How to use SKADNetwork for conversion tracking

12 March 2021 App Marketing


Apple’s imminent introduction of its Ad App Tracking Transparency (ATT) framework as part of iOS 14.5 has a lot of app owners concerned. Many still don’t know how their businesses will be affected and what the impacts will be. As a Marketing Consultant hopefully I can give you some context and highlight the issues you need to consider:

  • It is easy to see that app publishers are caught up in a battle between tech giants over the monetisation of user attention, which potentially might see Facebook lose between an estimated $5bn-2$20bn this year alone.
  • The old adage of “if you are not paying for the product, then you are the product is as play here” so it may be worth considering whether users would be prepared to pay for your app in exchange for privacy as highlighted by Kate O’Flaherty on Forbes. 
  • It appears that this situation might be more complex than it appears in the first reading. As in the US policymakers and legislators are threatening to break up these tech giants due to their anti-competitive behaviour. So playing into a call for more user privacy, Apple may be using this issue as an ace card to stay onside whilst dealing a hammer blow to the competition.
  • Google has been relatively quiet on the matter, and only posted a blog post which details how they will comply with the new framework and how it will implement SKADNetwork. Could this spell the end of GAID as well?
  • More sceptical readers may have noticed that Apple has also introduced their own search bar results in iOS14, which may be a play to scale up their advertising business, as it is hard to see where else they might grow in the short term.

Apple’s IDFA, ATT and how to use SKADNetwork for conversion tracking

  1. What is IDFA?
  2. What is happening to the IDFA?
  3. What is Apple’s ATT?
  4. Recommendations around Apple’s ATT
  5. What is SKADNetwork?
  6. Advantages of SKADNetwork
  7. Disadvantages of SKADNetwork
  8. What are SKADNetwork’s conversion values?
  9. How to split your Bits
  10. Planning Ahead: What are the likely impacts on the App Publisher ecosystem?
  11. General Recommendations & Thoughts

What is IDFA?

IDFA is The Identifier for Advertisers that Apple uses and assigns to each Apple device. This identifier is used by advertisers to track users and serve them customised adverts and experiences. The IDFA anonymised and never reveals any personal information about the user, but simultaneously allows advertisers to track behaviours and serve ads in a personalised way without knowing who they are serving it ads to. 

The ID can be used within the app to understand which events a user triggers and even how much money they spend (depending on the measurement partner used). The ID is also passed between the measurement partner and Ad Networks such as Google or Facebook so that campaigns and even creative can be optimised based on the results of those exposed to a campaign. Attribution across networks, campaigns and creative is possible because an individual is tracked through the process in an anonymised way. 

IDFAs allow for advertisers to optimise towards personal experiences and users who will get the most out of their app, whilst users retain their privacy and are troubled less by depersonalised and untargeted advertising.

What is happening to the IDFA?

With the launch of iOS 14 Apple is removing access to IDFA attribution for all Ad Networks and Partners in due to what it says is a ‘dirty data industry’ that collects and utilises this data from across the ecosystem to create user profiles. By blocking access to this ID Apple says it is “improving transparency and empowering users”. But is this really true? Apple is in the process of building out its own advertising offering an IDFA will still be available within its own environments. However partners, platforms and networks outside of this environment will need express permission from users to access this granular level of tracking. 

What is Apple’s ATT?

To allow app publishers to track at user level Apple is introducing ATT, App Transparency Tracking which will be rolling out with iOS 14.5 (expected Spring 2020). To gain access to user level data users will have to give their express permission to app publishers, along the lines of GDPR for websites. However, app publishers will not be able to tailor the experience to their app and the verbiage of the ATT notice will be tightly controlled by Apple. 

If a user consents, then an IDFA can be used to track them across companies, apps and websites, however, if they decline they cannot be tracked at all. The ATT form in its first iteration does not make a distinction of these different uses of tracking and is a blank opt-out or actively opt-in. App publishers can only choose whether or not to serve an ATT notice in their app and where it will be served, additional information or a more subtle explanation of what users are opting in or out of is not available in the initial rollout. 

Recommendations around Apple’s ATT

In my view you have very little to lose, and much to gain, by experimenting with ATT. If you have the capacity, do it  as soon as possible. Here are some top line recommendations to follow if you are considering it:

  • Begin test and learn programme now. ATT is currently in v3 beta (at the point of writing), so you can already start to test the prompt at different points in the user experience, as well as how the popup is served in conjunction with various forms of creative.
  • Many publishers have started testing to find the balance of how they use SKAD and ATT in conjunction and how this will be passed back to Ad Networks (direct conversations). At the very leased start researching this, and contact your ad network account managers to see what their proposed solution will be.
  • Google has not implemented SKAD yet but looks likely to do so. As such UAC campaigns will be heavily affected, so consider alternatives if you are heavily invested in UAC as a route to market.
  • Make the most out of GAID in the short term, Google may well come under increasing pressure to adopt SAKDNetwork or build an alternative framework for Android.

What is SKADNetwork? And where does it come in?

SKADNetwork is a privacy-compliant method of app install conversion tracking based on aggregated data. It is an alternative tracking framework API that was introduced by Apple back in March 2018. It was designed to be an alternative to IDFA, but most App Publishers didn’t explore its potential until 2.0 was released in June 2020.

