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RIP the IDFA

What the latest restrictions on Apple’s mobile ad ID mean for the industry.

Announced at Apple’s virtual Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) at the end of June, the news was not exactly a surprise. Right on the heels of Google’s phasing out of the third-party cookie on Chrome by 2022, and in line with its own decision to eradicate said cookie on Safari in 2017, Apple’s most recent pronouncement was somehow bound to spell the end of the Identifier for Advertisers (IDFA) on iOS mobile devices.

IDFAs are used to identify and weave together into a unified user journey the various events happening in-app on a device using the iOS, Apple’s operating system. Google has something similar with its Google Play Services ID (ADID) on Android devices.

While Apple isn’t exactly killing IDFAs, the company announced that, as of next September (along with the release of the iOS 14), users will be explicitly asked via its AppTrackingTransparency framework (a pop-up that will appear at app open) whether they want their device’s IDFA to be shared or not every time they install a new app – basically, asking their permission to track them. Should the user refuse, he/she will appear as if their Limit Ad Tracking option is turned on.

Naturally, Apple says that this move will help improve further user privacy on Apple devices, and it will. But it will also require ad-tech stakeholders to adapt, and not only those who broadly using IDFAs for targeting, personalization, measurement, attribution, and more. App developers and owners will have to decide if they want to integrate IDFAs in their new products, and even end users probably won’t be able to access all of an app’s services unless they agree to share their IDFA. “Every single app that goes on the store has the IDFA of the customer. Every single one of them. Although Apple said in their terms that, as application developer or owner, you can choose to use IDFA or not, if you choose not to, there will be many consequences, such as how well you’ll be able to attribute your installs, for example,” explains Ihab El Yaman, Co-Founder and Managing Director of data mining firm MEmob (Communicate’s sister company).

In fact, what is presented as mere restrictions could well be the actual death warrant of the IDFA, depending on how much it will impact users opt-in rates. Should a minority of users only agree to shared access (as is widely expected, especially with the pop-up language seemingly designed to expressly deter them), the IDFA will unavoidably become irrelevant.

With iOs’s market penetration maybe not as big as Android’s, it is still significant, especially within the MENA market. As a result, this decision is bound to disrupt the advertising market. “Most of the companies that we know or that we’ve heard about are either reconsidering advertising on Apple and iOS. And those that are only relying on IDFA to target or remarket to iOS users are just shutting down that kind of business completely,” says El Yaman.

Lastly, it seems quite obvious that with this move, Apple aims to consolidate its position as yet another walled garden mainly accessible via Apple Search Ads (ASA, its mobile app install advertising platform already projected to generate $2 billion in revenue in 2020) – not to mention the fact that Google will probably follow suit on for its own Google Play Services ID (ADID) on Android devices. “When the user asks for the IDFA not to be shared for advertisement, it doesn’t mean that this IDFA won’t go to Apple to be stored for push notifications, the same way that Google will continue using third-party cookies,” says El Yaman, who adds that “Apple and Google will always try to push third-parties away because they want to own the whole digital universe, like in a duopoly.”

However, explains El Yaman, “even if they try to block third-party data sharing as much as possible, they will reach a limit.” Besides, creative solutions are already being found to meet this new business challenge while respecting user rights. For example, MEmob developed a cross-device identity mapping technology that can tell a user is the same person in-app and on the m-web by relying on many different data sources – such as WiFi ID, always-on location, out-of-home location, proprietary first-party data, and so on – instead of only the IDFA or ADID. “By connecting all these dots, we can see that a given device has a given identity, regardless of the IDFA. So, we already have products that can cater to the publishers on the m-web or in-app to identify customers, taking into consideration the privacy preferences of each and every one of them,” says El Yaman. “That’s why technologies like MEmob come privacy-first by design. We don’t know the user as a person, but as a profile; and we’re going deliver ads to this person because they’re consuming content somewhere, without breaking their privacy at all. That’s the ecosystem of the digital world,” he adds.

All in all, the slew of privacy-centric decisions recently unveiled by ad-tech giants is a sure sign that the industry is undergoing a major and deep transformation, and needs to keep reinventing itself, as it always has. “We saw what happened when GDPR was introduced: clients started losing share of voice and the market started going downhill. Publishers became smarter, not allowing users to access their content unless they accepted to be advertised to. That’s the kind of learnings that we get from different markets and it’s going to apply to MENA as well,” concludes El Yaman.

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