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What’s Changed Post-iOS: Getting Back to Marketing Basics

The Future of Digital Marketing Post-iOS

To track or not to track—that is the question at the center of the current debate between two tech heavyweights. In one corner, Apple, whose iOS 14.5 and 15 rollouts this year gave users the power to opt out of sharing their data with third parties. In the other corner, Facebook, whose ad revenue is expected to suffer a body-blow from Apple’s new privacy features but who has positioned itself as the people’s champ of “the free internet.” At stake in this battle royale is Facebook’s bottom line, but also the viability of digital marketing. Apple’s decision brings the issue of who controls data—platforms or users—into the forefront of a dispute that extends beyond the iOS marketing ecosystem and alters many rules surrounding ecommerce, brand marketing, and the rights of digital consumers and citizens. Who’s ready to rumble?

Analysts expect that Apple’s anti-tracking initiative may result in a decline in customer-shared data of 10–70%. Considering that the iPhone commands roughly 50% of the US smartphone market, and that only 9% of iPhone users in the US have agreed to share their device identifiers, advertisers will need to adjust their digital tactics to connect with customers in this new era—or else go down flailing in the dark.

At Jacob Tyler, we recognize the weightiness of Apple’s decision, and we’ve dedicated a three-part blog series to examining its impact and proposing new strategies that marketers can adopt to succeed in the post-iOS world. Read on for the first part of that series—a look at how our lives have changed since Apple introduced iOS, and a rallying cry for advertisers to get back to the basics that inspired many of us to join this industry in the first place.

A Brief Chronicle of iOS

Remember BlackBerries? Our history of iOS begins in the bygone heyday of the BlackBerry. (Termed, at the time, the “CrackBerry” because of the business community’s addiction to it.) Time: January 9, 2007. Place: The Macworld keynote in San Francisco. Apple’s cash reserves were around $6 billion and the iPod was its most important product. When Steve Jobs introduced the first-generation, 4GB iPhone to the world, the CEO of Nokia dismissed it as a “cool phone” that, priced at $499, no one would buy.

Famous last words. Six months later, the iPhone was in stores, and Apple sold 1.39 million units in 2007. To date, they’ve sold more than one billion iPhones. On July 10, 2008, Apple launched the iOS App Store, which offered about 500 applications. Today that number is around 1.96 million. The $6 billion Apple had nearly 15 years ago has also grown exponentially: They’re now valued at over 2 trillion dollars, a market cap roughly equivalent to the GDP of countries like Canada, Italy, or Brazil.

The iPhone, in large part, drove that accumulation of wealth. Over the last twelve years, iPhone sales have usually accounted for close to half of Apple’s quarterly revenue worldwide. Data from this summer shows Apple ranking third behind Samsung and Xiaomi in units shipped and market share—and it’s reporting sluggard annual growth. Yet Apple remains the cool phone that’s still charging more than the competition, and studies from 2019 indicate that its profits keep it soaring high above all the other vendors in this market.

How iOS Changed the World

Returning to Apple’s now-composted rival fruit, the BlackBerry: The iPhone wasn’t the first smartphone, but it was the first to have a touchscreen interface, and it’s credited for launching the mobile revolution. 

Steve Jobs described it as “a breakthrough internet communications device,” and, in many ways, that’s why the iPhone represents a sea change in human communication. Alexander Graham Bell’s invention fit in your pocket, but not as a phone so much as a computer that connected you online and crunched entire industries into a 3.5-inch screen. Fourteen years after Jobs debuted the iPhone, let’s look back at all the changes that it has wrought:

 

  • Everyone’s plugged in.

Time was, people used to sink into novels deep into the night and feel no compunction waiting ten minutes to log onto the web. If you wanted to talk to somebody across town, you waited till they were home from work or school and called their landline. How quaint those times were. Today, we all seem to live inside Apple’s OS (“operating system”)—or, at least, our lives move at the speed of instant connectivity. Post-iPhone, we can reach anyone, anytime, anywhere. And now that work and home have merged in the COVID era, many of us are on a 24/7 hamster-wheel of replying to messages and doomscrolling through the news at all hours. (While also being cognizant that our impulse to check our social media amounts to serving ourselves a hit of dopamine that activates similar neural circuitry as slot machines or cocaine.) Spending a weekend with a novel, in retrospect, sounds like a luxury.

