Apple’s annual Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) for years has served as a flashy opportunity for the tech giant to showcase its latest and greatest consumer-centric updates, the latest installment this June no exception. However, as a tightened privacy landscape continues to take shape, the topic of data collection on Apple’s itinerary has often stoked anxiety for marketers.
Undoubtedly at the center of this year’s WWDC was the unveiling of Apple’s long-anticipated mixed-reality headset, Apple Vision Pro, which has already garnered a sea of feedback — including criticism of its hefty $3,500 price tag — ahead of its official rollout early next year. The company also revealed its latest software update, iOS 17, set to be released in September, that boasts a new level of personalization for apps like Phone, Messages and FaceTime.
Beneath the buzz of features like Live Voicemail, Contact Posters and a new mindfulness app, Apple also indicated that it is hunkering down further on efforts to limit the ability to access consumer data. With iOS 17, the company will remove URL tracking parameters from links accessed in its Mail and Messages apps along with removing them from Safari Private Browsing, a move that could make it more difficult for marketers to accurately follow the consumer journey.
“Companies are understanding now that consumers want their privacy, they want to take back their data,” said Rae Guimond, director of strategy and business development at PriceSpider, a brand commerce platform with retail network partners including Amazon, Target and Kroger.
For years, advertisers have been able to use URL tracking parameters as a way to follow consumers across multiple websites after they click a single link, unlocking data that could help inform a targeting strategy. But with Apple’s new Link Tracking Protection feature, user-identifiable information will be stripped from URLs accessed within Safari Private Browsing, Messages and Mail, while the links will still continue to function as expected for consumers.
In addition to making it tougher for marketers to understand specific audiences, Link Tracking Protection could make for a challenge when it comes to thoroughly measuring campaign success, tasking those reliant on that data to strategize ways to fill the holes, Guimond said. Marketers have had to repeatedly pivot in recent years while contending with Apple privacy changes like iOS 14.5, which notably introduced App Tracking Transparency, and iOS 15, which dramatically altered the ability for email marketers to track open rates.
Meanwhile, Google has similarly been ironing out privacy changes, namely its planned phaseout of third-party cookies in Chrome, an effort slated to begin in Q1 of 2024. As the phaseout approaches, the giant has explored a handful of initiatives, including its Privacy Sandbox API, a space meant to help advertisers identify cookie-free ad solutions, and the rollout of Google Analytics 4 (GA4), its new data measurement property that it describes as the “next generation of analytics.”
“Brands have been talking about, where does the line stop with the sort of deprecating or removal of third-party cookies?” Guimond said. “And I think we all suspected that it would go a bit further — I think now we're at kind of that bit-further point.”
Apple is helping advertisers deal with the upcoming change by extending its Private Click Measurement solution, a privacy focused alternative for tracking ad attribution, to make it available for Safari Private Browsing. Guimond also noted that, while there hasn’t been a confirmation, it seems that Apple isn’t stripping UTM codes from URLs. UTM codes are small clips of text added to a URL that advertisers have often used to measure campaign attribution without identifying individual users.
“If that's the case, that's a good thing for brands and marketers … but I think the issue comes with how [they will] look at continued personalization if they're missing some of those other data points that they might have gotten from the third-party cookies,” Guimond said.
Measuring the impact
Some marketers are already preparing for the rollout of Link Tracking Protection, looking deeper into the details to understand how it could play into business. From the lens of an email marketer, Apple’s announcement at first glance ushered in similar concerns raised with iOS 15, said Brian McKenna, vice president of CRM at Philadelphia-based agency DMi Partners.
“Going back to iOS 15, we saw that [it] did have a dramatic or a big impact on the email space, largely bringing a ton of noise to the concept of opens,” McKenna said. “So I think when iOS 17 was announced, we were worried that we were going to see a similar impact, but with clicks.”
However, if Link Tracking Protection functions at its official release as it currently does in beta, McKenna feels confident that its impacts on email marketing won’t be devastating, a conclusion informed by analyzing a public report — not confirmed by Apple — that is suspected to contain the specific URL parameters that the new tool will search for and remove. Of the handful of parameters identified, which include the click IDs for Google and Facebook, none are currently being used by DMi’s clients for email marketing, and if they were, there are workarounds that could help gather the same insights, he said.
For other aspects of marketing, like paid search, certain click IDs could be more valuable, but it’s important to remember that the removal of URL parameters in Safari will only happen within links accessed on private browsers, impacting a smaller data subset that already comes with its own set of challenges, McKenna added.
“Today, I think our team that manages these types of campaigns, they probably wouldn’t expect necessarily to get full transparency for people that are in private browsing mode anyway,” he said.
Only time will reveal the full implications that Link Tracking Protection will have on advertising, but regardless, any further tightening of consumer privacy is bound to have an impact, Guimond said. To get ahead of the curve, the exec recommends that marketers prioritize gaining consumers’ consent to collect first-party data, if they aren’t already doing so.
Additionally, Guimond recommends that marketers review existing processes to see how often third-party data is being utilized and strategize how to fill those gaps through workshopping efforts like a strengths, weakness, opportunities and threats (SWOT) analysis. Perhaps most importantly, marketers should approach ongoing privacy shifts with an open mind.
“It’s like a test and learn, if anything, just like with technology updates, brands need to test and learn and be flexible and agile, and that has been the case for the last three years,” she said.