How Will iOS 17’s Privacy Changes Affect Marketers’ Data Tracking?

For years, Apple’s annual Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) has been the place for the tech behemoth to showcase its finest customer-centric updates—and this year’s was no exception.

But in a landscape of ever-tightening privacy regulations, the subject of data collection on Apple’s itinerary has been stoking concern among marketers, which I’ve seen firsthand across many clients at my own performance marketing agency, Pixated. And at this year’s WWDC, these worries were heightened by the rolling out of iOS 17.

Introducing: iOS 17’s Link-Tracking Protection

Due for release in September, iOS 17 boasts a whole new level of personalisation for apps like Phone, FaceTime and Messages. But in the hubbub surrounding a new mindfulness app and features like Contact Posters and Live Voicemail, Apple was making clear it will be doubling down on limiting access to customer data. The latest iteration of the operating system will see the removal of URL tracking parameters from links accessed in Mail and Messages, as well as from Safari Private Browsing. This will likely make it harder for marketers to accurately follow the customer journey.

For years advertisers have been leveraging URL tracking parameters to follow customers across multiple websites after having clicked a single link, thereby unlocking data that could inform their targeting strategy. But iOS 17’s new Link-Tracking Protection feature (LTP) will see user-identifiable information stripped from URLs accessed within Mail, Messages and Safari Private Browsing—even as the links continue functioning as expected for the customer.

LTP won’t only make it trickier for marketers to understand audiences, but will also make it tougher to properly measure campaign success. Marketers who have always been reliant on that data to strategise will now need to find new ways to fill those gaps. Moreover, this challenge comes after years of marketers already pivoting around numerous privacy changes across successive iterations of iOS, most notably iOS 14.5, which introduced App-Tracking Transparency, and iOS 15, which substantially altered email marketers’ ability to track open rates.

While Apple has been plugging away at iOS 17, Google has been finalising privacy changes of its own, namely in the planned phaseout of third-party cookies in Chrome, slated to start in Q1 2024. Google has been exploring several initiatives in the leadup to the phaseout, including its Privacy Sandbox API, a space where advertisers can identify cookie-free ad solutions, and the rollout of Google Analytics 4, the tech giant’s new data measurement property which it describes as the ‘next generation of analytics’.


Apple isn’t leaving advertisers out in the cold, of course

Apple appreciates the major changes marketers face in the leadup to iOS 17, so has extended its Private Click Measurement solution, a privacy-focused alternative for tracking ad attribution, making it available for Safari Private Browsing. This will prove a boon for many marketers—as will the fact that Apple seemingly won’t be stripping URLs of UTM codes, small clips of text added to URLs which marketers use to measure campaign attribution without having to identify individual users.

Of course, there remains the issue of how marketers will continue to effectively personalise their campaigns once they no longer have access to the data they were previously acquiring from third-party cookies.

What will be the impact of Link-Tracking Protection?

Many marketers are already getting ready for the rollout of LTP through in-depth examination of its workings to understand how it will affect their business. This is reminiscent of how brands prepared for iOS 15, which had a huge impact on email marketing by introducing noise to the concept of opens—and lots of marketers have expressed concern that iOS will bring about similar chaos, only this time in terms of clicks.

However, if upon its release LTP remains functioning as it is now in beta, the impact on marketing shouldn’t be egregious. That’s at least according to a public report, which contains a handful of the exact URL parameters that LTP will probably seek and remove—although these haven’t been confirmed by Apple. The parameters include click IDs for Google and Facebook—although for these at least there are workarounds that could help marketers gather the same insights.

Of course, for other elements of marketing like paid search, certain click IDs may prove more valuable. However, it’s vital to remember that the removal of URL parameters in Safari will happen only within links accessed on private browsers. This will impact a smaller subset of data—a subset that already comes with challenges of its own. After all, marketers managing campaigns of this nature probably don’t expect total transparency of customers using private browsing anyway.

We won’t know the implications of LTP until sometime in 2024

While naturally any further tightening of customer privacy will have at least some impact on advertising, marketers looking to get ahead of the curve should prioritise gaining customers’ consent to collect first-party data. They should also review their existing processes to establish just how often their business is actually utilising third-party data, then strategise around filling those gaps, such as by conducting a strengths–weaknesses–opportunities–threats (SWOT) analysis.

Above all else, marketers should simply approach ongoing changes to privacy with an open mind. After all, these continual transformations are nothing if not a fabulous opportunity to learn, test, and innovate, and to evolve along with technology updates to stay agile and keep their businesses flexible.

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