It’s been two years since Apple first announced the release of iOS 14 at its Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) in June 2020, and more than a year since its release to the public on September 16, 2021. From the initial announcement until the rollout of iOS 14.5 in April 2021, the mobile marketing industry was sent into overdrive and pushed to reassess the way it handles user privacy and its approach to the mobile advertising ecosystem in general.

At Adjust, we’ve remained at the forefront of these changes, working closely with Apple and our partners and clients to make the transition as seamless as possible and to provide guidelines and solutions that serve the needs of marketers, developers, and advertisers. Mobile Measurement Partners are still essential to mobile marketers. The definition of ‘measurement’ and how we deliver value has simply evolved. It’s no longer just about a strict focus on attribution and deterministic data but complex analysis of aggregated data.

With the announcement of iOS 16 and this year’s WWDC right around the corner (June 6 - 10), we want to reiterate our commitment to investing in next-generation solutions that align with the privacy-centric evolution of the market — moving away from solutions that focus on individual data points and towards optimizing insights for aggregated data.

From understanding SKAdNetwork and AppTrackingTransparency (ATT) to best practices for getting the opt-in, building conversion value schemas, and creating marketing strategies that perform best in the post-IDFA world, there are a lot of topics and themes to cover. We’re also happy to report that consent rates are consistently climbing as marketers are able to communicate the benefits of opting-in.

The industry is becoming increasingly privacy-centric, and Adjust embraces these measures to ensure user privacy and data protection. In this guide, we put a lens on the changes from iOS 14.5+ to iOS 16, the significance for the industry, and how Adjust is adapting to deliver value to clients. We examine the ins and outs of working with SKAdNetwork and provide a holistic breakdown to ensure that marketers are up to speed with everything they need to know.

Part 1

iOS 14 and the initial release: What was all the fuss about?

Up until the release of iOS 14.5, Apple had allowed each device to have a unique and resettable identifier, which was accessible to all apps downloaded on that device. The option to limit ad measurement was available in the settings of an Apple device, but most users didn’t know, or didn’t bother. This ID, the Identifier for Advertisers (IDFA) could be used by marketers to measure clicks and compare them to installs, which mobile measurement partners (MMPs) were then able to attribute. Iterations of this, starting with the Unique Device Identifier (UDID) had been in place since 2008 — the switch to the IDFA took place in 2012.

The mobile ecosystem has since developed and evolved, however, along with user knowledge of it. Concerns about data privacy and how data is accessed and managed was and is a  growing theme among users (and legislators). This has led to regulations like the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), which brought in new rules about how data must be respected and processed in those jurisdictions.

While the app industry continued to thrive alongside these changes, Apple’s announcement at WWDC 2020 that access to the IDFA would be contingent on gaining user consent via a pop-up garnered a much more severe reaction from the mobile marketing industry. While the impact has not been as catastrophic as some early predictions indicated, and despite user privacy having already been top-of-mind in the industry, it certainly caused a seismic shift in how we’re fundamentally able to approach attribution and measurement.

Important: Although ATT was initially announced in 2020, it wasn’t until the release of iOS 14.5 in April 2021 that it was actually enforced.

This change meant that attribution as it was understood for many apps and app marketers would be significantly impacted and that the way they had been measuring user acquisition could no longer be guaranteed. Essentially, there are two attribution and ad measurement approaches that can now be leveraged on iOS: The ATT framework that manages access to the IDFA with user consent, and SKAdNetwork. If consent is acquired, those users can be measured and attributed in the same way as before the iOS 14.5 rollout, but for those who don’t, working with SKAdNetwork is crucial, and requires a completely different mindset and approach to how we gather and process information about users.

Part 2

What do these privacy changes mean for marketers and the industry as a whole?

From an industry perspective, these changes represent an ongoing shift toward an ecosystem centered around user privacy. Apple states that privacy is a fundamental human right, and they design their products based on this principle. Adjust wholeheartedly supports this framework and is working together with Apple, our clients, and our industry to ensure complete user privacy and respect for people’s decisions regarding their data.

What this means for marketers, however, is a potential lack of precision and accuracy in user acquisition (UA), attribution, and campaign performance. This is simply because advertisers have less visibility into user level data and campaign metrics. UA with the IDFA relies on precise campaign data that gives marketers visibility over performance, empowering decisions around which channels to invest their budget in, and how to optimize performance. There are usually specific KPIs like Day 0/Day 1 retention, user LTV, ROI, and ROAS. Marketers working with this model often operate within thin margins regarding where they invest budgets, and how to scale may come down to a matter of a few percentage points. SKAdNetwork prevents this level of insight simply because the aforementioned KPIs aren’t supported. This makes understanding which channels to focus on complex in an ecosystem where mobile performance marketing had previously made it relatively automated and straightforward, and instead pivots attention onto how essential UA managers are post-IDFA.

