How Apple’s Recent iOS Updates Will Affect Your Marketing Campaigns & What to Do About It

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Consumer privacy is one of the most important issues for ecommerce and marketing today. New laws like the CCPA and GDPR have forced companies and developers to take monumental steps to achieve compliance and protect consumer data.

The most recent development in consumer privacy occurred in April 2021 with the launch of the recent iOS updates granting users unprecedented control over who sees and uses their behavior data. For consumers, this is a step in the right direction for a more secure shopping and browsing experience. But for brands, Apple’s new security measures radically disrupt digital marketing best practices.

iOS 14 security updates: An overview

In response to increased concerns over consumer privacy across digital networks and devices, Apple raised its App Tracking Transparency (ATT) and Privacy Nutrition Label standards for app developers.

Bar and line graph of US mobile shoppers
Image via Insider Intelligence

In the spring, the company launched a series of mobile updates (iOS 14) that dramatically increased consumer control over how devices track and use their data. 

What is the iOS update?

“The App Store is designed to be a safe and trusted place for users to discover apps created by talented developers around the world. Apps on the App Store are held to a high standard for privacy, security, and content because nothing is more important than maintaining users’ trust. And starting with iOS 14.5, iPadOS 14.5, and tvOS 14.5, [apps will] be required to ask users for their permission to track them across apps and websites owned by other companies.”

Apple, 2021

While most of the iOS 14 updates offer various usability and security upgrades, the version that most marketers and programmatic advertisers are concerned about is iOS 14.5. In this historic update, users must opt-in before apps can track their behavior and use their data for marketing and advertising purposes.

What does Apple’s new privacy policy mean?

For Apple users

Prior to April, iPhone and iPad users had little control over which apps tracked their activity for personalization and advertising purposes.

Screenshot of an iphone notification after recent iOS updates
Image via Apple

Today, newly-downloaded apps from the Apple Store prompt consumers to allow or deny that app to gather behavioral data across other apps and websites. Additionally, users can navigate to a menu on their Apple device settings and switch app tracking on or off whenever they please.

For brands and marketers

All applications and websites that rely on third-party cookies to personalize their ads and services for Apple users will have to change their marketing approach dramatically. This is especially true for those who use programmatic and PPC ads on social media and other publisher websites.

Bar graph of Leading iPhone shopping apps in the Apple App Store in the United States in October 2021, by number of downloads
Image via Statista

Moving forward, iOS will block third-party cookies and only allow apps to track user behavior after that person has opted in to share their data.

What’s new with iOS 15?

In September, Apple released another update, iOS 15, that extends some of the privacy features introduced in iOS 14. 

Not only can users ask apps not to track their activity across other apps, but they can also enter their privacy settings and see what apps did track. This extra level of data privacy control allows users to change their mind and opt out of app tracking if that app does anything that makes the user feel uncomfortable.

“This feature will show what apps have been accessing your camera, microphone, location, and photos over a seven-day period. It’ll even highlight what third-party domains the app has contacted, so you can truly see where your data is going.”

Wired, 2021

Additionally, Apple grants customers the option to hide their email to prevent unwanted promotional emails or mail tracking by brands and developers based on their online activity. This update makes it more difficult for brands that depend on email marketing to drive conversions.

Screenshot of email privacy protection notifications on iphone after recent iOS updates

Digital marketing without third-party cookies

What are third-party cookies?

Third-party cookies are bits of code that follow your online activity across other apps and websites. Data gathered from third-party cookies allow brands to “remarket” to people who visited their site or app after they leave. 

These cookies are different from first-party cookies which only track your behavior within a specific domain, website, or app. Under the recent iOS updates, first-party cookies are still allowed.

Bar graph of Company Plans for the Elimination of Third-Party Cookies According to US Marketers, July 2021
Image via Insider Intelligence

Marketing to iPhone users

The iOS 14 updates prevent brands and developers from using third-party cookies across Apple mobile devices unless users opt-in to have their activity tracked.

While experts anticipate that most iPhone users will opt out of activity tracking, there are some benefits to allowing certain developers to track user behavior. For example, a loyal Amazon customer may appreciate the user experience on the app thanks to how Amazon collects and organizes that person’s information to personalize its products and services. The same can be said for some social media and navigation apps. 

But for the first time in history, Apple customers get to choose whether an app tracks their behavior across other apps and websites.

Paid ads and remarketing

Remarketing allows advertisers to target only those prospects who’ve demonstrated interest in their brand based on their online activity. For example, if you’ve visited a website and browsed, added items to a cart without purchasing, clicked on an ad, or made a purchase, remarketing allows marketers to track your activity across other browsers/apps and target you with ads.

Since Apple has banned third-party cookies (unless consumers opt in) on their devices, digital ads are limited in their ability to retarget audiences, making remarketing on Apple devices a challenge.

Google’s efforts to increase consumer privacy

Google took a proactive approach to managing consumer privacy changes for iPhone users as well. 

At the beginning of 2021, Google informed advertisers that major iOS changes were coming and would have an impact on measuring campaign performance. Almost immediately, developers worked with Apple to come up with an alternative solution that would be compliant with Apple’s privacy policy and allow marketers to track their ads.

