SKAdNetwork could become the de facto way to attribute mobile app installs on Apple devices with the release of iOS 14 in September.
But when Apple first introduced its SKAdNetwork API in 2018, only a handful of industry insiders paid attention.
At the time, the low-key rollout of a privacy-focused test API that would allow ad networks to attribute installs directly from the App Store without relying on the IDFA – effectively cutting out third-party attribution vendors – felt like an academic exercise.
But the world looks a lot different now.
Apple did everything but deprecrate the IDFA at its most recent Worldwide Developers Conference in June. Starting with iOS 14, app developers will need to get consent before sharing the IDFA with their third-party monetization partners.
Apple’s IDFA is the primary identifier used for ad tracking and attribution on iOS. It’s hard to imagine users are going to opt in to be tracked for advertising purposes if given the choice.
And without the IDFA, SKAdNetwork is looking like the future of mobile app attribution rather than a footnote.
Here’s what we know about SKAdNetwork so far – and what we don’t.
Apple’s original API documentation two years ago was very light on detail, and pundits were skeptical that Apple would want to wade into the complexities of measuring ad effectiveness or to serve as a mediator between publishers, advertisers and ad networks.
But, unlike in 2018, Apple is actively recruiting ad networks to register and test out SKAdNetwork.
In the interim, Apple has also added in a bit more granularity to the API, said Gadi Eliashiv, CEO and co-founder of mobile marketing analytics company Singular, including data on which publisher is responsible for driving which install.
“That’s good news for smart marketers, because they can do publisher-level optimization,” Eliashiv said.
And when an ad click results in a conversion, aka an app download, the App Store is notified and sends a post-back ping with basic attribution parameters to the ad network.
But according to the available documentation, the API will only pass back basic aggregated, anonymized data, such as the ad network ID, campaign ID and publisher name, said Guido Crego, head of product at user acquisition platform Jampp.
There is 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.
There’s no view-through attribution and no information on impressions, creative, remarketing, in-app events, lookback windows, user lifetime value, ROI, retention or cohort analysis – “advertisers will be practically blind,” said Oren Kaniel, CEO and co-founder of mobile attribution company AppsFlyer.
Is that enough to replace the current setup? Not by a long shot, Kaniel said. “Proper attribution is about measuring the value for end users by providing insights into the customer lifecycle,” he said.
With far fewer optimization levers to pull, advertisers will have to lean heavily on A/B testing and contextual targeting instead of the user graphs and user-level data they’re used to, Crego said.
And developers will just have to roll with it, because, come September, there will be no other viable alternatives.
End of the road for MMPs?
At the top of the list of unknowns: What does SKAdNetwork mean for the mobile measurement partner (MMP) companies whose main role today is using device IDs to measure campaign performance?
“The MMPs become almost redundant,” said Maor Sadra, CEO and co-founder of incrementality startup INCRMNTAL.
MMPs are used to working with log-level data and without that, “what have they got?” said Mathieu Roche, CEO and co-founder of identity company ID5.
Eliashiv argues, however, that there’s still a lot of value in MMPs helping marketers aggregate their data across ad networks, in validating the post-backs that come into the ad networks via SKAdNetwork and in connecting that information to campaign spend data. Singular, for example, rolled out support for SKAdNetwork to help with all of those things.
“If you use four, five, six, 20 ad networks, that’s millions of notifications to Apple’s servers, and advertisers won’t want to trust the ad networks to validate themselves – someone needs to aggregate all of this data and verify it for them,” Eliashiv said.
Which is “a natural extension of what an MMP does, just using a different mechanism … although the fact that there’s no user-level data is painful for a lot of use cases,” he said. “Even so, it’s a complex universe and you can’t do this easily in house.”
Complex, indeed. Beyond what the future holds for app attribution providers, these are some of the SKAdNetwork-related head-scratchers that mobile pundits are mulling right now without much clarity coming from Apple:
Is SKAdNetwork vulnerable to fraud, and how will the API handle fraud?
Why not allow for creative IDs? (Sadra: “Does Apple think that creative doesn’t matter?!?!”)
What does the reporting look like? Will there be any sort of reporting dashboard?
Do ad networks have to meet any criteria before being allowed to test and use the API?
Will SKAdNetwork be based on last-click attribution? First-click? First-launch? There’s no information about the attribution method Apple plans to use.
And will Apple soon start cracking down on fingerprinting – notoriously imprecise and problematic from a privacy perspective – for mobile attribution? You can bet on it. “There’s no way Apple will leave this loophole open,” Sadra said. “Fingerprinting has been a terrible solution and will remain a terrible solution.” (Stay tuned?)