How Apple Stopped Tracking (And Why You Shouldn’t Worry)

Shockwave Solutions LLC
4 min readNov 16, 2021

Back in April, with the launch of iOS 14.5, Apple took a major step towards user privacy, becoming one of the first tech companies to automatically disable certain kinds of tracking for users. Following the update, advertisers were no longer allowed to capture data associated with a unique ID (like an iPhone’s serial number or a user’s email address), without the explicit consent of the user.

Understandably, leading up to the rollout, marketers were worried about the potential ramifications of the change. Being able to target a specific demographic is essential in marketing, and in the Direct Response field, it can make the difference between total success and complete failure.

However, there was never a real reason for most marketers to worry about the rollout. Here’s why the change is both less extreme than you might think — and a potential revenue source, rather than a threat to your bottom line:

Why Tracking Was Never Accurate

One of the most common and dangerous assumptions in digital; marketing is the idea that the marketing platforms you use give you completely accurate, reliable information. This just isn’t the case. Famously, Facebook vastly inflated video view counts for years, eventually providing a $40 million settlement to plaintiffs who alleged the platform inflated views by up to 900%.

When it comes to demographic targeting, inaccuracies are even more inevitable. While a platform like Facebook may have more-or-less accurate information about a user’s gender, age, and location, the rest is basically guesswork. Other ad platforms like Google have even less real data to base their assumptions on.

Of course, every platform’s assumptions are made by various algorithms, aiming to transform the user signals they receive into a comprehensive portrait of the individual user. While the amount of data these platforms receive means that they’re often able to make fairly accurate guesses, there’s still a vast, unsolvable, and often ignored difference between the user and their marketing profile.

Consider the following: you see something in the news about a musician you’ve never heard of, and Google their name. While you have no interest in the musician, your action is more or less indistinguishable from a committed fan checking up on the artist in question.

This can quickly build up into a bizarre distortion of your actual interests. If you’ve got a Facebook account, just scroll through your feed until you find a bizarrely out of place ad — it likely won’t take long. Some part of some targeting algorithm latches onto a phrase you’ve said, a video that autoplayed too long, and decides that you are interested in a specific topic. For months, the adverts in my news feed were almost exclusively for theme park reviews, something I’ve never expressed any interest in.

As a marketer, this creates an obvious problem. I don’t want to spend money on people who I don’t think will be interested in my products or services. While targeted advertising is sold on the idea that algorithms can remove irrelevant traffic, it’s really not that accurate.

Case in point: while I was working for a client exclusively targeting men, I noticed that Google Analytics estimated about 30% of all visitors were women — and that they had a vastly higher conversion rate. If this was accurate, we’d have to rethink everything from the beginning. Of course, rather than immediately trust the data, I ran a survey, finding that just under 1% of our audience were women: everything else was just an algorithm coming to the wrong conclusion.

So, as a first step, reconsider your demographic targeting — have you verified your audience, or have you just been trusting what the platforms tell you?

How to Succeed With Untracked Customers

After the iOS rollout, users needed to explicitly opt-in to allow any app to track their behavior. There’s a reason most marketers think that means the end to tracking on Apple devices — according to a survey ran in May, a full 96% of iOS users chose not to opt in to tracking, leaving just 4% available.

In other words, the vast majority of users didn’t want to see targeted advertising, and the margin is clear enough that you can expect other tech companies to follow Apple’s lead.

Again, this isn’t anywhere near as catastrophic as it may seem. Not being able to rely on the demographic data presented by ad platforms doesn’t mean you need to give up demographic targeting altogether — it’s actually an opportunity to get more accurate. Run demographic-focused surveys, split test interest-related marketing.

Don’t just write iOS users off. The message is clear — this is going to happen to most of your traffic in the future. Get ahead of the curve, so you can make key gains now, rather than leaving it until it’s too late to make a difference.

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