The Privacy Challenge: Strategies for Post-IDFA Mobile User Acquisition

Mobile app marketing, one of the youngest online marketing niches, is undergoing the most extensive privacy shift. There is a good reason for that. The amount of data one can collect from a mobile device is far higher than any other device. In effect, these shifts are profoundly changing the state of mobile user acquisition. 

The years where marketers were on the lookout for (but actually postponing) privacy-compliant user acquisition techniques had finally caught upon us. After Apple announced IDFA (Identifier for Advertisers) changes, news outlets were spreading panic with fatalistic and apocalyptic headlines. A year after the initial announcement, the iOS 14.5 got released this April.

Wit it, we have entered the highly anticipated privacy-first era of mobile advertising.

And here we are, still standing. The mobile advertisement on iOS still exists and, with it – mobile user acquisition campaigns. What has changed is the techniques and technologies used to reach the goal.

For a successful user acquisition campaign, marketers need a way to track and attribute conversions. At the same time, efficient targeting technology saves you a lot of ad dollars by serving ads to your predefined audiences.

The IDFA experiment can shine a light on how these user acquisition prerequisites will function in a privacy-oriented future. Let us dig in.

What is Mobile User Acquisition 

Mobile user acquisition (UA) starts with a question of every app developer after their app gets published on the app store. How can I obtain users that would install and use my app? 

User acquisition is an advertising technique that focuses on the so-called performance goals: installs, purchases, and so forth. On the opposite side, brand marketing is the technique that emphasizes brand building. Its primary focus is on the metrics such as the number of impressions or ad recall rate. 

To illustrate, an app marketer that runs Facebook ads to increase awareness of his app would be a brand marketer. On the other hand, if they would use Facebook ads to grow the number of engaged customers, they would count as a performance marketer. 

Understanding User Acquisition on Mobile 

User acquisition is an umbrella term for wide-ranging practices that yield more customers to promoted app. We can broadly categorize them into two categories: organic and paid. Intertwined as they are, the first focuses on optimizing content, while the latter is all about running ads through media buying. 

Compared to its counterpart – desktop – mobile user acquisition is a distinctive practice. Where desktop marketer says search engine optimization (SEO), the mobile marketer responds with app store optimization (ASO). 

When it comes to paid UA, the difference between mobile and desktop lies in tracking, targeting, and attribution. On the desktop, we use cookies. On the other side, we use identifiers and mobile measuring partners (MMPs) on mobile. 

Mobile is a data-rich environment. Advertisers can track which source brings them – not only the most users – but also the most valuable users. A performance marketer can see the number of users acquired through Facebook that have, for example, reached level 10 on their mobile game. 

As pioneers of mobile performance marketing, we have seen drastic mobile UA changes throughout its lifetime. And the recent change on iOS is the latest one in the row. 

Privacy is Changing Mobile Advertising Landscape 

Let us go back to the comparison between desktop and mobile environments. On desktop, every webmaster (located in the EU) is obliged to implement the cookie banner on their website. The banner’s function is to give the user control over their data, no matter how annoying you find it. Hey, at least they do not make us click on all the fire hydrants. 🙂 

Instead of cookies, mobile uses something called device identifier. The device identifier (iOS uses IDFA, Android uses GAID) is a unique string of numbers issued by the device manufacturer.

You have one stored on your mobile device. Upon each app download and installation, the app developer receives your identifier. As a consequence, they can attribute the install to its source (e.g. Facebook, Google, sureyield, and so on). 

Simultaneously the identifier stores your historical and demographical data. A biking app targeting males interested in biking will rely on the device identifier. 

But device identifier is a piece of personal identifiable information (PII). And linking PII with your behavioural/ demographical data is no longer permitted without explicit user consent.

With the iOS 14.5 update, iPhone devices obtained a mobile equivalence to a cookie banner. Upon opening a new app, a pop-up will ask you to allow the app to track your activity.

Clicking “disallow tracking” would (without any additional solution) leave mobile marketers in the complete dark. With Google moving in the same direction on Android, mobile user acquisition would be heading towards its imminent death.

This is a new status quo in Apple’s mobile universe. Early data on user opt-in rates are inconclusive, but it is safe to say a whole bulk of users will click decline. So are all the years of mastering data-driven solutions going to waste? 

Conquering Mobile User Acquisition Without Personal Identifiable Information (PII) 

The online advertising industry is heading towards privacy-oriented practices, protecting user personal identifiable information. In effect, tracking, targeting, and attribution of mobile users all need a profound change. 

