How Apple iOS14 Changes Have Affected Facebook Third-Party Tracking

Mobile Marketing Social Media Article
20 mins

iOS14 has changed the game for advertisers using Facebook – and also for the social media giant itself. In this article, we’ll talk about:

  • the big change to Apple’s operating system that advertisers need to know about.
  • how that change has affected advertising on Facebook and other apps.
  • how to adapt your Facebook advertising practices to accommodate iOS14.


What iOS14 changes meant for advertisers

Although many users are likely unaware of the fact, Apple’s iOS operating systems have long since featured a user tracking technology called IDFA, which stands for ‘Identifier for Advertisers’.

IDFA is used to track and identify how iOS users interact with non-browser apps, in a way that avoids revealing users’ personal information. Invoca sums up the technology very well:

“[…] IDFA is the only means for advertisers to precisely target and track users within apps on iOS devices. You can think of an IDFA as something like a cookie that is tied to devices instead of browsers, in that it enables an advertiser to get notified when a user of a phone has taken an action like clicking on their ad in a browser and then installing, using, or interacting with ads in their app. This identifier is used in non-browser apps, which never had support for cookies. IDFAs only provide advertisers data in aggregate and no individually identifiable data is available.”

Before iOS14, IDFAs ran quietly on users’ devices, delivering anonymised user data for app owners. iOS14 changed all that, with a subtle yet seismic change to its user interface:

In iOS14, when a user starts using an app, they are shown a dialogue box that requires them to opt-in or opt-out of being tracked by the app to facilitate personalised advertising.

If the user chooses to ‘Allow Tracking’, IDFA works as normal. But if the user chooses to ‘Ask App Not to Track’, the app will not be able to access IDFA.

This new iOS feature, which is called App Tracking Transparency (ATT), became mandatory in April 2021.

The upshot for Facebook and other app owners is that many iOS users are now choosing not to allow apps to use IDFA to track their activity. This is purely conjecture on our part, but we expect Facebook may be experiencing a particularly high opt-out rate, given the widespread media coverage of privacy concerns relating to the social network.

According to SensorTower’s 2019 mobile consumer spending report, Facebook’s revenues in that year included an estimated $54.2bn in iOS app revenues, and $29.3bn in Android app revenues. In a nutshell, the leading source of Facebook’s app-based advertising revenue was the iOS Facebook app – and now that iOS14 has compromised that app’s value to advertisers, a big chunk of the revenue could be jeopardised.

At what rate are iOS14 users opting out of IDFA tracking?

Ahead of the implementation of ATT as a mandatory feature of iOS14, mobile advertising expert Eric Seufert predicted that around 80% of the new operating system’s users would choose not to allow IDFA tracking by the Facebook app.

In fact, the opt-out rate appears to be closer to 90%. Research published by Flurry Analytics in May 2021 showed that up to 88% of iOS Facebook users worldwide had opted out of app tracking. In the United States, the rate rose to a startling 96%.

Perhaps this should come as no surprise. Polling has indicated that people have low levels of trust in Facebook, so it follows that large numbers of iOS14 users have chosen to prevent the Facebook app from tracking their activity.

For marketers who advertise on Facebook, the effect of iOS users opting out of tracking is that it is now much harder to track user actions within the app. This has left advertisers struggling to use formerly day-to-day tactics, such as building lookalike audiences and designing ad campaigns around ‘events’, i.e. specific user actions which have taken place on the Facebook iOS app.

Meanwhile, from Facebook’s perspective, the loss of tracking data from iOS users has made it harder to figure out things like which users would be good, profitable advertising leads, or how to attract more promising leads. Now that a big share of iOS users are essentially masked, the app’s capability to stalk and target hot prospects is greatly diminished.

How to adapt your Facebook advertising practices to accommodate iOS14

iOS14’s changes to IDFA have weakened Facebook as an advertising platform – but they certainly haven’t broken it. To a significant extent, Facebook’s advertising algorithm still has enough data to deliver a beneficial service for advertisers.

Let’s talk through some ways you can adapt your Facebook advertising approach to accommodate iOS14 and ATT.

A bigger audience size can counteract iOS 14’s impact on Facebook advertising

Facebook’s advertising products can still add value; they just need much bigger audience sizes than they did previously. Whereas an audience of 50,000 to 200,000 users was once enough to facilitate a successful Facebook advertising campaign, you should now be aiming for at least 500,000 users. A big audience size makes up for the loss of data from iOS users and gives the algorithm plenty of user data to work with. Conversely, if you were to stick with a smaller audience size despite the changes iOS14 has brought about, you would be doing so at the risk of getting your campaign stuck in the learning phase.