 

  • Advertising went digital.

While the internet killed—or at least maimed—journalism, it also remade advertising in its own image. The iPhone pushed everyone online round the clock, and marketing dollars followed them. Traditional advertising is now on the decline, while mobile advertising is expected to outpace desktop ad spend next year. Facebook and Google profited from all the time people spent on their phones, making the current showdown between Apple and Facebook all the more popcorn-munchingly “Et tu, Brute?”

 

  • So many industries collapsed.

We’ve mentioned the BlackBerry and the fifth estate, but the iPhone scythed down a range of other fields, as well. Maps, camcorders, scanners, game consoles, diaries, alarm clocks, answering machines, even the iPod—businesses sold all these things as individual items before the iPhone, which consolidated more tools with each model. (In 2016, Tim Cook even said, “We’re going to kill cash.”) At this point, you can use your iPhone to transfer money, check your lab results, post a selfie, find your way to your AirBNB on a foggy road, make a reservation at a restaurant, or time how long you can do a plank—all in the same day. The iPhone is many people’s all-in-one device, and one has to wonder if the phrase “Got your keys, wallet, cell phone?” will downsize to “Got your cell phone?”

 

  • Even gum got swallowed up.

To appreciate the power that iPhones exert over our attention spans, consider that the sale of gum has plummeted 15% since 2007. Gum makers slot their merchandise onto the shelves of checkout lanes to lure people who are standing around into making a small impulse purchase. But now we’re all on our phones—so intently that we don’t even have the time to look up and grab a packet of Spearmint.

The biggest change that iPhones introduced, though, may be our reconcepting of consumer privacy. The mobile revolution saw the rise of endless digital marketing innovations—UTM parameters, multi-touch attribution models, geofencing analytics, click-through and bounce rates. All that sounds fancy, but it mostly amounts to tracking users’ behavior online and selling their data without their express awareness. And now it seems that the day of reckoning for easy access to all that data is here.

The Push for Privacy

The specter of unease that has haunted digital advertising for years is the technical and moral problem of consumer privacy. The term that you need to know for this discussion is “Identifier for Advertisers”—or “IDFA,” shorthand for Apple’s anonymized unique identifier, which lets apps track users’ clicks, purchases, downloads, and so on. Those insights give marketers the data they need to personalize ads and measure the results of a campaign with precision. Proponents of IDFAs argue that they do the research for users. (Google “Best grills of 2021,” and you’ll get served with ads that may lead you to a grill you love.)

But Apple doesn’t seem to see it that way. In 2016, it gave its users the option to turn on “Limit Ad Tracking” functionality and zero out IDFAs. In 2020, it blocked all third-party cookies in Safari. Now, with the release of the iOS 14 system, Apple introduced its App Tracking Transparency (ATT) feature—an update that’s been popular, in part because it’s easy to control. ATT notifies users if apps want to access their IDFAs, and it gives them the power to tell those apps to bugger off with the tap of a button.

Lest you think that Tim Cook & Co. are privacy advocates crusading for the rights of their customers, bear in mind that ATT is a sucker-punch aimed at news outlets and fellow titans like Google—and especially Facebook. The effects of Apple’s iOS changes helped trigger a slump in Facebook’s stock in late September. Two weeks later, a former algorithm specialist at Facebook testified to Congress that the social media giant’s AI boosts content that’s violent or toxic or misleading to provoke a strong reaction in users. The New York Times ran a piece calling Facebook “a dying company.” The Atlantic likened it to “a hostile foreign power” and “a lie-disseminating instrument of civilizational collapse.” Oof.

