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Changes Coming to IDFA — Here’s How to Future-Proof Your App Today

Katarina Borg
Author Katarina Borg
Published On Mar 16, 2021

Apple finally did it.

They announced big-time changes to IDFA.

Speculation had been mounting for months that Apple would deprecate their proprietary device identifier, and it looks like that’s exactly what they’re going to do as they roll out beefed-up privacy features in iOS 14.

Okay, exactly isn’t totally accurate. Apple didn’t deprecate IDFA. It still exists, and some users will have IDFA enabled on their devices.

The problem?

According to industry experts, some users means around 5% — at best.

In light of that, it’s important that we get to know more about the situation, including what exactly IDFA means, why it’s such a big deal to mobile growth marketers, and of course why Apple decided to change the way they’re handling it.

And most importantly, we’ll explore exactly what proactive mobile performance marketers can do to help future-proof their businesses.

What Is IDFA?

IDFA (Identifier for Advertisers) is a unique, random ID number assigned to every iOS device. It’s used to track user activity on iOS devices in the same way browser cookies are used to track online activity, such as monitoring the ads users interact with.

However, browser cookies have their limitations — namely, they only track browser activity.

IDFA extends the ability to track user activity to non-browser apps, which cookies can’t do, and allows advertisers to gain valuable data on activity that takes place outside of browsers, such as mobile app installs and in-app ad interactions. Armed with this data, advertisers can create highly targeted, high-performing ad campaigns.

Is all of this tracking legal? Yes, because IDFA identifiers are random and unique to each device, are resettable by the user, and all data collected is reported to advertisers in the aggregate, so no Personal Identifiable Information (PII) is collected.

Apple Plans Big Changes to IDFA

On June 24, 2020, Apple released iOS 14 with a totally redesigned user experience. Among the many improvements are obvious changes like a re-imagined widget system for better home screen customization.

More subtly, Apple also made way for radical changes to IDFA — which businesses should start feeling the impact of in the first half of 2021, if the plan to roll out IDFA opt-in goes live in “early spring” as scheduled.

Before iOS 14, IDFA tracking was on by default. Of course, users could already opt out to prevent advertisers from tracking their activity, but they had to go in and adjust their settings to do so.

But soon, Apple will turn off IDFA tracking by default and users will have to explicitly enable it by tapping “Allow Tracking.”


Source: https://blog.branch.io/what-is-the-idfa-learn-what-its-used-for-and-why-ios-14-killed-it/

Would you opt in to being tracked?

The CEO of Branch, a mobile measurement partner, said he’d “ … be shocked if more than 5% of people opted in.”

He continued: “Look, the IDFA is dead. There’s no other way to interpret this.”

And this could just be the first shoe to drop. AdExchanger believes it’s a matter of “when, not if” Google decides to follow suit with their tracking identifier, the Google Advertising ID (GAID).

What Is Apple’s Reasoning for IDFA Updates?

It’s not that Apple is out to “get” mobile marketers — not at all.

Apple is making these changes to IDFA to make it more clear to users how they’re being targeted and tracked while using iOS apps and devices.

In other words, it’s less malicious and simply a continuation of their focus on protecting user privacy and improving user experiences — something all marketers can learn from (and we’ll show you how to do later)!

Impact of IDFA Update on Mobile Attribution

Apple’s big changes to IDFA are huge for user privacy and may completely reinvent how companies market to potential customers.

Without IDFA, advertisers can’t attribute mobile app installs to specific ad campaigns. They also can’t target specific audiences as effectively, because platforms like Facebook won’t be able to connect a user’s IDFA with their Facebook ID.

When Apple’s new IDFA opt-in plan does go live, advertisers will lose their best method of mobile attribution. The result? Campaign returns will fall — potentially drastically — and advertisers will need to find new methods of mobile attribution.

While no other method offers the same level of detail as IDFA, advertisers currently have two other options:

1. Fingerprint attribution

2. Apple’s SKAdNetwork

Let’s take a quick look at each.


