What is IDFA and How to Handle the IDFA Changes in 2021 - Moburst

What is IDFA and How to Handle the IDFA Changes in 2021

Nadav Pesti Nadav Pesti | 3.1.21

Originally published on 09.07.20 and updated on 01.03.21.

At long last, iOS 14 arrived in September, and with it came a major shakeup for app developers and advertisers. In case you’ve been off the mobile marketing grid for the past few months, the de facto elimination of the Identifier for Advertisers (IDFA) is what we’re talking about. While iOS 14 is loaded with lots of great new features for users and interesting ASO opportunities for analysts, for those looking to advertise their app the IDFA “phase-out” has been a major source of uncertainty and concern. Even before the changes to the IDFA were announced, the release of iOS 14 was already a big deal.  However, with more strict privacy rules and regulations as part of the package, the new operating system has sent shockwaves  throughout the industry regarding changes in the way app marketers choose to spend their ad budgets.  

In what felt like a much welcome stroke of good luck at the time, Apple decided to delay the changes to the IDFA until now. While this was great news for app marketers who were scrambling to figure out what to do in the absence of the highly popular unique identifier, the change is now here and there’s no way around it.  So, in the interest of setting yourself up for the best chance of success, we’ve put together some suggestions to help you respond in the best way possible.

What is IDFA?

First things first, before we delve into the ins and outs of the Apple IDFA changes, let’s define exactly what the IDFA is and why its numbered days garnered so much attention. It stands for Identifier for Advertisers.

In short, the IDFA tracks user data across apps and websites (and not just ones owned by the company doing the tracking) in order to provide targeted advertising. Its technology is similar to a cookie, but even more powerful because it allows for full mobile attribution tracking of individual users from install to usage.  

IDFA Privacy Enhancements

Previously an active IDFA on an app installed by an iOS user was the default, buried deep away in the app’s Settings and hard to find (provided you even knew about it to look for in the first place). However, as part of the iOS 14 shakeup, the new policy will require users to give consent to be tracked.

Apple iOS 14 Privacy Settings
Source: Apple

The New Order of Business

The way in which this process now plays out is as an opt-in delivered in the form of a pop-up notification with messaging to the effect of “[App Name] would like permission to track you across apps and websites owned by other companies.”

Not surprisingly, expectations of receiving a high user opt-in rate are low at best. In fact, the general sentiment within the industry is that expectations of even just a 10% opt-in rate is borderline wildly optimistic.  This development is already having a huge impact on the entire $80 billion industry, and even the most cleverly worded opt-in message won’t be able to miraculously solve the problem. 

Facebook’s Response to Apple

It’s safe to say that Facebook hasn’t been best pleased with Apple regarding its IDFA changes. In a newsletter on the subject, Facebook outright disagreed with Apple. What’s more, in what feels like a battle between two global mobile leaders, Facebook accused Apple of only benefiting itself while damaging the rest of the industry. 

Despite this, Facebook’s position is one of practicality. While Facebook publicized its disapproval of the iOS 14 privacy changes, it also recognized that it has no choice but to accept them to avoid the risk of its apps being blocked from the App Store. Which is precisely why Facebook has committed itself to offering a solution, and encourages everyone to implement its new SDK for iOS 14. The key things Facebook recommends are:

  • Update its SDK to version 8.1 or above and configure conversion schema for App Events Optimization, Mobile App Install and Events with Automated App Ads and Value Optimization campaigns.
  • Ensure your MMP has sufficient SKAN integration and conversion schema configuration.
  • Use the “Advertiser Tracking Enabled” flag in any app-based business tools (e.g. Facebook SDK, App Events API, MMP SDKs) to instruct Facebook to restrict data use on a per-event basis. 

Facebook has assured advertisers that it will be providing resources to act as a guide through the changes in IDFA 2021. Our advice is: use them. The next few months are going to be a learning curve for everybody, so utilize every tool at your disposal and you’ll minimize the impact on your business.

