What is IDFA and Why Apple Killed it: Everything Marketers Need to Know

min read
What is IDFA and Why Apple Killed it: Everything Marketers Need to Know

The death of third-party browser cookies seemed like the apocalypse for advertisers last year. Now they have been dealt another blow as Apple has essentially killed the IDFA, or identifier for advertisers, in iOS 14. Many non-technical marketers probably haven’t heard of this before, so let’s dive into WTF IDFA is, what the loss of this technology means for marketers, and how it impacts call tracking and conversational analytics technology like Invoca. 

What is IDFA?

The identifier for advertisers or IDFA is the only means for advertisers to precisely target and track users within apps on iOS devices. You can think of an IDFA as something like a cookie that is tied to devices instead of browsers, in that it enables an advertiser to get notified when a user of a phone has taken an action like clicking on their ad in a browser and then installing, using, or interacting with ads in their app. This identifier is used in non-browser apps, which never had support for cookies. IDFAs only provide advertisers data in aggregate and no individually identifiable data is available.

Google also has a similar device identifier for Android known as Android Advertising ID (AAID) or Google Advertising ID (GAID). It is not known if Google will follow suit and there aren’t currently any grumblings of it on the web. While it did follow Apple and Mozilla on cookie blocking, this technology is not very well known to consumers, so only time will tell if consumer demand ever ends up warranting it — or if the death of IDFA just ends up forcing their hands by making the technology moot.

Seemingly contrary to Apple’s renewed focus on privacy, every iPhone that Apple ships comes assigned with a unique IDFA which allows advertisers to indefinitely track user interaction and use that information to build user profiles that are attached to that device. Unlike browser cookies, which have (or should I say, had) a very short lifespan, an IDFA can be much more long-lived, as the identifier is static unless the user manually resets it. One can assume that this is only done by advanced users and the extremely privacy-minded — making it a durable and even semi-permanent identifier across the app ecosystem. 

The reason why Apple and Google use these IDs are twofold: there was no way to use tracking cookies in apps, and the IDs are ostensibly more secure than other data-sharing methods as the app store has more control over the data by requiring that app developers use the device IDs as their only method of collecting anonymised user data.

However, their security is not infallible, particularly when they are used to avoid watching the storefront. For example, Google app developers eventually found an end-around to using GAIDs. In 2019, research by AppCensus had found that 18,000 Play Store apps, many with hundreds of millions of installs, were sidestepping the GAID system by collecting additional identifiers from users’ smartphones in ways that can’t be blocked or reset — including information like handset IMEIs. 

Update: Apple Delays Changes to IDFA Until 2021

Apple has promised to delay changes to IDFA access until early 2021. After getting singed by the heat generated by app developers’ collective freakout from having this dropped on their heads, Apple provided this statement to TechCrunch: “We want to give developers the time they need to make the necessary changes, and, as a result, the requirement to use this tracking permission will go into effect early next year.” So while the end of IDFA is still eminent, app developers have more time to prepare for it now.

Why Apple Killed the IDFA

To be perfectly clear, Apple hasn’t “killed” IDFA per se, but has made tracking in apps an “opt-in” situation in iOS 14 as part of the company’s continued focus on user privacy. In previous iOS versions, users could opt-out by using the “limit ad tracking” option in their settings. Android users can also do this by opting out of ad personalization

Over 30% of iOS users chose to opt-out of tracking in 2020, and this is up 216% since 2016 according to research by analytics provider Singular. This trend shows that there is significant consumer demand for blocking tracking and ad personalization and could well be part of Apple’s motivation to make it the default setting. “We believe tracking should always be transparent and under your control,” said Katie Skinner, a manager for user privacy software at Apple, during its Web Developers Conference this summer. “So, moving forward, App Store policy will require apps to ask before tracking you across apps and websites owned by other companies.”

