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Everything you need to know about Apple’s IDFA and SKAN in 2023

When you’re looking to boost your mobile game’s growth in the so-called “post-IDFA” world, you need to be familiar with the terms IDFA and SKAN. But are you? And how does that affect your mobile game growth strategy? 

To answer these questions and more, let’s dive straight in.

What is IDFA?

The term “IDFA” means “identifier for advertisers”. IDFAs are unique random device identifiers for iOS devices, first introduced in 2012, with Apple assigning a different one to each user’s device.

IDFAs are used by advertisers to track data, enabling them to deliver customized advertising. With this random device identifier, advertisers can track and identify a specific user – albeit without knowing who they are in a real-world sense.

A simpler way to understand IDFAs is to think of them as Apple’s equivalent to “cookies”, except they’re assigned to specific devices instead of browsers.

A device’s IDFA can help game developers in a number of ways – for example, knowing when a player is triggering in-app events. The IDFA can also pinpoint when a user is interacting with mobile game advertising campaigns. That’s assuming IDFA tracking is coming from that specific channel, and the advertiser tracks users interacting with that particular ad.

IDFAs have long been extremely useful for working out when specific users click on an advert, , for payment and attribution purposes.

What makes IDFA so significant?

Advertisers have always valued the way IDFAs can track iOS users’ behavior pretty accurately. Assigning a particular iOS its own IDFA means that if an advertiser can track a specific IDFA within a campaign, they’ll know more about what makes that user unique, and whether they installed the game after seeing an ad.

The fact that every iPhone shipped by Apple comes with its own unique IDFA, which will stay the same (unless the given device user manually resets it), means a specific IDFA is likely to last much longer than browser cookies.

However, recently Apple has put a much greater focus on protecting user information. So it should perhaps be no great surprise that Apple has introduced privacy-oriented changes over the last few years. With the release of iOS 10 in 2016, this included giving iOS users the option to enable a feature called “limit ad tracking”, or LAT.

When users activated LAT, their user information would appear blank – or to be more specific, measurement providers would be shown a string of meaningless zeroes. Which means it would no longer be possible to track users via their IDFA. Which in turn means advertisers couldn’t serve them targeted ads

From “limit ad tracking” to App Tracking Transparency (ATT)

While the introduction of LAT might already seem like bad news for advertisers, worse was to come. One source of respite for advertisers was that LAT had been an opt-in feature, rather than an opt-out one. So, iOS users who didn’t choose that option would still have their IDFAs visible, and receive personalized advertising.

This was to change with iOS 14.5 in 2021, when Apple introduced a new privacy framework called App Tracking Transparency, or ATT, which showed iOS users an updated prompt requiring them to explicitly “Allow Tracking”, in order to share their IDFA.

This, as you might expect, was a profoundly unwelcome development for much of the mobile game advertising industry. While advertisers can still access information on the likes of CPIs and numbers of installs, the change prevented them from accessing user-level information, as can be crucial for understanding whether a given user is a relevant, likely-to-pay user, as well as for retargeting purposes. 

There was, however, something else about iOS 14.5 that potentially helped soften the blow of the IDFA changes for many mobile game marketers. This was the ability that Apple gave advertisers to get data on postbacks, or mobile app install validations, directly from the Apple StoreKit Ad Network, or SKAdNetwork, instead of having to go through a registered ad network.

Or to put it another way, this change meant that SKAdNetwork (otherwise often referred to as SKAD or SKAN) could let advertisers know directly in the event of one of their ads leading to a user converting or installing their mobile game.

So, what is SKAD?

SKAdNetwork is Apple’s API-based, privacy-focused framework for attribution and measurement in relation to advertising campaigns run on iOS. It allows for the attribution of impressions and clicks to ad installs on iOS apps, enabling advertisers to access conversion data, but not any user-level or device-level data.

SKAN has gained in prominence in Apple’s ecosystem over time; when first introduced in May 2018 it was an optional API that made mobile app install attribution possible, at the same time as preserving privacy. But even back then there was much speculation as to what the emergence of SKAN meant for the future of mobile attribution on iOS.

Sure enough there have been many further evolutions in SKAN since then. The aforementioned iOS 14.5 saw SKAdNetwork receive hefty updates, with the release of SKAN 3 being significant given that SKAN had not previously been functionally useful for mobile attribution.

SKAN 4 was subsequently released in 2022, bolstering SKAN’s capability. Enhancements here included privacy thresholds becoming crowd anonymity (thereby helping to reduce null values in install postbacks), and campaign IDs becoming source identifiers (allowing for greater insight into the most effective campaigns).

Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) 2023 saw the unveiling of SKAN 5, which will allow for re-engagements to be attributed.

Is SKAdNetwork worth getting excited about for advertisers?

Bad news first: even amid the continued evolutions of SKAdNetwork (or SKAN, or SKAD), as far as many advertisers are concerned, this privacy-oriented framework represents a limited and less-than-satisfactory substitute to the now largely killed IDFA.

Although SKAN does have the ability to attribute mobile app installs to an ad campaign, the absence of any user-level or device-level data greatly restricts its usefulness with regard to such processes as the tracking of user behavior and the measurement of retention and lifetime values.

Nevertheless, given SKAN’s status as the only attribution solution that the Apple ecosystem offers for devices that don’t continue to make their IDFA visible, it is one that you will need to know about when looking to optimize your mobile game’s growth prospects.

