iOS 14, The Cookie Apocalypse and Digital Marketing

TL:DR

In an effort to increase privacy, technology gatekeepers led by Apple, are reducing the ability to track where users are on the web and between apps. These changes will require a shift in advertising techniques and the result will increase the importance of  first party data.

Backstory

In 2019 Safari and Firefox started hamstringing third-party cookies both on desktop and mobile browsers. In 2020 the new version of Microsoft Edge began to block third-party cookies by default and even Google, who makes most of their money from ad sales, announced Chrome was going to begin limiting third-party cookies in 2022. With iOS 14.5, launching in the Spring of 2021, Apple is additionally taking aim at in-app tracking.

We’ve all seen those cookie banners pop up around the web; the change in iOS apps is similar. But instead of ignoring cookie banners, users will have to choose “Allow Tracking” or “Ask App Not to Track”. And by “Ask App…” Apple means it will physically prevent apps from using known trackers.

Screenshot of iOS 14 App Tracking Dialog

Which one do you think most users will choose? And even if they do allow tracking, Apple is limiting the amount of data that can be tracked, and the events that are tracked will be aggregated and time delayed. 

But the problem is not related to in-app conversions. Already across the web, Apple and Firefox are blocking, or limiting all sorts of cookies and other trackers.

A Shift in Mentality

We used to be able to give every person who saw our ad or visited a website a unique identifier and track what they saw, how many times they saw the ad and what their action was. In the future we’ll be able to know how many times ads were seen, and what people did, but not necessarily be able to connect the two. 

Even the web analytics metric “Returning Visitors” is going to be less and less reliable moving  forward because it requires that a user be tracked from visit number one to visit– number two. Apple and Firefox are limiting the number of days a cookie like this can persist.  Attribution windows, once able to have 28 day lookbacks, are now limited to 7 days, and let’s not be surprised if that contracts down to a single session.

Adapting

Facebook, for one, is scrambling to find workarounds, and some of those workarounds require that advertisers set up Facebook tracking pixels differently. Google is proposing ways to track conversions without tracking those back to an individual. Even with potentially new workarounds, one thing is for certain, the level of granularity we expect to receive from digital ads will be forever changed.

The impact goes well beyond Facebook. Behavioral targeting, where a cookie follows you around the web to get a sense of what a consumer is into, may be nearly killed off with Chrome’s change in 2022. What will replace it?

The answer is twofold. Perhaps the most powerful will be first party data. Instead of tracking users based on an anonymous cookie, getting consumers to share their email address or phone number early and often provides a reliable way to connect the dots between activities. You’ve seen news sites that require a user to provide their email address in order to read free content, this is one of the reasons why. Plus they can send you opt-in email marketing which is extremely cost effective. Leveraging CRMs and CDPs effectively will shift from optional to critical. Without that data we may be left with only last click attribution and essentially zero retargeting.

Back at the beginning of the funnel, finding new customers, the shift away from behavioral targeting, will result in a rise in contextual targeting. Instead of targeting users with a history of visiting travel websites (behavioral targeting), advertisements may opt to show an ad along a single travel article (contextual targeting).

Where that leaves us

While Facebook is complaining that this is going to hurt mom-and-pop businesses’ ability to determine  if someone converted from a given ad, this shift is actually going to give Facebook and Google even more power than they have now. Facebook knows what you “Like”. Google has a plan to track interests of cohorts of users, they are calling this “FLoC” Federated Learning of Cohorst, in a more aggregate fashion than cookies did. 

Moving forward, we  won’t be able to fairly compare 2019 campaigns to 2021 ad campaigns. Online advertising isn’t going to become as untrackable as OOH billboards anytime soon; however, the paradigm is shifting. We’ll know how many people saw ads, and we’ll know how many people converted, but connecting the two is going to be a challenge. 

Note: Photo by Hiroshi Kimura on Unsplash. Screenshot provided by Apple.

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