iOS17 Tracking apocalypse: The end of performance marketing?

At the 2023 WWDC in June, Apple introduced its most significant privacy update since 2021. With iOS 17, tracking parameters in ads links will be automatically removed, posing challenges to tracking the user journey in multi-touch ecommerce experiences.

Watch the first DTC Dive episode about the iOS 17 Update in which we discuss

  • What exactly the iOS 17 update includes
  • Which marketing channels are affected
  • What impact the update will have on your marketing efforts

For more DTC growth insights, follow Admetrics on LinkedIn and join us as we engage in conversations with e-commerce experts and DTC representatives, covering a wide range of topics centered around scaling DTC brands.

What is the iS O17 privacy update?

The latest iOS 17 aims for a major privacy enhancement: Link Tracking Protection. The update will offer increased user-level tracking safeguards in Safari Private Browsing, Mail, and Messages. Given that Mail holds nearly 60% market share and Safari is the default browser for 93.23% of iOS users, this development could have considerable implications for marketers, but only under given circumstances. As the iOS 14.5 and App Tracking Transparency resulted in a 40% decrease in ROAS for advertisers using Meta, understanding these new changes is crucial to maintaining the effectiveness of your marketing campaign. Read more about the impact of iOS14+ on ad performance on Facebook or TikTok.


How does iOS 17's Link Tracking Protection work?

The Link Tracking Protection will be active by default in Apple's Mail app, Messages, and Safari's Private Browsing mode. The mechanism involves organizing tracking parameters in link URLs that can identify users and subsequently eliminate them. These parameters are typically inserted by Google, Facebook, and certain affiliate platforms to monitor users' activity throughout their purchasing journey. By removing these parameters, Link Tracking Protection makes it more challenging for ad networks to track users' online behavior.

How will the iOS 17 Link Protection update impact tracking? 

While this change could have various implications, the bottom line is that it will become slightly more difficult to pinpoint which links lead to conversions or determine the channels that contribute to sales, although not entirely impossible.

So, how bad is it really? Is this a new privacy apocalypse, and how will it impact marketers and DTC brands? 

In the first episode of our DTC Dive Series, in which we delve into all things related to scaling DTC brands; our digital marketing and data science experts discuss the impact of the latest iOS 17 on marketing performance, tracking and attribution. Check out the interview between Admetrics' CEO Markus Repetschnig and Sascha Krist, Head of Growth at Admetrics.

Sascha: What exactly does the iOS 17 “Link Protection” update involve? 

Markus: “With this update, Apple is taking further steps to protect user privacy, specifically through the introduction of "Link Protection." This feature aims to remove specific tracking parameters.

The announcement from Apple was somewhat unclear about how this protection works, so we decided to download the beta version of iOS 17 and conduct our own testing. One important thing to note is that the impact, at least in the current beta version and likely in the release version as well, won't be too significant. This is because the link protection is only active in Safari Private Browsing mode, which means you have to manually enable it, and there are some restrictions in this mode.

Link Protection also removes certain parameters when you click on links from Apple Mail or the Apple Messages app. Contrary to some rumors, the Private Browsing mode isn't turned on by default. Now, concerning what is cut off, many have claimed that all UTM parameters and tracking parameters are removed. However, this is not entirely true. Our findings indicate that only specific Click IDs are affected.”

Sascha: What e-commerce tools and providers are affected?

Markus: “During our testing, we observed that the Facebook Click ID was removed, as were the Google Click IDs and HubSpot Click IDs. However, the MailChimp Click IDs, Klaviyo Click IDs, and TikTok Click IDs were not specifically removed at this time. It remains uncertain whether these Click IDs will be removed in future beta releases or later updates, but we assume that they might be removed at some point.”

Sascha: What specific impact will iOS 17 have on performance marketing? How will this affect platforms like Tiktok Ads, Meta Ads, and others?

Markus: “Regarding e-commerce companies' tracking, I don't anticipate any significant impact. This is because most tracking tools are not reliant on the Click ID parameters. Unlike the iOS 14.5 update, which rolled out a major change with an opt-in window, restricting tracking, the current situation doesn't seem to have a substantial influence. Additionally, only a small number of iOS users are utilizing Private Browsing Mode, which, in itself, comes with limitations, requiring users to log in to different accounts every time they browse. It's an opt-in feature that users need to actively enable. 
However, for ad networks, email tools, and other similar platforms that utilize Click IDs to track user behavior, there may be some limitations in measuring conversions. This could affect their ability to gather accurate data at the end of the day.”