Advantages of SKADNetwork

  • It’s deterministic and can attribute conversions directly rather than through less direct probabilistic methods.
  • End-user privacy is baked into the framework itself, so from a publisher perspective, you don’t need to consider any other privacy issues.
  • ATT doesn’t matter in the context of this framework, and from the avoidance of doubt, it is completely separate and isn’t required as part of the solution.
  • SKAD conversion values will be the same across all ad networks, irrespective of where you are campaigning. This is useful as there is no need to set up separate conversion values based on different platforms and their own conversion metrics. If they support SKADNetwork you’ll have the same metrics.

Disadvantages of SKADNetwork

It is worth noting however there are some key limitations of SKAD and what information you can have passed back to your Ad Networks:

  • There is no provision within the framework to doesn’t cover the mobile web, so you will need to consider alternative attribution methods for this.
  • Within SKAD there is a necessary reporting 2-3 days depending on how you set it up. This means that more sophisticated networks will not be able to make real-time campaign optimisations anymore based on the conversion of passback data. We do not know what the full impact of this will be yet, but the likely result is increased costs and CPIs as well as other conversion based value metrics.
  • It is open to fraud and bad actors. Any form of aggregation technology makes this possible. You will need to consider whether the fraud protection offered by your MMP is sufficient or whether you need a standalone solution such as DoubleVerify or Moat.
  • Limited passback options based on timescales and amount of conversion data (possible solutions outlined below). SKAD only supports 6 bits, there is a postback delay of 24 hours and there is a timer-based element from install which limits how much data can be sent.
  • Finally, only 100 entities/campaigns can be supported by each network. This made seem enough, but actually, this depends on how the network has set up its implementation. For example, FB support campaign -> adset -> ad hierarchy, each of these are entities, so it is easy to see how a publisher might run out of them on a particular network.
  • Fragmented data flow. This is one of the key issues with SKAD, the updated conversion values are sent back by the publisher, but the final postback is only sent to the Ad Network currently. This opens the door to less reputable networks reporting inaccurately or in the worst case fabricating results.

What are SKADNetwork’s conversion values?

SKADNetwork effectively allows publishers to grade their user base and then pass back a conversion value of 6 bits. That is to say, 6 switches with a value of 0 or 1, to allow a potential capture of value from (0-63). This is important as it  helps Ad Networks to optimise campaigns towards your high user values. These can be used in a variety of ways, but what you will need to do as a publisher is to decide how to set up and use them best. I would recommend that you segment your audience and decide on one of the following approaches of “splitting your bits”.

How to split your Bits

The conversion value pass back comprises of six bits, which you can think of as light switches that can be encoded to send back a value of 0 – 63:

Your job as a publisher is to decide how to encode these bits. There are a variety of approaches, but please understand however you encode them the number of values you can achieve will only be two to the power of the number of bits you use. For example if you decide you want to use 3 bits to record levels achieved conversions you will only be able to record 8 values in total including 0.

Alternatively you could segment your user base and categorise them into 63 segments that are meaningful to your business. Finally, the last approach may be useful if you are spending a high volume of paid media campaigns. Split your bits based on users for example 50% of users on revenue and 50% on levels achieved.

Planning Ahead: What are the likely impacts on the App Publisher ecosystem?

  • One outcome might be that user’s do not care as much about privacy as we think they do. This was the case with GDPR, but the relationship users have with websites is quite different from that with apps they have on their phones.
  • There will be a renewed focus on creative offering and optimisation, on ad networks, so it may be worthwhile upping your creative game now!
  • General brand-building campaigns will become more important, these bigger impact campaigns will most likely be run in conjunction with contextual targeting to deliver campaign cut through to the right audience.
  • There will be a move back to traditional forms of marketing in the short term while publishers’ test ATT experiments and build better frameworks for their SKADNetwork needs.
  • Niche apps that are highly dependent on high rollers and whales users will be most impacted by the changes and will have to evolve or go to the wall.

General Recommendations

Apple’s changes have had a wide ranging effect on the whole ecosystem and it is going to take a while for Networks, MMPs and Publishers to readjust. It is likely to be an evolution that goes on for years, rather than something that is resolved in a couple of months. The following recommendations should help your navigate those months so that your business is in a better place on the other side:

  • If you haven’t already, implement SKADNetwork and check that all your key partners are supporting the framework too.
  • Simplify the conversion values that you want to track. Only optimise towards in the short term, choose a conversion that can be targeted in the first 24 hours. In time SKAD will improve, but do this until the industry has caught up. 
  • Kick-off and work on a segmentation project to understand our existing user base better and come up with a splitting bits solution that works for your type of business. Aim for delivery in the next 4-6 months.
  • Investigate new opportunities to deliver campaigns outside of channels that you use currently
  • Test ATT at least in a couple of points in the user flow to determine some benchmarks.
  • Consider scaling your android campaigns in the short term, although be aware that many other publishers will be thinking the same so competition and bids will go up.
  • Drop dynamic creative campaigns on iOS, utilise them on Android and roll out learnings to iOS instead.

Feel free to drop me a line if you need any more advice about SKADNetwork or in general about App Marketing.