Arguably the easiest way to create a bigger audience for your campaigns, is to merge multiple pre-existing audiences into one. Of course, each marketer will know their own audiences better than anyone else could, so you will be able to decide for yourself whether this is an appropriate tactic for your brand. Clearly, brands which are advertising locally within a relatively small geographic area may not have the luxury of a big potential audience to target.

Use links with UTM tracking codes to monitor acquisition from the Facebook iOS app

We’re Facebook advertising users here at Target Internet, and our experience since the launch of iOS14 has taught us a few things about how to adapt our tactics to accommodate Apple’s new operating system.

One important thing that we’ve learned is that you can still identify iOS users acquired through Facebook, by using UTM tracking codes and monitoring acquisition data within Google Analytics. This approach still works in spite of changes to technologies such as IDFAs and third-party cookies, because the identifier is hard-baked into the unique URL served to each user.

Paid social expert Sarah-Jane Gwira gives a great tutorial on how to set up UTM parameters for Facebook ads here:

Once you’ve equipped your ads with UTM parameters, you should be able to use your Google Analytics dashboard and monitor visitors arriving at your website via Facebook.

UTM tracking is a lifeline for advertisers who need to monitor the effectiveness of their Facebook advertising, as it can provide a pretty good measure of how many visitors have reached a website via a Facebook ad, and how those visitors interact with the site.

In summary, UTM parameters can tell you when a visitor was acquired via Facebook – even when Facebook itself can’t tell you that.

Tracking acquisitions from Facebook ads isn’t the only reason why UTM codes are a smart bet for Facebook marketing. Another is that a large proportion of social media sharing now falls into the ‘dark social’ category. ‘Dark social’ means content, links, messages or other communications which are shared via methods which can’t be seen or measured by marketers, such as private messages.

For many Facebook users today, dark sharing makes more sense – both culturally and intuitively – than posting publicly on someone’s profile. If a person finds something cool that they want to share with a friend, they will most likely send it in a message. With this in mind, equipping your content with UTM parameters is a great tool for tracking the performance of ads and content on social media – even when the content is shared privately.

Is Facebook turning off Audience Insights related to iOS14?

In a Business Help Center blog post, Facebook confirmed that “as more people opt-out of tracking on iOS14 devices, ads personalization and performance reporting will be limited for both app and web conversion events.”

Some of the limitations on Facebook’s reporting with regards to iOS14 users include:

  • An end to real-time reporting. Data may now reach the advertiser after a three-day period.
  • Use of statistical modelling to plug data gaps, particularly in the case of iOS14 app install campaigns and web conversion campaigns.
  • No demographic breakdowns for app and web conversions. Analysis according to age, gender, region, and placement will not be possible.

As well as forcing Facebook to change its reporting for advertisers, iOS14 has also caused advertisers to change their approach to core practices including retargeting and lead generation. Facebook advertising expert Ben Heath covers these topics thoroughly in the following videos:

Ben Heath on Facebook ad retargeting.

Ben Heath on Facebook lead generation.

Facebook is not the only app affected by ATT in iOS14

iOS14 has hit Facebook hard, and it is understandable that reporting of the operating system’s impact on advertisers has focused on the social media giant.

However, this is absolutely not to say that other app owners have not been impacted adversely by ATT. Another advertising giant, Google, will certainly have lost out too; many of its apps, including Maps and YouTube, used IDFA to deliver value for advertisers.

And of course, data-driven marketing is not the sole preserve of the world’s very largest companies. From retailers to publishers, a huge number of apps which used IDFA to gain audience insights will have been adversely affected by the rollout of ATT in iOS14.

Key points on how ATT has affected Facebook and other apps

At the time of writing, less than half-a-year has passed since ATT became mandatory, and it may be too early to draw any definitive conclusions about how the changes to iOS14 have impacted the app-based advertising ecosystem.

Two things we can say for sure, are:

  1. Many apps now have less data about iOS users; and
  2. Advertisers who use iOS apps are getting less detailed data about their audiences

Whether you’re an app owner or an online advertiser, these changes may well have affected your business.

But perhaps the greatest impact of ATT will be how it redefines industry standards for how big tech companies handle user data. If other companies decided to follow Apple’s lead and restrict the capability of app owners to track users in-app, this could mark a paradigm shift for online advertising. For example, if Google were to alter Android Advertising ID (AAID), which is a tracking technology similar to IDFA, then the ramifications of ATT would then extend to an even greater share of the industry.

For online advertisers, ATT is the latest in a series of shifts relating to privacy and user data – other recent challenges have included changes to Google and Apple’s policies on third-party cookies. Our advice to industry participants is to ensure your approach to online advertising is as flexible as possible over the next few years, as it seems likely that big changes will keep on coming, until a more aggregated approach to audience insights is widely implemented.

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