Out With the Old, In With the New: Looking Back At Advertising Attribution Changes in 2013

Peter Hamilton

It was a pivotal year for performance advertising, but not just because the numbers are screaming, companies are blossoming, mobile ads are exploding, and app usage is scaling. At an even more basic level, 2013 was a year with so much change in technology and attribution methods for performance advertising. How do we attribute conversions for native applications? How is attribution tracking going to be regulated? Who owns the data? Cookies are becoming a less viable solution for attributing users, so what will replace them?

In fact, cookies lost an incredible amount of value when Apple not only deprecated the UDID but also started rejecting apps for using cookies. This move signaled a strong shift toward platform supported device-level identifiers that advertisers must use instead to attribute and target consumers. The IFA was introduced by Apple with the release of iOS 6, and Android plans to move away from cookies to help protect consumer privacy with its new Ad ID, an anonymous identifier that’s also device-based.

Ultimately, these major changes in advertising attribution in 2013 set the stage for what will be a very interesting year for mobile in 2014. Consumer privacy continues to drive many of the changes in attribution, and as big data continues to collect more and more information about users, companies must be more careful than ever on what information they collect and why. Here are some of the major changes we saw in 2013 that led to more streamlined standards for advertising attribution, and what it will mean for the industry as we enter the New Year.

The Cookie Flash

One of the first major changes in attribution in 2013 was the shift away from allowing cookies to work for native mobile applications. Earlier in the year, Apple blocked apps from using cookies within apps, forcing apps who wanted to use cookies to track users to rely on Mobile Safari in iOS to set cookies to accurately attribute ad clicks. Even though other tracking technology was available, some app developers chose to pair an app install to an ad click with a brief redirect to Mobile Safari on application launch, which allows the cookie to be read. This essentially created what’s called a cookie “flash” when users downloaded an app, as users briefly were redirected to Safari when they opened the app for the first time and then back to the actual app. This obviously creates an extremely poor user experience, and cookie data is lost anytime either the browser cache or HTML5 local cache is cleared. There’s also a possibility of duplicate attribution with cookies in a scenario where the user clicked two different ads prior to the app install.

Single SDK Solutions on the Rise

Mobile app analytics and attribution was a hot topic in 2013, and many companies emerged promising to help advertisers measure their performance. Several of these companies (including ours) now offer single SDK solutions for mobile app advertisers. Now, instead of installing SDKs from multiple mobile ad networks, mobile app marketers can install one SDK to track all of their mobile app analytics. The rise of single SDK solutions indicated that not only were more mobile app developers looking for ways to attribute their app installs than ever before, but that they needed an easy way to implement this technology. With these streamlined solutions, the industry has started to accept and agree upon what standards should be used when attributing installs and conversions.

Death of UDID

In August 2011, Apple announced it was going to deprecate the Unique Device Identifier (UDID), throwing the industry into a scramble. While the UDID has been the standard of tracking in iDevices for several years, Apple officially deprecated the UDID and stopped accepting apps that use UDIDs as of May 1st, effectively requiring developers to use other tracking methods. This move was largely related to privacy concerns as users couldn’t opt out of UDID tracking. Ad networks and/or other mobile focused advertising or analytics companies could use the information they collect and attach it to a UDID for targeting purposes. This would make the UDID personally identifiable and not compliant with Apple, COPPA, and even the FTC amongst other organizations. The deprecation of UDID presented a challenge for the ad industry, as the majority of ad networks used it to track, target and optimize. At the time of this announcement, out of 79 major publishers and networks that pass identifiers, 35.44% support IDFA and 72.15% pass UDID (only 5.06% pass UDID exclusively). Also, out of the 72.15% that pass UDID, 92.98% supported at least one alternative. The death of UDID was an important milestone for mobile developers in 2013 as it forced them to consider other ways attribute installs that were less invasive to consumers – and ultimately put every iOS mobile developer on the same page.

Apple Develops IFA and IFV for Advertisers

After announcing that UDID would be deprecated, Apple launched the IDFA (Apple’s Identifier for Advertising), an ID that could be used in similar fashion as the UDID, but gave users the option to opt out. IDFA, or IFA, is compliant with Apple’s own guidelines, as well as COPPA and the FTC, and offers better privacy options for consumers. While opting out may seem beneficial for consumers, those who do will continue to see ads, they just won’t be targeted or personalized.

With the release of iOS 6, Apple also rolled out the The Identfier for Vendor (IFV) as an identifier used to associate apps that come from the same vendor (app development company) on the same device. While the IFV can’t be used for attribution across apps, app developers use this identifier to identify users that have installed apps within their own portfolio. A different IFV value is returned for apps on the same device that originate from different app developers, and for apps on different devices regardless of the app developer. These new options (IFA, IFV) not only create a better experience for users than previous attribution methods, such as cookies and the UDID, but enable advertisers to better attribute and understand users on iOS in a privacy-respected manner.

Apps Rejected by Apple For Using Cookie Tracking

Remember that cookie flash experience that mobile app developers relied on in the very early part of 2013? In February, Apple’s App Review team started to actually reject apps using this technology. Many of these developers used this method as a work-around to the UDID as its demise was on the horizon, but Apple was aware that it created a poor user experience and was not a best practice. Apple clearly was not going to allow cookies to become a standard in attribution for mobile apps. By rejecting apps that leveraged cookies, Apple set a standard across the mobile advertising industry that cookies were no longer an acceptable method and required developers to use a more streamlined set of attribution technology with the IFA and IFV.