This has been a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year for Facebook. But Apple’s decision has probably inflicted more damage on “Zuckerberg’s supranational regime” (another Atlantic dig) than any of its internal scandals. Facebook relies on user data to drive its ad platform, especially its pixel feature, which tracks conversations inside Facebook that marketers use to create retargeting campaigns. Without that data, the audience that advertisers can reach on Facebook will shrink, which means they’ll likely shift their budget into other channels. Which also means that Apple can position itself as the guardian of privacy while promoting its own advertising solutions—with new ad spots in the App store, and with language that defines “privacy” to its own advantage.

Apple may also be acting upon the realization that the world seems to be moving toward an attempt to safeguard consumer data. Google is expected to make its own privacy-first updates to the Android ecosystem. California and the EU have spearheaded similar initiatives. All these restrictions seem to point to a future where tracking at least isn’t as overt—shifting from aggregating individual psychographic profiles to analyzing patterns in group data-sets, as in differential privacy or federated learning.

The Shock of the New

The first reaction that many marketers may have to Apple’s updates is that they won’t last—or that workarounds exist to circumvent the rules. Facebook created a feature it calls “Aggregated Event Measurement,” which allows marketers to measure web events from iOS 14 devices, but limits domains to eight conversion events. A solution like this might provide advertisers with short-lived relief, but it mostly amounts to burying our heads in the shifting sands of the digital landscape. The game has changed. The platforms dictate how it’s played. The time has come to embrace innovation—which, paradoxically, often means returning to advertising fundamentals like creating original USPs and respecting your customers. So here are a few ideas that can help us all adapt to the iOS marketing changes for the long term:

 

  • Reintroduce yourself to your audience.

You gotta ask, ‘What were we thinking?’ Harvesting the data of our users without their consent? What a great way to set up a relationship for failure. Instead of being sneaky with people, be upfront about your tracking methods. Tell them about the pros and the cons. Give them the choice to opt out. Offer incentives in return for their information—discounts, sweepstakes prizes, email updates tailored to their search preferences. Send out surveys to get to know your audience on a one-to-one level. Craft your brand marketing to solve their problems rather than follow them around the internet spit-balling them with ads.

 

  • Make your messaging feel human.

Apple’s updates have stencilled forth the Ogilvy-Bernbach split that still weaves through the ad industry. Ogilvy said you had to measure the market. Bernbach said you had to create the market. Maybe we’ve gone into Ogilvy hyperdrive in the digital age, relying too much on identification technology and inundating the internet with milquetoast automated messaging. Without identifiers, you will lose some measuring accuracy, but you can supplant a lot of the benefits of marketing precision with copy and design that’s so powerful that people will remember it.

 

  • Put campaigns back on the macro level.

Don’t take that last point to imply that measuring doesn’t matter. The only way you’re gonna find out if a campaign worked is to measure it over time. But advertisers should consider broadening the measurement from models that study device use into marketing mix modeling (MMM)-style analyses that interpret the efficacy of a larger range of tactics—email, TV spots, internet ads, direct mail, trade promotions. MMMs draw on company data like revenue and ad spend, and they also generally measure traditional ad channels, providing a wider view of the funnel than an analysis of digital marketing and user behavior alone.

Siding with Consumers

The cookies are crumbling. The data is deprecated. Darkness has settled over Facebookland. The full impact of Apple’s iOS updates won’t be clear for years, but already it seems that brands that focus on nurturing relationships with their customers will thrive in this new era. Smaller companies that use targeted advertising to reach a niche audience, like many ecommerce brands, will face difficulties ahead. And with nearly three billion denizens currently residing in Facebookland—“the largest autocracy on Earth” (Atlantic again)—some of them are bound to still agree to let their data get collected. Our bet, though, is that businesses who cede control back to their customers will be better equipped to weather even more jarring changes than brands who stick to the old ways. 

Apple may also be selling consumers the illusion of taking ownership of their data rights. But let’s hope these changes one day help formalize a digital citizenry where privacy is protected.

That’s the first installment of our three-part blog series. Look out for Part II next week, where we untangle the differences between SMS and email in the post-iOS world.

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