Prior to April 2021, Google ad tracking worked much like any PPC platform through the use of third-party cookies. More specifically, the company used click IDs, or GCLIDS, on landing page links which reported ad engagement within Google’s ad campaign dashboard. Apple now blocks GCLIDs, which means that ads using click IDs won’t register engagement from Apple users.

Since the new iOS update, Google now offers marketers the option to integrate a first-party cookie, known as WBRAID. This approach is a form of modeled online conversion tracking. In other words, the ads track performance as though the recipient were interacting directly with your website. More importantly, Google can collect first-party user data from activity on its browser and search engine.

Because of Google’s platform updates, marketers can continue many of their advertising efforts with very little impact on their conversion reporting.

Browser privacy updates

One of the reasons for Google’s flexibility surrounding the iOS updates is that it plans to implement similar third-party-blocking tools on next year’s Chrome updates. Once this occurs, all three of the top browsers in the United States – Chrome, Safari, and Firefox – will have nearly identical consumer privacy features that ban third-party cookies.

What do the recent iOS updates mean for influencer marketing and creator partnerships?

For brands that have depended on paid ads, remarketing, third-party cookies, and email marketing, all is not lost. In some ways, marketing just got easier.

There is no iOS or browser update that can squash genuine relationships with customers. Instead of laboring over pixels, UTMs, and challenges associated with programmatic advertising, brands can turn their attention to building brand communities and leveraging those voices for a more sustainable approach to growth and sales.

Effective marketing is personal.

Activity tracking and remarketing techniques have been effective in the past, but they are impersonal. It’s difficult to trust a company that uses your data for personal gain without being truly up front about it.

That said, activity tracking isn’t altogether a bad thing to many consumers. Brands that want to track user activity will have to build trust with members of their audience and demonstrate that activity tracking adds value rather than violates consumers’ privacy. 

For this reason, ecommerce marketing in 2021 going into 2022 just became personal. The key to brand growth now falls on your brand’s ability to nurture long-term relationships with prospects, customers, and brand fans.

Building relationships with influential customers is critical.

Depending on your marketing tech stack and the size of your team, it’s probably not possible to nurture relationships with every single person that interacts with your ecommerce website.

What brands can do instead is identify their influential customers – loyal buyers who are truly engaged with their own online communities. This is why social media is such a powerful tool. Your influential customers can partner with your brand to attract new customers and build trust more quickly.

The relationship approach helps you turn your customer base into your network to reach more of your ideal customers – to share your brand mission, vision, and values.

Influencers accelerate authentic word-of-mouth marketing.

Social media creators use authentic content to build communities of engaged followers. These influencers don’t just entertain fans, they also motivate them to take action and improve their quality of life.

Robust brand-creator relationships help marketers find niche groups and leverage that creator’s reputation to connect with audiences. These relationships also produce user-generated content (UGC) packed with valuable insights on a brand’s target audience.

5 Ways for marketers to respond to the recent iOS updates

1. Creator partnerships

Creator partnerships shorten the amount of time it takes to connect with audiences and build long-term customer loyalty. The key to maximizing ROI with creator partnerships is finding and nurturing genuine relationships with the right creators.

Any influencer content that feels transactional or insincere to followers fails to resonate with consumers. But when followers sense that the connection between the creator and your brand is real, they will want to become a part of that connection.

2. Greater incentives for creating a user account

When prospects and customers create accounts on your ecommerce store, you have significantly more information about who your customers are and what they need.

Now that third-party cookies are out of the question for most brands marketing to Apple users, first-party cookies need to fill the gaps for marketers to get the most from their advertising and personalization efforts.

3. Rewards for customers completing surveys

Brands can still comply with the recent iOS updates and target specific groups by offering prospects and customers rewards (discounts, gift cards, etc.) to complete customer surveys. These surveys can ask people to share which platforms and content types do the best job of capturing their attention and inspiring a purchase.

4. Incentives to allow app to track

Brands that go the extra mile to build trust with their audience will not need to convince users to opt in to activity tracking, they’ll know that their information is secure. 

To build trust effectively, brands will have to be fully transparent about what they plan to do with behavioral data. If people believe that you are using their data to create a better and safer experience for them, they will allow your app to track their behavior across other apps and browsers.

5. Influencer whitelisting

Partnering with your top creator relationships to drive paid campaigns is another way to achieve strong advertising results without the use of third-party cookies and remarketing.

Whitelisting is the process of using an influencer’s advertising permissions to reach new audiences on social media. Because the ads come from the influencer’s account, they feel more organic to consumers and consistently generate more engagement than ads coming from the brand’s ad account.

Conclusion

There’s no denying that the recent Apple updates have made it more difficult for marketers to track and convert via paid ads online. But thankfully, there are other more effective ways to connect with your audience.

Every disruption presents its own set of challenges and opportunities. Brands that make the necessary changes are the ones who will earn brand love and increased customer loyalty. The future of marketing is relationships, and brand-creator partnerships are the key to building long-lasting relationships with today’s consumers.

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