Marketing Adtech Data & Privacy

Apple’s iPhone Privacy Update: the one iOS 15 change that has marketers spooked


By Kendra Barnett | Senior Reporter

September 23, 2021 | 10 min read

With the roll-out of iOS 15 officially under way, Apple users gain greater visibility into how their personal information is used – and more control over what data they offer up to marketers and app developers. The changes included in the update are sure to make tracking, ad targeting and attribution more challenging than ever. Eight top agency and media executives spell out the iOS 15 changes that have them worried – and explain what marketers and developers should be thinking about now.

iPhone screen in dark room

Apple’s iOS 15 includes the new Mail Privacy Protection feature, which could hamper the effectiveness of email marketing

Apple’s iOS 15 update dropped Monday. The update includes a handful of new tools and policies designed to give users more control over how advertisers and application developers use their personal information. These include built-in VPN access via the new Private Relay feature, Mail Privacy Protection – which generates anonymized email addresses for improved inbox privacy – and App Privacy Report, a ‘report card’ of sorts that gives users visibility into which apps use what kinds of user data. Plus, Apple recently announced that it will ask for user opt-in before serving targeted ads in the App Store.

While these and other changes offer improved transparency and choice for users regarding the collection and sale of their own information, they impede the ability of marketers and developers to understand user behavior on a granular level, target specific audiences and measure the impacts of their advertising efforts.

The Drum asked top media and advertising voices to share the iOS 15 changes posing the biggest challenges – and how marketers and developers should be approaching these new hurdles.

Jennifer Mandeville, director of media strategy, Merkle

Primarily, the option to opt in to personalized advertising in the Apple App Store will be a significant challenge, especially for marketers and brands who have relied on or found success with Apple Search Ads, among other platforms. User decision whether to opt in or not will likely [speak] to how they feel about being targeted by marketers or brands collectively, not individually. If users feel they will get true and transparent value out of personalized advertising, they will be likelier to opt in, but if there is hesitation or annoyance, that could continue to hinder [their decision to opt in]. To help combat this, marketers and brands should continue developing media and advertising that tells authentic stories and truly engages with each user, creating transparency and trust.

Another feature that will pose a great challenge is elevated email inbox privacy, affecting the way brands and marketers have the ability to target consumers. With the addition of the Mail Privacy Protection tab, the fact users can restrict their IP addresses and location information will be a headache when it comes to IP or location-based targeting, especially within the mobile space. With new privacy features impeding the ability to gather email open rates, this will also affect targeting efforts, such as sequential targeting, platform targeting or re-targeting. Marketers and brands will need to find a workaround through other sources of first-party data such as unified IDs or contextual solutions, although not limited to these solutions alone.

Finally, to put in perspective, we need to remember that although these updates will affect roughly 28% of consumers (iOS users), Android users continue to dominate the global market and will not be affected by these changes.

Brad Gagne, vice-president of device analytics, Wunderman Thompson Apps

Intelligent Tracking Protection in Safari, which obfuscates a user’s IP address, further increases the anonymity of iOS users. While Safari’s iOS browser likely makes up only 12-15% of the total browser market, these users achieve near-complete anonymity across websites when they opt in. Household-based browser unification across devices is impossible. In the shorter term, addressable audiences will become more difficult to scale, bringing less reliable outcomes. Marketers will need to reassess existing audience tools and seek out innovative techniques based on machine learning to bridge the identity gap.

Everald Phillip, vice-president of identity and marketing technology consulting, Publicis Media

With Apple having such a high market penetration, the changes that pose the biggest risk are undoubtedly IP Blocking and Mail Privacy Protection, which will fundamentally change the way marketers think through behavioral targeting and segmentation and impact everything from cross-device identity to measurement.

Each change that Apple comes out with is a constant reminder that a consensual relationship with your visitors will put you in the best position to drive effective personalized messaging in a privacy-conscious manner.

In order to adapt to the fast, innovative changes happening, marketers will need to establish myriad solutions around identity to further validate and process the opportunities to target high-value segments and measure campaign success.