Advertisers who get high opt-in rates are still able to have a good understanding of their KPIs per campaign and can optimize efficiently, as all tools and means of measurement they’re familiar with can be leveraged. Also, the better your opt-in rates, the more data you have to work with to deterministically work with non-consented data.

The rest of the inventory that is tracked via SKAdNetwork is more complicated to measure and manage. Let’s take a look at how this impacts the three most common monetization models: in-app advertising, in-app purchases, and subscriptions.

  • In-app advertising
    There are two main types of ads, contextual and targeted. Contextual, or non-targeted ads, are less specific, while targeted ads are served to specific users — based on their IDFA. They’re more expensive, but they offer higher conversion rates, making them the more popular choice generally speaking. Naturally, on iOS 14.5+, if a user hasn’t opted in, their IDFA is not available, and they can’t be served targeted ads. This is why some users have noted seeing more ads since opting out. Many publishers are serving an increased number of ads to make up for revenue lost from lack of access to contextual targeting.
  • In-app purchases & subscriptions
    Users pay for in-app goods or services in a wide variety of apps, such as when buying gold or coins in a gaming app, unlocking premium features in a health and fitness or productivity app, or signing up for a subscription to a service. Here, iOS 14.5+ doesn’t have a direct impact on revenue, but the lack of attribution for opted-out users makes it difficult for advertisers to measure the success of campaigns, or to understand where high LTV and top-performing users are coming from.

Advertising has not stopped on iOS, and it won’t stop. There will always be users to acquire. This is why we have built support for ATT and SkadNetwork, and we are happy to offer solutions that focus on campaign optimization and actionable metrics. We want to empower our clients to continue to focus on growth.

Privacy and data protection are central to the mobile advertising industry, and Adjust recommends that advertisers pursue a holistic approach to acquisition, attribution, and measurement on iOS 14.5+, leveraging the ATT framework to obtain as much user-level, consent-based data possible to use in conjunction with the SKAdNetwork framework.

Part 3

AppTrackingTransparency, user consent, and the opt-in

As we covered above, it's the lack of access to the IDFA that causes the headache when it comes to attribution and campaign measurement on iOS 14.5+. Apple’s ATT is the framework that allows ad targeting and measurement once a user has opted-in or granted consent to tracking. The more users you have consenting, the bigger your pool of efficiently measurable data will be. Moreover, these users can receive targeted advertising and the data can be used to inform strategies for conversion values, predictive analytics, and SKAdNetwork campaigns.

The most accurate data in a post-iOS 14 world starts with a robust opt-in strategy — prioritizing user consent is not the only pillar of success, but it is key. It not only minimizes disruption, it delivers significant competitive advantages. While the more users you have consented the better, even a relatively low opt-in rate or percentage of opted-in users can prove pivotal to success.

With a higher opt-in rate, marketers are able to receive more deterministic data points—and it’s these data points that then help inform the logic of machine learning algorithms that our modeling experts are developing and refining. This is essential for teams wanting to work with predictive KPIs like pLTV, which helps anticipate growth opportunities within aggregated collections of SKAdNetwork and consented user data. The more deterministic data insights that can be gained, the more robust the pLTV results will be.

When working with our clients to help develop top opt-in strategies and flows and to incorporate optimizing for the opt-in as part of an overall UX strategy, there are a few top themes we identified. These are the variables that have the biggest impact on influencing a user’s response to an ATT pop-up.

  • Location: Pinpointing the precise moment to serve the opt-in request is the top factor to define. We’ve identified that it is usually best to display the prompt during the onboarding flow.
  • Messaging: Pre-permission prompts that cue the ATT framework prompt mean the Apple pop-up will feel more natural. Use 2-3 short sentences to emphasize the benefits of opting-in. Also, although the first sentence in the ATT prompt itself can’t be customized, we highly recommend adapting the second string. This is another opportunity to address any concerns about data privacy, and to highlight the benefits of opting in.
  • Size: Users typically respond to pre-permission prompts that are full screen, as opposed to modals. This is because the former offers a more seamless user experience, while the latter can feel like an interruption.
  • Button placement: The placement of your call-to-action (CTA) button is an easy lift. Buttons with simple text, placed next to each other horizontally, with the positive acceptance on the right hand side, yield the best results.

In addition to building a fully optimized opt-in strategy, it’s also crucial to define an overall UX strategy that the opt-in is simply part of, and to continually test. Once a UX approach regarding when, where, and how you prompt users to give consent is designed and integrated, the work isn’t quite done. That’s why we advocate for continued, rigorous testing, including A/B testing and randomized controlled experiments.