Fingerprint Attribution

Fingerprint attribution uses device metadata — such as the model, operating system and IP address — to perform probabilistic attribution.

The term “fingerprint attribution” is a little misleading because devices with IDFA disabled won’t have a unique fingerprint. Instead, fingerprint attribution uses metadata to determine the probability that a user who interacts with an online ad ultimately will download an app.

Consider this example of two users who clicked on a browser ad and were redirected to the App Store to download an app:

User Metadata “Fingerprint”  
User A iPhone 11 running iOS 14 connected to a network in San Francisco, CA 4%
User B iPhone 6 running iOS 14 connected to a network in Boston, MA 2%


The probabilities shown in the table above are just examples. Actual probabilities are determined by the model either you or your data partner creates with the accuracy of those probabilities determined by the quality of the data used to develop the model.

Fingerprint attribution can’t connect each online ad interaction to the subsequent user action in the App Store (whether the user installs the app or not). By default, that makes it less accurate than IDFA attribution. However, fingerprint attribution still can be effective pending two variables:

1. Accuracy of the data used to develop the model’s probabilities

2. Sample size (the number of ad interactions you’re analyzing)

However, some are concerned fingerprinting may be the next attribution tactic to get the ax because there’s no way for users to opt out.


Apple’s SKAdNetwork

Introduced in 2018, SKAdNetwork offers an Apple-approved alternative for mobile attribution. When an ad click results in an app download, the App Store is notified, which then provides the ad network with basic attribution parameters such as the ad network ID, campaign ID, and publisher name. As usual, there are some limitations:

As usual, there are some limitations:

  • Data is reported in the aggregate.
  • Ad networks are limited to just 100 campaign IDs each, which impacts the level of detail available when tracking.

Before the release of iOS 14, advertisers mostly ignored SKAdNetwork. Why bother using it when they had IDFA? Now, everything has changed, and SKAdNetwork is getting some serious attention.


This is a good time to reiterate that IDFA isn’t completely gone. Apple hasn’t deprecated it, and some users will choose to opt in — either on purpose or by accident.

If you’d like to ask users to opt in, your app will use the AppTrackingTransparency framework to configure the NSUserTrackingUsageDescription. That’s the tech-speak way of saying you’ll need to customize the message on the “Allow Tracking” pop-up that informs the user of why you’re requesting permission to track their activity on other websites and apps.

Opt-in rates will likely be very low no matter what message you use, but this does give you some degree of control.

How Mobile Marketers Can Future-Proof Their Apps Ahead of IDFA Changes

Across the board, when it comes to future-proofing your app and your business as a whole in light of IDFA changes, it’s all about prioritizing user experience (UX) design as well as your customer experience (CX) strategy.

We already know that it’s five times more expensive to acquire a new customer than to retain an existing one — and that’s in a world where unfettered IDFA tracking still exists!

The time is now for businesses to start shifting their marketing and product budgets to focus less on customer acquisition and more on customer engagement through great product development, flawless UX and CX, and well-defined retention strategies.

And while you work toward making those changes across your entire organization, here are some achievable and impactful updates you can start working on today to turn the IDFA upset into an opportunity:

  1. Assess your dependence on IDFA
  2. Have a budget discussion
  3. Try out App Clips
  4. Promote user account creation
  5. Optimize your current push notifications
  6. Take advantage of in-app messaging
  7. Lean on email marketing

Let’s explore each.


1. Assess Your Brand’s Current Dependence on IDFA

First, you should put together a team of marketers and developers to perform a complete audit of your brand’s current marketing strategies and technologies that rely on IDFA. This includes a review of all external partners and whether they use IDFA. Those that do should already have action plans in place. Those that don’t — well, it’s probably time to find new partners.