How We Have Responded To The New IDFA Rules And How Your Business Should Act

Now, with automatic access to the IDFA a thing of the past, the good news is that it doesn’t have to be the end of the world for the industry. Yes the IDFA gets the lion share of the attention, but it’s important to keep in mind that it isn’t the only game in town. Apple announced its own attribution framework called SKAdNetwork providing an, albeit limited, alternative:

Apple SKAdNetwork
Source: Apple

If we could have a conversation with Apple we reckon it would go something like this. 

Moburst: “How are we supposed to track iOS users now?”

Apple: “Don’t panic. We’re going to leave you with a few crumbs to track some users along the way, so we’ve built our own iOS tracking network.”

Apple’s SKAdNetwork means iOS 14 data will come only from this network. It won’t reveal everything that the IDFA does, but some of the same things will remain. There is one big issue, however, surrounding the delay it poses. With the SKAdNetwork, every event has a three day window delay. Once upon a time you were able to see real time data that allowed publishers to track someone doing an activity within an app, including real-time purchases. Now there will be a three day delay to begin tracking, and for each event you want to track there’ll be another 24 hour delay. This will lead to a loss of information and the inability to respond in real time through optimized tracking.

Each MMP has already bundled the SKAdNetwork into the SDK that enables advertisers to control the data flow from the MMP’s UI without needing to implement another SDK. Essentially, they’ve built new UIs specifically to target attribution in a post-IDFA world. 

We’re suggesting to everyone who wants to better understand those UIs to take the guides offered, connect your CSN and really learn how to best utilize them. Learning and knowing your way through these UIs is the best preparation you can do because, trust us, there’s a lot to learn. The key to best tracking your data and knowing what you’re seeing is really understanding these SKN UIs. 

Moreover, the MMPs are also offering data enrichment that should provide some level of attribution. To what extent is unclear for the time being, but we’ll gain more insight over the coming weeks now that the automatic IDFA abolishment is finally in full swing. Besides that, publishers with many apps could leverage IDFV and there are already talks in the industry regarding the next big identifier (email and credit cards are two big ones which Apple is already adopting with its sign-in with Apple/ Apple Pay products).

Beyond these efforts you can also prepare on your own end if you’re willing to put in the work and get creative. The following are a few different solutions and workarounds you may want to consider depending on your team size, budget, and more.

What Is Your Data Modeling Structure?

In the past few years, whether big company, agency or small start-up, almost every publisher with an internal Business Intelligence system that tracks in-app events used identifiers like IDFA. Unfortunately, we’ve now known for quite a while that automatic IDFA won’t be available anymore. So, at Moburst we made big changes to our internal Business Intelligence system Datarama. What exactly did we do? Well, we changed the structure and implementation of the dashboard and reports that were built on the IDFA unique identifiers.

You may be wondering how exactly we did this. Essentially, in every case we could (it wasn’t possible for every client) we took unique identifiers from other places and avoided using IDFA to start as we’d have to go on from this month. These aforementioned ‘other places’ come, for example, from each MMPs own unique identifiers – of which there are many. MMPs combine a lot of identifiers together, not just IDFA. Wherever we could we switched to the MMP IDs to ensure our processes make sense moving forward, and to avoid continued reliance on the IDFA before it will effectively die from next month. 

Client performance dashboard

If you have a Business Intelligence team and the resources to support it, this could be the option for you. The first step is to assess how you are currently measuring user data. Say goodbye to the days of relying solely on IDFA data. Are your data gatherers working off of raw data or aggregated reports? If the answer is raw data then switching to aggregated reports that rely on multiple identifiers could provide a good hedge.

AppsFlyer’s Aggregated Attribution Solution

AppsFlyer’s Aggregated Attribution Solution

Be aware that while this may sound simple, changing the way you model your data is quite an involved process, even for the most experienced of PPC Managers. Yes it can definitely be effective, but we’re talking about a pretty big fundamental shift in your BI’s modus operandi, and the time, manpower, and financial costs to implement such a change can add up in a hurry.

How Are You Pulling Your Data?