Part 4

iOS 14.5+ and working with SKAdNetwork

For users who don’t opt-in, Apple’s SKAdNetwork, a combination of SDK functions and API calls, is the solution that marketers can turn to for attribution of app installs and reinstalls. Free for advertisers to use, Apple’s goal with SKAdNetwork is to provide basic, privacy-focused attribution, and it doesn’t require user consent because Apple designed it within their privacy guidelines. The attribution information from SKAdNetwork is relayed from the device, to Apple, and then to ad networks, developers, and mobile measurement partners (MMPs) like Adjust. Clients can implement SKAdNetwork on their own, or with Adjust’s help. It’s important to note that even when integrated with Adjust, it’s Apple that performs the attribution in this scenario, while Adjust takes care of aggregating the data.

SKAdNetwork provides space for 6-bits of downstream metrics, a number between 0 and 63 (or between 000000 and 111111 in binary), with an initial 24-hour timer. Otherwise known as a conversion value this can be assigned to any value that can be expressed in binary, and it’s up to apps to decide which events they want to include. Every time the conversion value is updated to a fresh six-bit code defined within the app, the timer gets extended by an additional 24 hours. Once this conversion value-window expires, a second 24-hour window is triggered for attribution. The idea behind this is to obfuscate the time of install, making it impossible to link event triggers to individual users. This data is then shared by the SKAdNetwork in the aggregate, with no granular, user-level data accessible.

Put a little more simply, conversion values are a number between 0-63, used for measuring up to six events using the bit logic. Each conversion value is linked to specific conditions, which can then be unpacked into meaningful KPIs for reporting.

To make the most of this system, advertisers and marketers need to work thoroughly within the first 24 hours, leveraging all data possible to paint a clear picture of user behavior, from which projections and segments can be identified. It’s not just about acquisition, it’s about understanding what user behaviors in that first 24-hour window can tell us about what they might do later. For many apps, this means a complete rewriting and restrategizing regarding the events they focus on, as they may, for example, have been tracking events for up to seven days, which is not possible on SKAdNetwork.

How a conversion value strategy is set up is key to success on SKAdNetwork. We’ll get into how Adjust supports clients in understanding and building their conversion value schemas (both event-based and value-based) below, and how marketers and developers can identify which solution is suitable for their app.

Part 5

iOS 16 and the latest updates

The huge changes to attribution and tracking of post-install events on iOS came with the announcement of iOS 14 and the release of iOS 14.5 and ATT. And while it was not nearly as industry-defining as its predecessor, iOS 15 (released in September 2021) presented a few key changes and further developments in Apple’s steps toward further user privacy.

As of release, copies of “winning” SKAdNetwork postbacks (the attribution call when an app install occurs) can also now be sent to developers, not only to ad networks. This change was welcomed by the industry and understood to be providing developers with more transparency over their data, giving access from install to post-install.

Private Relay was one of the most interesting announcements from a mobile advertising perspective. Designed to prevent the tracking of iOS users on Safari, Private Relay in its current form redirects all network traffic through its servers and hides the user IP address, meaning they can’t be tracked and that user profiles can’t be built. Some rumors are indicating that Apple could switch Private Relay on by default at some point, meaning that all SDK traffic will be routed through it, a move that would further complicate the process of gaining insight into users and campaign performance. We’ll be keeping a close eye on the announcement and any other changes that may be announced to ensure we remain at the forefront of privacy-centric solutions that drive growth.

Mail Privacy Protection was also rolled out, a feature that allows Apple Mail users to hide their IP address and location, and to anonymize the tracking of email opens. If these options are toggled on, access to information like email opens is no longer available to marketers. Hide My Email is another privacy-related feature that will allow users to mask their email with a generated one when completing any online form.

Aimed at helping to improve UA strategies and campaign performance, another interesting iOS 15 feature is Custom Product Pages and Product Page Optimization. Marketers and developers create custom pages on the app store that can be targeted and optimized for up to 35 individual user segments and then linked to relevant UA campaigns.

Part 6

Adjust’s solutions: How we’re supporting these changes

Adjust’s goal in working with clients on iOS 14.5+ is to empower data-driven decision-making. We want our clients to comprehensively understand and have confidence in their marketing strategies on SKAdNetwork and working on iOS in general. We enable our clients and partners to continue leveraging powerful user-level data without violating end-users’ privacy with our three-pronged approach to the iOS 14.5+ ecosystem.