2. Have a Realistic Budget Discussion

If Apple’s announcement about changes to the IDFA hit your mobile marketing team like a ton of bricks, chances are a decent percentage of your budget is devoted to IDAF-powered acquisition.

To keep generating ROI after IDFA opt-ins go into effect, that’s going to have to change.

It’s time to realistically revisit your budget to make sure you’re putting aside plenty of funds for campaigns that will actually work in the future — ones that prioritize product designs and customer experiences that generate engagement and ongoing retention.

3. Use App Clips to Encourage Organic App Discovery

Along with IDFA updates, Apple has also recently unveiled a brand new feature called App Clips: small, lightweight “portions” of full apps that isolate specific functionalities and offer them to users as needed.

Users discover App Clips organically through routine, everyday mobile activity, such as browsing for location-based recommendations. If they stumble across your app and you have App Clips enabled, they’ll have the opportunity to interact with and preview a portion of your app without necessarily installing your app or creating an account. Once the user completes the task your App Clip is designed to facilitate, they’re prompted to download your full app — something they’re much more likely to do now that they’ve gotten a taste of what it has to offer.

To learn more about how App Clips can transform your mobile marketing strategy, download our free eBook, From Longshot to Launch: A 30-Day Implementation Roadmap for iOS App Clips.


4. Encourage User Account Creation

As the cost of new customer acquisition rises with IDFA changes, encouraging your app users to create their very own accounts and profiles can help you increase conversions and retention.

Of course, users can only create accounts if they’ve downloaded your full application — so make sure you’re putting in the effort to get those who interact with your App Clip to download your app.

To learn even more about use cases for App Clips, check out this detailed market study we put together.

Account creation also allows you to collect data on your users, which helps with the next three tactics.

5. Optimize Push Notifications

With IDFA changes, personalization and retargeting are going to be harder. That puts more emphasis on communicating with users who already have downloaded your app. Push notifications are a great place to start.

Studies show 52% of users enable push notifications, and you already should have data on these users. That allows you to present them with personalized, highly-targeted messages based on information you have about their activity on your app. And because you’re communicating with an audience you already own, incremental costs are limited.

6. Use In-App Messages to Reach All Active Users

In-app messages complement push notifications by reaching all active users, even those who have disabled push notifications. This offers high-value opportunities to promote new products or other offers to an audience that’s already engaged with your brand. And like push notifications, in-app messages are an owned, cost-effective channel.

7. Integrate Email Marketing

If a user has installed your app and created an account, they’ve probably given you their email address. Email is widely regarded as the most profitable marketing channel with brands posting ROIs as high as 44x.

Don’t Let Your Mobile Marketing Strategy Go the Same Way as IDFA

Impending changes to IDFA certainly dealt a blow to mobile attribution and mobile marketing.

And while your brand’s mobile strategy may be wounded, it doesn’t have to disappear alongside IDFA.

At Heady, we believe the new mobile landscape offers an immense opportunity for brands that choose to be fast-acting, forward-thinking, and innovative.

Almost universally, there are three areas in which successful brands will focus their efforts

  1. Make the most of current mobile app users by creating highly-targeted, multi-channel campaigns with personalized messages optimized by data on in-app user activity.
  2. Ditch costly acquisition strategies for authentic retention programs powered by industry-leading user experiences — a direction in which Apple clearly is heading.
  3. Explore cutting-edge channels with which to engage customers, such as iOS 14’s versatile App Clips feature.

If you’re looking for a partner to future-proof your brand’s mobile presence, Heady is here to help. We’re mobile app specialists and will help translate your goals into a best-in-class mobile product that meets your business’s needs and surpasses your customer’s expectations.


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Ready to Meet Your Customers Where They Are At?

Download our free eBook with step-by-step instructions for implementing App Clips for your brand plus real-life examples of App Clips in action.


Ready to Meet Your Customers Where They Are At?

Download our free eBook with step-by-step instructions for implementing App Clips for your brand plus real-life examples of App Clips in action.


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