Will Ad Tech Changes Leave Publishers and Marketers Stranded on Apple Island?

Thinking about data regardless of the type of phone

Monolithic change will accompany Apple’s App Tracking and Transparency framework when enforcement begins this spring. Ad targeting, measurement, monetization and data will be stripped of their Rosetta Stone, Apple’s IDFA—and the app ecosystem eagerly searches for answers on how to drive and calculate ROI with advertising.

As competing methodologies take root and begin to battle for the future of marketer and publisher buy-in, app publishers specifically find themselves hurtling toward a bifurcated world where what works in Apple may not work elsewhere, and more importantly, vice versa. The technologies, the challenges and the future of digital publishing are heading toward a structure that may leave Apple behind.

Choose your weapon

Today, four major technologies have entered the arena for audience buying and identity in the brave new world. First, authenticated technologies match data sources with publisher inventory based on a signed-in audience (most likely a list of email addresses). Secondly, a few companies are still planning to utilize fingerprinting or probabilistic matching technologies, at odds with emerging terms of service. Then, there are decentralized data companies that utilize bunker technology to match first-party data to ad inventory in a supremely privacy-centric manner.

Though each of these will scale in a new world (besides fingerprinting, but we’ll get to that), the fourth technology will be the one to govern the advertising world of the future: On-device technology, the cryptic, amorphous blanket term subtly woven into more and more documentation from big tech, is the horse to watch. It is explicitly carved out of Apple’s new ruleset around tracking. It is the core component of Google’s FLoC proposal for the replacement of third-party cookies in Chrome. It has the potential to save ad tech or consolidate even more power into the walled gardens. It could be a unified way of thinking that advertisers and marketers adopt universally, or it could fragment the Apple publishing ecosystem out of existence.

Uphill both ways

Authenticated models are reliable, but don’t answer the scale question for publishers or advertisers with regards to coverage of the 80% of users that aren’t logged in, or the 85% of users who won’t opt into tracking on iOS.  Fingerprinting is explicitly banned by Apple moving forward (without opt-in), as well as in Google’s FLoC proposal. If you fingerprint on iOS without App Tracking and Transparency consent, you are exposing yourselves and each of your partners to extraordinary risk. Scratch that from your plan. 

As for the bunker systems, they unlock troves of opportunity for first party data utilization as a brand, but they’re slow to scale as they need both sellers and buyers to opt-in, implement the technology and cut their own deals.  To date, they also require authentication and opt-in.

On-device technology, only in its first inning of innovation, is a harbinger of deeper tectonic shifts to come that have the potential to isolate the iOS app ecosystem from the rest of the advertising world. Without passing judgement on Apple’s motives, we can identify an emerging trend where Google, as owner of the Android OS in app and Google Chrome, is going to great lengths to centralize the on-device technology ecosystem around its privacy guardrails. As Google attempts to create a privacy-forward advertising future by coalition, Apple is in stark contrast. Though the goals of a privacy-safe future maybe ironically similar, Apple’s advertiser-deaf SKAdNetwork and lack of a centralized targeting infrastructure make it hard to build to.  Instead of participating itself, Apple is leaving the on-device space undefined, which will lead to a fragmented advertising ecosystem as many players rush to gain SDK and methodology adoption publisher by publisher. Google Ad ID is certain to follow with privacy sandbox-like guidelines, meaning that marketers and publishers maybe faced with a choice between an interoperable system across web and Android, and a complex system of fiefdoms across the iOS app ecosystem.

We need roads

On the one hand, it’s reassuring to think that a wide open iOS app ecosystem will be a smorgasbord of innovation where companies run towards the blue ocean head on. Unfortunately, that thought is quickly crowded out by the understanding that marketers value simplicity and efficiency above all else. When ad tech companies can choose to innovate against either a large ecosystem with significant scale and a shared ruleset or nine different SDKs across 20% of the market, they will prioritize scale. When marketers determine where to set their focus, how do they balance the need to reach users where they are (which includes iOS) with the fact that it is so much more complex than the rest of their tactics? 

The answer to this lies in the opportunity ahead of the ad tech ecosystem, and that is: to unite, simplify and connect marketers to a world of valuable consumers regardless of the type of phone they’re using.