On the other side of the mobile fence, tracking opt-outs on Android have plummeted since 2016, now hovering around 3%. Again, this strange discrepancy sheds doubt on whether or not Google will follow Apple on device tracking settings.

Here's what it will look like. When an app that wishes to use IDFA is installed on a user's device, it must request access from the user. The user is then shown a rather ominous-sounding dialog like this: 

What iOS 14 users will see when being asked to opt-in to tracking using IDFA
What iOS 14 users will see when being asked to opt-in to tracking using IDFA

App developers can customise the description text (the small text in the dialog) and can choose to show it at some point after install, as long as it is shown to the user before tracking begins. Showing the dialog later provides an opportunity to explain the benefits of allowing tracking in the app (since you can’t do that in the dialog) before the dialog is shown and could increase opt-in rates. But given the massive increase in tracking blocking opt-outs by iOS users, it can be assumed that most consumers will not opt into being tracked so they can get what sounds like more invasive ads.

What the Death of IDFA Means to Marketers and Advertisers

Is the death of IDFA the second coming of the end of ad personalization for marketers and advertisers? It’s a bit early to tell, but the impact could be significant. The mobile ad market is worth over $300 billion and Apple owns about 27% of that, according to Digiday. If most users choose to opt-out, that could have a huge impact on the advertising industry’s access to Apple’s notoriously more affluent user base.

“Arguably this change will have a bigger and more immediate impact on advertising businesses than Chrome's "cookie apocalypse" announcement in January as many business models and media dollars depend on the IDFA for their continued existence,” said Ari Paparo, CEO of Beeswax, a programmatic advertising SaaS provider. One consequence that Paparo noted is that there will be an immediate data impact when iOS 14 rolls out this fall, as all apps that have not updated compatibility and IDFA opt-out settings for the new OS will automatically have IDFA tracking turned off. 

It appears that the only option for attribution will be Apple’s SKAdNetwork, a privacy-focused test API that would allow ad networks to attribute installs directly from the App Store without relying on the IDFA. It’s worth noting that this method also effectively cuts out third-party attribution vendors. 

The attribution that SKAd provides is limited, comparatively speaking. According to this SKAd primer on AdExchanger, the available documentation shows that the API will only pass back basic aggregated, anonymised data, such as the ad network ID, campaign ID, and publisher name. There’s no personally identifiable information or device IDs passed along with the attribution notification. And campaign IDs are limited to 100 per ad network, which means a severe check on the level of detail available for tracking. “...advertisers will be practically blind,” said Oren Kaniel, CEO and co-founder of mobile attribution company AppsFlyer.

So there will be at least one IDFA alternative, but the attribution data it will provide will likely be less granular than what IDFA provided and third-party attribution vendors might take a big hit as well.

With No IDFA, Will Invoca Call Tracking Still Work on Apple Apps?

The short answer is that this will have very little if any impact on Invoca users. Invoca users typically track calls from mobile web and search activity, which does not have access to the IDFA anyway. This means that Invoca’s call tracking and conversational analytics functionality as it pertains to mobile web and search on iOS will not be affected.

While uncommon, it is possible to use Invoca dynamic numbers for call tracking in mobile apps. This is the specific use case that may be affected by the change. If the end-user doesn't opt-in to tracking, the IDFA will not be captured and the data cannot be associated with the dynamic phone number presented to the user in the app. While the device-specific data previously provided by the IDFA will no longer be available in this case, call tracking and any other accessible data points will continue to be supported.

So what does this mean for the specific use case of serving dynamic numbers in mobile apps? The limited access to the IDFA could affect some integrations. Integration partners, like Snap or LiveRamp, that use the IDFA as a match identifier to tie a call and call data to information in their respective systems will no longer have access to this data when app users opt-out.

While we all may experience some impacts of IDFA blocking, you will not meet any significant challenges in your use of Invoca. If you have any concerns, please contact your customer success representative. 

If you're interested in seeing Invoca in action, request your personalised demo of the platform.

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