If you don’t have the resources to change your BI operations (or don’t have a dedicated BI team at all) then looking into your MMP and its capabilities must be high on your priority list. It’s important to remember that not all MMPs are created equal. Some were devised mobile-first while others trace their origins back to web attribution. Do you know the backstory behind the one you’re using?  

If your MMP is on top of its game then it was probably hard at work over the last few months with solutions already in beta. Nearly all MMPs now offer a new UI specifically catered to the SKNs to help with this new privacy shift. Without naming names there are definitely two MMPs we know of, albeit in the more expensive price tier, that have already made great strides in this area since the IDFA news broke back in June. Unfortunately, others of the slightly less expensive variety (who typically don’t trace their roots back to mobile attribution) are somewhat behind the curve with getting solutions into beta. 

While they may be excellent products in their own rights, you truly do “get what you pay for”, and with a development as disruptive as the required IDFA opt-in, the end may justify the means when it comes to spending a little bit more. However, and this is important, don’t jump without looking first – as we mentioned above every MMP is its own creature, so don’t assume you can or can’t get what you need from yours based solely on its size or price tag.

Rethinking User Acquisition

If you’re a small agency or publisher without a high level of technical experience, the first two suggestions probably aren’t the right fit for you.  However, even if you don’t have a BI team or aren’t using an MMP, there are still some tactics available to you if you’re willing to put in the work.

Think Outside the Box

Firstly, getting users to opt-in to allow you access to their IDFA is one way to go. As we touched upon above – the expected conversion rate of 10-20% tops, so the outlook is rather bleak.  While that intrusive consent pop-up that users are presented with is the same for everyone, the messaging inside that pop-up doesn’t have to be.  

With developers free to get creative with words, you’ve still got one last shot (albeit a long one) to stand out, show a little brand personality, and entice users to opt-in. Even if you successfully convert just a small percentage of users into IDFA consenters, you’re still ahead of the game and will set yourself up to target them with their own unique campaigns featuring different messaging. It isn’t exactly a retargeting campaign, but rather a separate step in your user acquisition. Obviously you’ll be targeting a far smaller audience, but it will be one that’s composed of quality over quantity. And, more importantly, it will be an audience that’s trackable and attributable.

Higher Learning

In addition to giving your Creative team a new assignment with your opt-in messaging, you’re also going to need to put your UA manager to work on getting more statistically oriented when it comes to upper-funnel analysis. Up until now for performance marketers, the focus has been all about down funnel and mapping in-app events.  However, with the IDFA no longer a given, conducting deeper analysis on metrics like impressions, CTR, CVR, and clicks are more important than ever before.

Key Takeaways

Automatic access to the IDFA may be gone, but not all is lost. It certainly won’t be an easy change, but with the right planning and utilizing the best solutions MMPs have to offer, it doesn’t have to be a catastrophe.

  • If you have a data team and the resources to go with it, a restructuring of how you model your data, including switching to aggregated reporting rather than raw data, could reap the dividends that justify the costs of doing it. This is something we prioritized for ourselves, and it’s stood us in good stead to head into the future with the most success for our clients.
  • Take a good hard look into everything your MMP has to offer. Nearly all of them have solutions already in beta. But not all are created equal, and it’s wise to think about where your MMP began – web or mobile?
  • Treat your opt-in messages like ads. Make them as enticing as possible. It would be naive to expect them to move the needle a tremendous amount, but why leave any chips on the table?
  • Change up your focus from down funnel to upper-funnel analysis to help identify trends more quickly.

Stay alert. Yes, the changing trends in privacy present a huge challenge for everyone, and it’s not just iOS. Even Google is eventually expected to make its GAID an opt-in identifier as well. That said, keep in mind that Facebook has always relied on the IDFA for a significant percentage of its advertising technologies so it’s offering solutions too, as are many of the major MMPs. Facebook recommends implementing its SDK. 

It’s a fluid situation that is pretty much guaranteed to change so in addition to doing your legwork make sure to check back with us as we’ll no doubt be keeping our eyes on the situation and sharing updates and insights when we have them.

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