Apple is making it clear – it’s time to rewrite the digital marketing playbook

SEO Advantage CEO Zac Basara looks at the ready-or-not changes for marketers coming with Apple's next iOS update.

As a profession, we love data. We use it to build our campaigns, we use it when making decisions on what to do next and we use it to prove our worth to respective bosses and clients. Apple’s latest changes threaten our way of doing business; we must now start working with less accurate, or simply just less data altogether.

The iOS 14.5 update was already a major hit for advertisers as it heavily limited the amount of data that apps were able to track from users. At WWDC, Apple’s annual Worldwide Developers Conference, in June this year, Apple announced that iOS 15 will bring more pain: “This year, Intelligent Tracking Prevention is getting even stronger by also hiding the user’s IP address from trackers. This means they can’t utilise the user’s IP address as a unique identifier to connect their activity across websites and build a profile about them.”

On top of this, we’re told to expect Mail Privacy Protection and App Privacy Report features from Apple soon. Of the two, it’s the Mail Privacy Protection feature that is the most disruptive – built into the stock Mail app (which is often the preferred client for iOS email), it will block the use of tracking pixels entirely.

These changes by Apple demonstrate a major push towards consumer online privacy, which from a consumer standpoint at least, is always going to be seen as beneficial. What many consumers are unaware of though, is how these changes are actually going to affect their online experience. For example, consumers may still be served ads from advertisers, but those ads may be highly irrelevant and impersonal due the lack of tracking data available.

Impact of the changes on the marketing field

We can wax lyrical about the downsides of unpersonalised ads, but the truth is that right now, the features are a PR win for Apple and they were met with widespread support by consumers. Until that perception changes, we as a profession must adapt. We must also expect that similar privacy features could come down the pipeline from Google or Microsoft, even if they are not quite so stringent.

With the limited amount of data available, the ability to serve iOS consumers ad-content that is 100% relevant or personalised to them is all but a thing of the past. It makes it virtually impossible for advertisers to re-market effectively to consumers from websites they have visited, which may in turn have a detrimental effect on the consumers’ experience. Without knowing which websites and EDMs consumers have engaged with, it is far more likely they will be served ads that are completely unrelated to them or their interests.

Inevitably, the effectiveness of each dollar spent on targeting Apple consumers will go down. If you haven’t already started communicating this with your clients and/or internal stakeholders, you’re setting yourself up for a much more difficult conversation in a few months time.

Speaking of pain: these changes will mostly hurt small businesses who relied heavily on being able to effectively re-market users who have engaged with their brand or website. Without the capital backing that large brands have to do wide scale advertising, many of these small businesses are going to see a plummet in conversions and sales. This means that the even playing field that small businesses used to have, will essentially be tipped in favour of businesses and brands with the largest budgets.

What marketers should be doing in reaction to the changes

The advertising platform where we are initially seeing the biggest impact of these changes is Facebook, where conversions and ROIs have been severely diminished across the board. Previously on the Facebook advertising platform, a large portion of ad expenditure by advertisers was used on bottom funnel re-marketing, as this generated the largest ROI on ad spend. But now these changes have severely impacted the ability to obtain data, which is translating into an inability to generate leads and sales effectively as before.

The mail privacy feature will do something similar with EDMs aimed at iOS users too. So what can we do in the short term?

Advertisers can overcome this restriction by increasing their expenditure at the top funnel stage to increase the amount of users that they are reaching and engaging with. Advertisers can begin by implementing the changes as outlined by Facebook, such as verifying their domain and setting up aggregated events, which according to Facebook, will give a greater ability to acquire more data and to re-engage with audiences.

But if you’re a marketer the lesson is clear: you need to be very wary of specialising too heavily. The next step is to begin to broaden your skill set, especially if you’ve specialised in digital marketing on a small group of platforms/channels. Remember, your skills aren’t suddenly useless, but it’s likely the pendulum is swinging back towards organic/SEO strategies with these changes. Go with the flow.

We need to view ourselves closer to software engineers than lawyers. We need to stay up to date, and specialising in just one language or platform is a hefty risk. We’re going to see a lot of disruption in the next six months, and it’s the ones who can come up with more creative solutions to reaching an audience that will win out in the end.

Zac Basara is the CEO of SEO Advantage.


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