Tracking and Attribution 

To attribute an app install, advertisers on the open web need mobile measurement partners (MMPs). They act as an intermediary that tracks user interaction with an ad. When a user clicks on a mobile ad and completes an action (e.g., purchase), the MMP attributes it back to its source. 

That means that when you run a cost-per-action (CPA) campaign through us, MMP will be able to attribute those users back to us. Effectively, advertisers can evaluate their campaigns and determine which should be (dis)continued.

The new ATT framework (developed by Apple), disrupts this practice for the opted-out users. But that is not the end of attribution per se. Apple has crafted a solution called SKAdNetwork. 

That is a serious topic that deserves your immediate attention. We have already discussed what this means for mobile user acquisition. By following these four steps, advertisers can adapt to the new reality and continue acquiring users on iOS devices. 

Targeting Requires a State-of-the-Art Technology That Respects User Privacy 

On the other side, Apple has not offered a solution that replaces precise targeting previously supported by IDFA. Advertisers looking to show ads to relevant audiences are on their own. 

A large chunk of mobile user acquisition is done on programmatic exchanges. Since most of them work on a cost-per-mile (CPM) pricing model (more adequate for branding campaigns), their ability of precise targeting is the most valuable benefit for performance marketers. 

When the advertisers are blind, they can spend thousands of ad dollars on random audiences that yield no conversions. That is in neither advertiser’s, nor the user’s interest. And in the end, the privacy shift is looking after the best interest of end-users.

Users face a dilemma this eMarketer’s poll has captured perfectly. They have concerns with the way data is collected and stored but simultaneously, they desire personalised experiences. In other words, they want the benefits of targeted advertising, without exposing their online identity. 

The walled gardens like Facebook and Google have issued their solutions. On the other side, the programmatic real-time bidding (RTB) exchanges need to develop their own. 

Introducing On-Device Audience Targeting Solution for Mobile Marketers 

The pioneering solution for privacy-preserving targeting was created by our sister company Verve Group. They have developed a unique way to organize users into audience segments useful for advertisers. 

ATOM (Anonymous Targeting on Mobile) gathers and analyses all available (non-PII) data points from the app and the user’s device. For starters, ATOM gathers information such as device type, location, OS. ATOM also analyses advanced data, for example, accelerometer, to determine if a person is still or moving. These data points are further amplified by contextual data – the context of the ad placement. ATOM can determine, for example, that a person is playing an action game and they are on a winning streak. 

When combined, these data points segment a particular user into a wider audience segment. The best part of it is, this data is safely stored on the user’s device.

Anonymized targeting is the only future-proof strategy that will allow mobile marketers to target their desired audience and fine-tune their performance campaigns. Leveraging this solution, our team can continue hitting advertisers’ key performance indicators (KPIs) when they decide to run UA campaigns on an RTB environment. 

Leverage Our Holistic Mobile Performance Marketing Solution 

Apple did not kill data-driven user acquisition. They accelerated the switch towards privacy-oriented solutions. And we believe that is a good thing. In the end, users will reward transparent companies that adhere to data protection rules with greater trust and thus strengthen brand loyalty. 

There is no way of avoiding it, as we can expect more privacy-related changes in the online advertising landscape. A marketer’s task is to prepare for the new practices and possibilities of mobile user acquisition. 

Holistic performance marketing partners allow advertisers to pay for users that bring value to them. Instead of paying for ad impressions, you can pay only for customers you deem valuable (e.g. customers who complete the first purchase). This risk-free solution continues to be an integral part of every mobile marketer’s marketing mix. 

When you decide to partner up with us, you can leverage our extensive publisher network or expert media buyers. 

Our publisher network has always been privacy-preserving and will continue to bring desired results to advertisers. Together with our publishers, we are compliant with the SKAN solution and will continue to monitor the evolution of other mobile environments. 

Other advertisers are looking to acquire users through social, native, RTB, or similar platforms. With over 20 years of experience, our media buying team delivers outstanding results on the channel of your choice. With the recent deployment of the ATOM solution, we are well versed and prepared for the future of mobile user acquisition. 

Are you ready to grow your customers on mobile? Then reach out, and schedule a chat with a member of our crew that lives in your area. 

Applift is a leading mobile ad tech company that empowers businesses by creating the next-generation platform for advertisers to reach and convert their audiences on mobile.