Since the announcement of these privacy changes in July 2020, Adjust has continually taken steps to ensure minimum disruption for our clients, all of whom have been informed by our privacy-first mindset and guidelines, with the goal of making sure that they are empowered to thrive. Our conversion model, which we’re building and testing with current clients, our conversion value solutions, and our comprehensive SKAdNetwork solution delivers access to a blend of raw and aggregated data that safeguards and promotes continued growth. The three pillars through which we achieve this are:

  1. Convert: Users to consented users
    Your most accurate data starts with a robust opt-in strategy. Maximize user consent with our opt-in best practices to minimize disruption and gain a competitive advantage by continuing to receive user-level data with the AppTrackingTransparency framework.
  2. Compute: Data points into actionable insights
    Our conversion model computes your consented data points to accurately project performance for non-consented data. Our solution can take deterministic data points from opted-in users and leverage it to drive performance for your entire data set and user base.
  3. Collect: Insights with transparency
    Our free SKAdNetwork solution provides extensive flexibility with transparency into how the data you’ve collected is used. Marketers can customize the way their data is visualized with charts in Adjust’s SKAdNetwork dashboard in Datascape, or with any tool of choice.

Prioritizing a strategy to maximize user consent is key to post-iOS 14.5+ success because it not only minimizes disruptions, it makes long-term strategizing and allocation of budget more straightforward. With your consented, deterministic data, you can continue to make marketing decisions with confidence. And while the more consented users you have the better, even a relatively low opt-in rate can prove crucial to success. This is why we stress the importance of a strong opt-in strategy — and the data points you can gather are key to delivering performance results from your non-consented users.

Any model used for forecasting or projection is only as powerful and precise as the data you feed it. If you feed your model only a few aggregated, anonymized data points, your model will be inherently less accurate than if you fed it defined user-level data.

All Adjust iOS 14.5+ solutions are included for free as part of any existing package, and we do not charge for users who opt-out. For full SKAdNetwork support, make sure you have our latest SDK in your app. Recent updates include support for the new AdService Framework for Apple Search Ads attribution. Our SDK has always been open-source for ultimate transparency, and you can find it on GitHub here.

Part 7

Adjust’s solutions: Conversion value schemas and features for flexibility

We offer four models and methods to leverage conversion values:

  • Conversion Events: Based on the linking of distinct SKAdNetwork events to each of the 6 available bits, for maximum transparency into which events were triggered and in which combination.
  • Revenue: Leverages all 64 conversion values available by allowing you to map your preferred revenue type condition to an individual conversion value.
  • Advanced Setup: Where you can map events, ad revenue, and purchase data to gain greater insight into how users interact with your app post-install—and can take advantage of all 64 available conversion values by creating highly customized combinations.
  • CSV Upload: Create your conversion value configuration with your own tools and upload them as a CSV.

In short, the Conversion Events conversion value schema/model links six distinct events to specific conversion values, providing full visibility into the primary post-install KPIs within your SKAdNetwork dataset. In the example below, you can see that a user signs up, executes an in-app purchase, and then completes a tutorial. The bit that corresponds to each event updates after each of these actions and returns a conversion value that tracks all of the events.

The Revenue and Advanced schemas follow a different approach, giving full command of conversion value management by enabling the power to leverage all 64 values provided in the SKAdNetwork conversion postback. With this method, rather than simply reading the binary status of an event (done or not done), the Adjust backend can analyze a range of events and revenue events post install, and based on this increases the conversion value on the app side accordingly. Clients can track events, sessions, in-app revenue and ad revenue, or any combination. The app specific conversion value configuration, or the rules defined for each single conversion value, are validated against the tracked behavior and on match trigger the related conversion value update on app side. By offering various measurement types on a single conversion value level, we enable you to not only build commonly known conversion value models, but allow you to create very advanced configurations that are specifically tailored to your needs and the post install behavior of your users.

Regardless of the chosen conversion value solution on the reporting side of SKAdNetwork data, we take each SKAdNetwork postback and translate its conversion value back into meaningful, easy to understand metrics in the dashboard, where they’re translated back into events.


iOS 16 and the path forward

The changes brought about by Apple’s privacy updates and rollout of iOS 14.5+ have been industry defining, but they have not been as severe for user acquisition or attribution as many people expected. As an industry leader, we understand that iOS and Apple (as well as our entire ecosystem) are constantly evolving. We work hard to stay well-connected with our partners and clients so we can remain at the forefront of changes and developments.

From day one, our approach has been to ensure that we serve our clients with iOS 14.5+ and SKAdNetwork, that we empower marketers to make data-driven decisions with confidence, and that we uphold the principles of user privacy and data transparency. This philosophy focuses on continuing to leverage powerful user-level data while ensuring end-users’ privacy.

The future of measurement will leverage aggregated data driven by machine learning, and built out of transparency and trust. We understand that privacy underpins our industry, and as innovation progresses and evolves, so too will the specifics and technical requirements of user privacy. We place the best interests of our users and our customers at the center of the products and solutions that we develop, and will continue to do so in light of the iOS 16 rollout and beyond.

To find out more about iOS 14.5+, to keep up-to-date with the latest information and developments, or to receive advice tailored to your specific app or business needs, you can request a demo to see how the Adjust solution works in practice, or browse our iOS 14.5+ resource center for an overview of all our guides and information.

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