Do Not Track “Peters” Out

In 2007, several public interest groups were interested in creating a Do Not Track list for online advertising. These groups, which included the World Privacy Forum, CDT and the EFF, proposed that the FTC require online advertisers to submit their information to the FTC, which would then compile a list of domain names that used cookies or otherwise tracked consumers. Browser vendors and 3rd party software makers could then subscribe to this list, which would effectively block many forms of tracking. Initially, the idea had quite a bit of traction, but went nowhere – until 2010 when It sounded like a great idea, but, it went nowhere, and was largely forgotten by the media until 2010 when the Senate Commerce Committee held a hearing on the topic of online privacy. At the hearing, FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz’s stated that the commission was exploring the idea of proposing a “do-not-track” list.

Around the same time, the Tracking Protection Working Group, operating under the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), started to work on setting the browser spec for a “Do Not Track” mechanism. However, in September 2013, a key stakeholder pulled out of these talks. The decision by the Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA) to leave the talks is likely to lead to legislation that, if enacted, would impose a do not track list on Internet companies to prevent them from tracking consumers. Sen. John Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) had vowed to move forward with legislation if the group failed. Despite pressure from members of Congress and the Federal Trade Commission, the talks have missed multiple deadlines, indicating that the effort to regulate Do Not Track in any way will likely never happen.

Apple Deprecates MAC Addresses and the Pasteboard

As Apple deprecated the UDID and thrust the IFA and IFV into the spotlight, Apple also deprecated the MAC address with the release of iOS 7 in October 2013. Previously, MAC addresses allowed app developers to track users similarly to the UDID, as a MAC address could be identified across applications and the mobile web. Now, Apple will no longer accept apps that collect the MAC address. While deprecating MAC addresses seems like a large issue for app developers, Apple only wants the industry to rely on the IFA moving forward, which is an extremely accurate method for attribution.

Additionally, with the release of iOS 7, Apple removed the ability for app developers to access the pasteboard. Before, app developers could save a user ID with their SDK into the shared space, and another app in iOS could read that value to track users. With the debut of iOS 7, Apple no longer allows apps to access this shared information. This caused the demise of OpenUDID – a once widely used identifier for attribution. These changes were yet more moves by Apple in 2013 to push all app developers towards using a single method for advertising attribution by using the IFA (and in some cases, the IFV).

Google Announces Ad ID for Android

Google also announced a move toward a more anonymous identifier with a plan to launch the “Ad ID” in 2014. According to an announcement on October 31, 2013, Google said that “To give users better controls and to provide you with a simple, standard system to continue to monetize your apps, this update contains a new, anonymous identifier for advertising purposes (to be used in place of Android ID). Google Settings now includes user controls that enable users to reset this identifier, or opt out of interest-based ads for Google Play apps.” While this new Ad ID is designed to be anonymous, Google is encouraging Chrome browser users to sign in and opt-in so that Google can track and target these users across devices. This set the stage for Google to tackle multi-device attribution and targeting, which is one of the biggest challenges in the advertising industry as we approach 2014. This also gives Google a competitive advantage over Apple in 2014, as Safari lacks the necessary features to help track users across multiple devices, such as a global login.

Looking Forward to 2014

With these changes to advertising attribution in 2013, some standards for attributing which users came from which advertising channels and partners are now in place, and in 2014 we can expect to see advertisers demand deeper insight. The first and possibly most interesting to brands is the impact of their mobile advertising and user engagement on their more traditional desktop business. In other words, “across device” attribution and showing what overall “lift” the mobile category has on company wide sales will be a hot topic for brands and retailers.

Another interesting thing to watch for in 2014 will be how the various platforms play nice together, especially Apple and Google. Both have user identifiers for attribution, and both want to own the whole pie, but they currently need each other to reach everyone – and don’t forget that Facebook overlaps both as a major platform of its own. Right now Google relies on Apple to distribute their apps to iOS users while Apple needs Google apps to hold onto their own consumer adoption, and Facebook exercises quite a bit of control on both of them with nearly 20% of smartphone usage on Facebook’s mobile app. As you can imagine, this creates a complicated web of who will allow what identifiers for attribution and what will be the standard. I believe 2014 will define this more clearly and the platforms will likely make some strong moves to assert their dominance.

The thing I’m most excited about for 2014 is that retail, e-commerce, and brands are all getting into mobile app advertising in a big way. Native experiences give them more insight and control of their consumer experience, and we’re already seeing the rise app advertising on our own platform from these verticals. With them, come the major budgets and quite possibly a change in how much advertisers spend in television versus online.

Here’s to another year of rapid growth and change. Let’s all remember to stay agile and move quickly as the major changes in advertising attribution are just getting started.

Peter Hamilton

A digital marketer by background, Peter is the former CEO of TUNE, the enterprise platform for partner marketing. In 2018, he sold TUNE’s mobile measurement product to Branch, unifying measurement and user experience. He led TUNE’s efforts to bring better management technology and automation to marketing partnerships, across affiliates, influencers, networks, and business development relationships. Follow @peterhamilton

One response to “Out With the Old, In With the New: Looking Back At Advertising Attribution Changes in 2013”

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