What to tell your boss/client about iOS 14.5

April 22, 2021
Michael Taylor
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Photo by Icons8 Team on Unsplash

Apple confirmed the release of iOS 14.5 will begin next week (w/c April 26th) and people are freaking out. Apple is making tracking opt-in rather than opt-out, which is expected to cut the ability for marketers to track users on iPhones by as much as 90%.

Without the ability to track users on iPhone, a lot of stuff breaks. For users that don’t opt in (and why would you?) advertisers won’t be able to tell if those users bought anything after clicking on ads. This is the most significant change to a $325b industry since Facebook launched its ad platform.

It also leaves a gaping hole in the ability of Facebook and other advertisers to effectively target the right people. Apple has confirmed that advertisers specifically can’t use email addresses or other PII from users collected on iOS for retargeting or attribution, closing any loopholes vendors were hoping to use to skirt round the restrictions.

There has already been upheaval, as advertisers see triple-digit fluctuations in CPM (the cost of buying ads) and ad platforms announce huge changes to the way their products work, for example Facebook killing their analytics product and changing default attribution rules to 7 day click through and 1 day view.

So as a marketer, you’re bound to get questions from your boss or client about the roll out. What do you say? I’ve spent over $50m on paid ads in the past 10 years, and built a 50 person digital agency before leaving last February – this is what I’d say:

1. Get ready for disruption

Don’t expect good performance from your campaigns in the next few months. We’ll all be doing our best to navigate the situation, but this is a battle of the titans between Apple on one side and Facebook, Google, etc on the other. It won’t be pretty, and we’ll have limited ability to influence the outcomes. Everyone on the team will be doing their best, and we’ll get through this period stronger if you approach every problem we run into with that in mind.

2. This is the end of deterministic attribution

This leaves a big, permanent hole in our analytics. We no longer know it was person X who clicked on ad Y and purchased Z. iOS is the most valuable slice of mobile traffic, and without visibility, no analytics tools will work like they used to. We must adopt a ‘probabilistic’ mindset, using data science techniques like marketing mix modeling to measure what channels, campaigns, audiences and creatives are the most likely to be working.

3. We need someone in marketing who can code

User privacy and analytics tracking are dense, technical topics that are hard to understand even for technical marketers or growth engineers. Vendors are scrambling for solutions which will require a higher degree of technical knowledge to understand. Tracking is no longer a ‘one and done’ job, it’s something we’ll need to change regularly, and even build custom solutions for, if we want to gain an advantage (or not fall behind).

4. Our attribution was never that good to begin with

Last click or even multi-touch attribution was never as accurate as you hoped. Word of mouth, dark social and offline channels drive the vast majority of sales for most brands, but were completely unaccounted for. The way we assigned credit was taking credit for a lot of sales that would have happened anyway, at the expense of user privacy. GDPR and Adblockers were already chipping away at a broken system – iOS14.5 is just the final nail in the coffin.

5. Context and creative are more important than ever

Micro-targeting based on demographics & interests isn’t the only form of targeting. Google is less worried than Facebook, because their most valuable targeting is contextual: “what did the user search?”. Expect a return to buying ads based on what the user is doing, rather than who they are. The best targeting has always been creative – every SuperBowl advertiser is buying the same placement, but their ads appeal to different people.

What’s next?

After some disruption, the industry will be fine. There will be winners and losers, but advertising has always been ~1% of GDP throughout history. The shift from traditional to digital channels won’t be stopped, because there are advantages to buying in a programmatic auction even without targeting and tracking. Digital marketers will need to get better at statistics and creative: maybe it’s time to dust off some traditional marketing books?

We’ll need to change our approach and work a little harder to establish the ‘ground truth’ of what’s performing, and vendors will need to build a new breed of software to support us in that journey. That’s something I’m working on at Vexpower.com, a training simulator to teach you marketing mix modeling. Having solved this problem for a bunch of people in my days at Ladder and seeing this coming for a while, I’m always up for a conversation on Twitter.


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