You can learn more about the distinctions between IDFA and SKAN, including in relation to attribution, and the implications for marketers, directly from our mobile game growth specialists.,

So, how do IDFA and SKAD attribution differ?

There’s quite a lot that distinguishes IDFA attribution from its SKAD counterpart. The primary area of differentiation concerns the data on user behavior that advertisers are able to access, and what they can use that data to track.

  • With IDFA attribution it’s possible for unique users to be linked to specific events. It is a solution for one-to-one matching, and offers full deterministic granularity with regard to such campaign variables as audiences, creatives, and placements.
  •   On the other hand, with SKAD (or SKAN), the attribution process doesn’t allow for a specific install to be matched to a specific user. Nor is it possible to know what impression or click led to the app being installed. What is possible with SKAdNetwork, is that an install can be connected to a group of impressions/clicks within a unique ID, with this ID constituting a “cluster” of users or variables.

It’s worth emphasizing that with SKAdNetwork being Apple’s privacy-friendly solution for the attribution of impressions and clicks to iOS app installs, its limitations from an advertiser perspective are very much deliberate ones on Apple’s part. 

The SKAN framework is, in effect, a “walled garden”, with the attribution process itself occurring within the App Store, followed by verification on Apple’s servers. It is at this stage that any information that could reveal a user’s identity is removed, and only after this are ad networks given access to the data, so that ad executives can look at it.

So as you can see there are a lot of new limitations for advertisers, marketers, and app publishers to get to grips with as a consequence of the diminished value of IDFAs and the fast rise of SKAN.

The essentials of the IDFA attribution process

Let’s take a closer look at exactly how attribution works with IDFAs:

  • A user clicks on an ad that an ad network or DSP has served. A number of campaign variables are tracked by this ad, including the creative, placement, and audience.
  • When the impression or click occurs, the MMP records the IDFA data that is linked to the advertised app .
  • The user heads to the app store, followed by installation of the given app or mobile game.
  • An install postback is sent to the MMP in real time. The MMP is able to match this with the IDFA data that has been recorded for the app, and attributes the conversion to the DSP or the ad network through which the ad was served.
  • The MMP sends on the install postback, complete with the IDFA and granular conversion data of the given user, to the ad network or DSP.

The essentials of the SKAdNetwork attribution process

Mobile game marketers, advertisers, and app publishers making use of SKAN or SKAD, meanwhile, will have to get accustomed to these steps:

  •   A user clicks on an ad that an ad network or DSP has served. This ad tracks an ID with as many as 100 values that the advertiser has previously specified. With this ID, any campaign datapoint – such as creative, campaign, or placement – is able to be coded.
  •   Once the ad has been clicked on, the user will be led to the app store where they install the app or mobile game.
  •   The moment of installation triggers the beginning of a 24-hour timer. Within that 24-hour window, in the event of the user carrying out a further action that causes the SKAdNetwork Conversion Value to be updated (for example, making a purchase or registering an account on the app), the timer will reset and continue for a further 24 hours.
  •   Once 24 hours have passed without the Conversion Value on the app being updated, the DSP will receive a postback. This postback is typically sent at any point within 24 hours of the timer running out, rather than immediately.
  • The MMP will receive the postback from the DSP. This postback will include the impression data, but no user-level or IDFA information.

How IDFA and SKAD postbacks differ

The major changes brought about by the shift in the Apple ecosystem from IDFAs to SKAdNetwork are also reflected in the content of the actual postbacks:

  • An IDFA postback consists of the device ID, also known as the IDFA, along with the impression or click that caused the attribution (click or install) to be generated. It also includes additional data from the device such as the IP address, geolocation, version of the operating system the user is using, and so on.
  • A SKAdNetwork postback, meanwhile, provides the SKAdNetwork Campaign ID, restricted to 100 variables. Provided that Apple’s hidden privacy thresholds are met, the Publisher App Name / Bundle ID will also be included, as can (optionally) the Conversion Value.

So, what does all of this mean for mobile advertisers and developers?

As we touched on earlier, the transition from IDFAs to SKAN within the Apple ecosystem is a less than desirable one for many advertisers; there is simply only so much that SKAdNetwork attribution can offer.

Nonetheless, it is important to appreciate the fluidity of the situation. Apple has continued to work on updates to SKAdNetwork, introducing useful features such as view-through support. There are still hopes that further updates will help expand the amount of detail advertisers can access through SKAD attribution – even if for now, it is still seen as a poor substitute to ID-based tracking.

In the meantime, by working with the right mobile game growth specialists, you can help ensure you make all the right moves to support your game’s prospects in the “post-IDFA” landscape.

The pressure is on for mobile developers and advertisers to uncover alternative ways to gather and understand user data, while publishers must also carefully consider the optimal strategies for users who refuse to “opt in” to tracking.

The situation becomes more challenging with Apple’s upcoming Privacy Manifests, which will record what data is collected by an app or third-party SDK, and how it is used. This will help ensure developers certify that any SDKs they use comply with Apple’s privacy rules, effectively putting an end to the practice of ‘fingerprinting’. By using fingerprinting, advertisers could use information such as device type and installed apps to present targeted ads, in turn circumventing IDFA opt-in rules.

SuperScale’s own solutions, such as our All-Inclusive Solution and Data Platform, can play an important role in your efforts to accelerate user acquisition and achieve maximum LTV growth, post-IDFA. So, why wait any longer to book an intro with our team?