Sascha: How will iOS 17 update impact email and SMS tracking? I believe many of the viewers might be Klaviyo or MailChimp users. What effects do you see in this area?

Markus: Yes, here the situation is indeed different. It's worth noting that around fifty percent of iOS users utilize the native Apple Mail client. If the Click IDs are removed there - currently the case with MailChimp, but not yet with Klaviyo - it means that email providers or service providers will face limitations in measuring conversions. Additionally, a significant feature of these tools now is the ability to create segments based on various user actions, which becomes quite limited in this context.

Sascha: Could the iOS 17 update become the new iOS 14.5 privacy update? Over the past few years, Apple has been strongly focused on privacy, and as marketers, we have noticed this even more since the iOS 14.5 update. It's quite likely that this trend will continue. Is there a possibility that Apple might expand the link protection feature to cover the entire browser, possibly introducing something similar to the opt-in approach seen in iOS 14.5?

Markus: “The direction Apple is heading in has been apparent for some time now. It's highly probable that there will be more measures and restrictions for advertisers in the future. This link tracking protection will likely extend to the standard browsing mode of Safari, potentially affecting macOS Safari as well. It's reasonable to expect that other browsers may also adopt similar link protection measures, as we've seen in the past, with similar trends spreading to various operating systems and browsers.

In the future, Apple might implement a whitelist system rather than a blacklist, allowing only a specific selection of parameters, thereby limiting the options. While I don't anticipate another tracking pop-up like iOS 14.5, the change itself will likely remain transparent for end users.”

Sascha: How will this iOS 17 update impact Admetrics Data Studio users? 

Markus: “Currently, there's no impact at all. We use various technologies to track users, including server-side tracking. Additionally, we are not reliant on Click IDs, which are currently limited. Some customers have tied themselves to Google or Facebook Click IDs, and we're in contact with them to find solutions.”

Sascha: Considering a hypothetical scenario where Apple continues the trend and extends the exclusion of tracking parameters to the entire browser. Would that affect Admetrics if all UTMs were gone? Is there a way to address this potential situation?

Markus: “It's unlikely that Apple will remove all tracking parameters, as they also require certain parameters for their own ad products, like the SKAdNetwork. So, the chances of that happening are very low. However, if it were to occur, we do have different workarounds in place to handle such situations. At the moment, we don't see an immediate need to implement them.

We can generally observe a trend towards more restrictions regarding data protection guidelines, which are driven by technological changes like browser extensions. Besides, certain effects might not be easily measurable using traditional tracking and attribution solutions, such as channel spillover effects and brand awareness impacts. That's why at Admetrics, we've been diligently developing alternative models for our customers, independent of traditional tracking and attribution solutions, providing additional insights that can be layered on top of the existing system.”

A conclusion 

To summarize, the current situation isn't too concerning. Media buyers can now take a sigh of relief. The effects of the upcoming update aren't particularly noticeable in the realm of performance marketing. However, it's still intriguing to see how things will unfold. 


Other questions performance marketers might have about IOS 17 and attribution: 

Will iOS 17 end affiliate marketing?

Probably not. Although it would have an impact on the trackability on affiliate links sent via email.


Will the iOS 17 update affect tracking and attribution solutions?

Probably, it could, depending on the technology used by these solutions. Admetrics Data Studio for Shopify is not impacted by the iOS 17 update. 


Are Shopify sales reported by ad networks reliable?

Shopify sales reported by ad networks may be useful for insights, but their accuracy can vary due to different attribution models and tracking mechanisms, leading to discrepancies in figures. Delayed reporting and data integration issues can also contribute to differences in the reported sales numbers between ad networks and Shopify. Read more attribution models here. 

How does Admetrics Data Studio solve attribution issues? 

Admetrics Data Studio is an all-in-one marketing data warehouse, user journey tracking, and attribution solution. The fully privacy-compliant user journey tracking hooks into your existing consent mechanism and doesn't require any coding skills to set up. Once the user journeys are tracked, Admetrics proprietary attribution models are able to accurately attribute the sales to each touchpoint, channel, and campaign. Start your free trial to test our attribution models here.