Will Crocker Hay, vice-president of customer and partner marketing, Braze

A particularly important impact of Mail Privacy Protection is that, for Apple Mail users on iOS 15 or MacOS, email open rates metrics will be very inaccurate across all email service providers (ESPs). ESPs have used images to track email opens for years, and this is going to render that strategy obsolete as these changes will cause inflated open rates across all ESPs. Brands that once relied on email open behavior to determine what message to send next will now need to shift their strategy to measuring more accurate downstream KPIs, such as link click rates. Without understanding these changes, there is potential to damage the user experience as well as hurt your email reputation with inbox providers by sending unwanted mail if you don’t act.

In the short term, unprepared marketers are at risk of delivering unwanted and bothersome messaging campaigns to customers triggered by incorrect behavioral data. With each irrelevant interaction with your brand, consumers’ loyalty and trust will erode until they churn. The long-term implications of not understanding how iOS 15 will impact your brand’s customer engagement strategy will ultimately lead to lower retention rates, weakened customer loyalty and declining growth.

Tim Woitkun, group media director, Cogniscient Media

While Mail Privacy Protection is another step in the right direction for digital privacy, I remain more intrigued by the deployment and usage of the App Privacy Report within iOS 15. [Following] the notifications rolled out with iOS 14.5 and the AppTrackingTransparency (ATT) program – in addition to the high opt-out rate that came with that – things could get even more interesting than they have been the last few months.

Apple has self-promoted their stance on individuals’ privacy better than any other tech titan. Yet I remain intrigued to see the data of how many non-marketers will know this feature even exists, let alone what to do with it. Allowing consumers an overview with the App Privacy Report to better understand how much and how often an app accesses their location, photos, camera, microphone and contacts is another step forward for privacy protection.

Some data questions that would help marketers: will the non-tech-savvy consumer uninstall an app? Would their usage drop on specific apps? Do they even know where to find these reports [which can be accessed in a device’s settings]? On the reverse of that, how many individuals will remain with their hand raised asking to communicate with a brand?

The opportunity to take a refreshed view continues to be available for brands and agencies based on the data that may be available with this rollout. Furthermore, focusing the way in which communication is done in a creative, yet more tailored approach should lead the way.

Christina Malcolm, vice-president, iProspect

The iOS 15 update continues Apple’s privacy-centric vision. The new changes are subtle but effective in restricting marketing channels such as search and social, where the Hide My Email function could lead to a longer-term drop in first-party email address targeting capabilities. This depends on the uptake of the feature, but could ultimately lower CRM and customer match rates if users have not provided accurate first-party email data and therefore brands do not have accurate users to form IDs with.

Mike Whaley, managing director of mobile apps and emerging tech, VMLY&R

The biggest challenge is marketers are going to have to rely on data the user has chosen to share directly with the brand instead of the compilation of data the brand has partnered with others such as social channels to aggregate. That means each brand is going to have to treat data as currency even more so than they do now. If marketers want users to share info, they have to have a concrete value as to what the user receives for that transaction.

For brands now through the App Store, we’re seeing an average of 3-4% of users opting into apps being able to track their data. So the success builds on the measure not just in the core business elements such as spend, but in data value elements as well.

From the experience side, [we utilize – and recommend that others invest in] a dedicated group of martech professionals who focus on the lifecycle element of experiences. This ranges from acquiring the right users to the optimal engagement those users have based on every level of the data they are willing to provide. So, every feature and experience has to create built-in ‘what you get’ for the users’ time and info, making it more than a ‘it’s live and built’ approach and rather an ‘it’s ready to engage’ process.

Dushan Perera, associate technology director, R/GA

One of the significant ramifications will revolve around how marketers can gauge how successful their email campaigns are going forward. Apple’s Mail Privacy Protection will prevent email marketers who embed invisible pixels, commonly known as an open tracker or web beacon, within images embedded within an email.

Previously, a marketer’s web beacon would notify the marketer’s server that the email was opened and provide the user’s IP address without their knowledge. iOS users will be able to prevent this in the Mail app on iOS 15. Marketers will have to reconfigure their KPIs for effective marketing campaigns and rethink how they use link decorations to attribute email campaign success through clicks instead.

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