websites where the target audience consumes at a higher rate than the general population.
  • Use direct buys with publishers. Publishers collect first-party data such as email, personal information, job title, and account name. That can be used for detailed targeting.
  • Rely more on first-party data such as CRM data. We can work with vendors that are not cookie-based or that use other privacy-compliant identifiers.
  • Explore options for integration with first-party data. For instance, LiveRamp’s IdentityLink matches each user with a multitude of different identifiers to create a single privacy-safe ID. There are additional industry efforts underway, such as the Unified ID project, the TradeDesk-led approach to a united identifier for advertisers. We’re staying on top of these tools and industry initiatives so that we can guide you better.

Users care about protecting their privacy. As Apple CEO Tim Cook said, “Technology does not need vast troves of personal data stitched across dozens of websites and apps in order to succeed. Advertising existed and thrived for decades without it.”

It’s inevitable that tech companies will respond technologically to change the ways that advertisers target their audiences. As those changes occur, Transmission will be here to help its B2B clients adapt. 

Let us know if you want to talk or, alternatively, learn more about B2B marketing automation here.