Partner Q&A: AdColony on the Impact of iOS 15

In this BidSwitch Partner Q&A, we’re chatting with Jonathan Harrop, Vice President of Global Marketing & Communications at AdColony, to discuss the industry-wide impact of the recently released iOS 15 operating system for Apple devices.

As one of the leading mobile-first players in the programmatic space, AdColony has a stable of industry experts keeping tabs on all the ways Apple’s privacy changes impact marketers. Thanks to their in-app inventory, AdColony is well placed to keep delivering the results its clients expect from their programmatic know-how. But the big items of iOS 15 — the App Privacy Report and Mail Privacy Protection — present challenges every marketer should understand, and AdColony was happy to break it down for us

1.) What impact, if any, do you expect following the roll-out of iOS 15?

It has some serious ramifications for browser-based media, and programmatic flows which have a heavy emphasis on email collection, as well as email campaigns themselves.

As a marketer myself, these are the kinds of changes I expected. Once Apple made its “behind the scenes” privacy with AppTrackingTransparency worth of an advertising and PR campaign, something more consumer facing was only a matter of time. While we deal almost exclusively with in-app traffic at AdColony and the impacts are essentially zero for our relationships with advertisers or publishing partners, they do impact my actual day-to-day.

Private relay and iCloud+ email privacy are huge, massive and important changes that consumers will understand the benefits of. The ability to hide emails, as well as hide opens, clicks, and what is essentially a “lite” VPN to hide web traffic is Apple doubling down on what it sees as a selling point to its products.

That said, the most relevant changes for in-app media is the introduction of the App Privacy Support, which mimics some of the functionality of the Safari Privacy Report which has been in place for a while now, this may have some longer tail impact over time, which I’ll dig into more below.

2.) How do you predict the privacy changes in iOS 15 will impact the programmatic industry at large?

Publishers and bidders which have heavy dependence on email-based identifiers as the ‘handshake’ for identity may lose their degrees of addressability in the same way addressability was impacted for IDFA-based solutions when Apple’s AppTrackingTransparency requirements went into effect this April, mainly if the source of those email-based identifiers are sourced through Apple-driven channels.

Why do I say Apple-driven instead of iOS-driven? Because Apple’s privacy updates also rolled out with the latest version of macOS, iPadOS, and even tvOS, so even CTV audiences using Apple TVs are impacted by these changes. As an industry, we don’t talk about this enough — it’s not an iOS-level complication; it’s an APPLE complication.

3.) Mail Privacy Protection in iOS 15 mainly targets preventing open-rate tracking using a pixel pre-load system. Do programmatic traders need to be concerned about these email-focused updates? If so, what actions should be taken?

Anyone using email marketing should be rethinking how they measure success, just like advertisers needed (and in many cases still need to) to adjust how they define success when it comes to campaigns that rely on the IDFA that launched with iOS 14.5.

Most of these changes are very ‘visible’ in terms of most users understand their privacy benefits (as opposed to AppTrackingTransparency, which is behind the scenes) than I am for the overall direction of Apple’s privacy initiatives, which seems like the eventual total obfuscation of device-level identity regardless of whether that’s a device ID, an email, or something else, is the goal.

When it comes to email marketing, D2C companies are potentially in a real “AB test” world of hurt, as email open rate has been a massive part of their testing over the years. Advertisers that are focused on email as their primary method of sales and communication should look to more challenging KPIs to judge email success: Click rate is an obvious upper funnel one, but lower-funnel actions like add to cart, checkout, and things where there’s a defined result tied to that same first-part data email address will need to be more carefully scrutinized to really see what email messaging is driving results.

4.) ITP, first launched in 2017, is being updated so that it will hide users’ IP addresses from trackers. How do you anticipate that this will impact programmatic trading?

I’m going to pivot here since ITP and IP address obfuscation exists outside the Apple updates and focus instead on a similar but not an identical piece of the Apple pie: Apple’s version of a VPN, Private Relay.

Advertisers and publishers should expect most non-app (and insecure in-app, but this should be rare given that ATS Compliance has been mandated for some time now) traffic from Apple devices to be running through the iCloud+ Private Relay.

By giving iCloud+ to every user paying as little as 99 cents for the 50GB cloud storage option, Apple has leapfrogged every VPN out there and made it automatic to boot. This isn’t a new ‘premium tier’ that will have limited penetration and take time to ramp; this is a baked-in anonymity for a vast majority of Apple users globally the moment they install iOS 15.

Private Relay is still in beta and, to be generous, quite iffy.

My personal experience has outright stopped some apps from working on some connection types, despite Charles telling me the traffic is encrypted/ATS compliant and should therefore be unimpacted by Private Relay. I expect Private Relay to remain in beta for a while, as this behaviour isn’t intended, per Apple’s documentation and I’m not enough of a network engineer to know where the problem lies!

5.) Apple is updating SKAdNetwork with an attribution tool, meaning that advertisers will be able to track conversion events. Is this change actually a win for advertisers outside of the walled gardens?

iOS 15 updates to SKAdNetwork include advertisers gaining the ability to get a direct copy of the install postbacks that ad networks and bidders are driving for SKAdNetwork measurement. It was another step forward with industry transparency, which is never a bad thing. However, the net impact is negligible, given that the general industry standard is that the signing party for the SKAdNetwork measured ad (usually the bidder) would be forwarding that postback to the advertiser in order to be paid in the first place (either by way of MMP or direct integration). It does reduce the technical overhead involved for advertisers to receive and validate such install postbacks, at least.

The measurement of conversion events in such postbacks continues to be a limitation for advertisers, bidders, and ad networks alike as it is considerably more restrictive than alternative measurement methods. Apple has a long, long way to go if it wants SKAdNetwork to be seen as equally viable in the industry, and while Apple’s industry-opinion-influenced improvements from SKAN 1.0 to present are welcome changes, I think they’re being deliberately cautious about adding features to avoid giving industry players opportunity to fingerprint and end-run around that restriction. This level of caution has generally made SKAN less attractive for app install advertisers.

6.) The new App Privacy Report in iOS 15 allows users to see precisely how their activity is being tracked across apps. Do you think this will empower users to take control of their data, or will it largely be ignored by the masses?

As I alluded to at the top, iOS 15’s privacy changes can be summed up as “public-facing” in that they have a lot of tools and features that the wider public, rather than adtech insiders and privacy hawks, might care about. iOS 14 (14.5, really) was the opposite.

The Privacy Report is the logical evolution of the so-called nutrition labels, but the availability of similar tools on Android hasn’t exactly set consumers flocking one way or another. I expect the same for iOS; those who care are interested, those who don’t … don’t.

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