BLOG 4th October 2021

The latest iOS and Google Analytics 4: What it means for online advertising

As a sector, we’re skint. There’s no other way to put it. Arts funding has been in free fall for a few years and Covid has intensified our lack of financial security. For this reason, we can be quite inventive to make fantastic things happen on the cheap, including promotion and advertising. Traditional methods like large outdoor billboards and flyers distributed in coffee shops are without a doubt effective. But they can be costly (and not very environmentally friendly). Digital marketing and the occasional social media ad campaign have been our saviours for about a decade.

Facebook sponsored posts are our best friends. On Facebook as little as £5 can go a long way, if your goal, target audience and campaign length are set up correctly. Well, not anymore.

How does online advertising work?

Online advertising like Google Ads or Facebook Ads are successful because of the way they collect their information. They use what we call ‘third-party cookies’ i.e. data packages on web browsers that track a user’s behaviour and path on the Internet. With this information, these platforms know a user’s demographics and interests, and display adverts relevant to them.

Facebook tracks all its users’ off-Facebook online activity to serve them ads that are relevant to their interests; and match your sponsored post with relevant audiences. If you’re curious to see it for yourself, check out your privacy settings within your Facebook account or app. The off-Facebook activity tab will show you all the latest things you’ve been looking at – from this very expensive pair of shoes still sitting in your basket to remote Airbnbs in Donegal for your next getaway (we’re still keeping it local).

What is changing?

You may have heard in the past few months that Facebook wasn’t very happy with Apple and you didn’t read past the headline because… why would it matter to you? Or me? Or anybody really? It does matter a little bit if you’re working in marketing and using Facebook advertising. We’ll try to keep it simple: Apple and Google know that most people care about their personal data and privacy. They are also aware that we’re all increasingly being more careful with the sort of things we share online. So what have they decided to do? Give us back control on how our personal data is being used across all the different browsers and apps we visit on all our devices.

If your mobile phone is an iPhone and you’ve updated to the latest iOS 14, you’ve probably noticed a pop-up notification on your screen each time you’ve opened an application soon after the update. The message said “Allow *name of app* to track your activity across other companies’ apps and websites”. You then had 2 options: ask app not to track or allow. We’ll take a wild guess and say you probably opted for the former option. We all did. Similarly, if you have a Mac as a laptop or desktop and use the Safari browser, it already blocked this third-party tracking.

What does this mean? It simply means that Facebook can still track users across apps and websites, just like before. But the app tracking transparency in iOS 14 will just require that they ask for permission first. Users’ off-Facebook online activity we mentioned earlier will be much more limited as a result, and it will be more difficult for the platform to match ads with relevant audiences. As a user, you won’t see an ad about that pair of shoes that’s still in your basket, or those ads that made you think you were being listened to by your phone and computer. As an advertiser, this means your pool of audiences will be much smaller because this new update cuts out all the interests and visited websites information Facebook was using to make their advertising accurate. Less relevant people will see your ad, and your ad may not be as successful as it used to be.

What about Google?

The second change happening at the same time is that Google will stop using third-party cookies in their Chrome browsers by 2022. This will have the same impact on Facebook and other online advertising as the iOS 14 update. The way Google is talking about this change is that it wants “to replace third-party cookies with sustainable privacy-first alternatives that will help publishers and advertisers succeed while also protecting people’s privacy as they move across the web.” One of these alternatives is that they will look at groups of people with common interests instead of looking at individual data. This way, personal data is “lost in the crowd” and not identifiable.

Google has also created something it calls a Privacy Sandbox with the goal to prevent tracking as you browse the web and enable publishers to build sites that respect your privacy and preserve the open web.

Because the way advertising works is changing, tracking is changing too. If you use Google Analytics (and we hope you do!), you must have noticed Google are releasing a new version called Google Analytics 4. You have probably guessed but this new version is not based on cookies anymore, nor on page views.

The good news is that it is a simplified version of the current Google Analytics. With GA4, you won’t have to worry about Google Tag Manager anymore as it will be all integrated into one platform, and you won’t need a developer to install it for you. Instead of page views, GA4 will be events-based i.e. it will track all the different activity happening in one page – all video views, link clicks, downloads etc. Without cookies, there will be a lot of data that won’t be accessible anymore. To fill in the gaps in knowledge, Google are going to use your site data to build up a prediction model. If somebody is following a certain journey and there’s something missing, it might look at other similar journeys to predict steps to fill in the gap.

It all sounds great in theory but it’s good to keep in mind that for Google, it’s all work in progress, and details are likely to change.

What is the impact on digital marketing?

Social media marketing is of course on the front line, but not only. Search engine marketing like pay-per-click (Google Adwords), as well as display advertising, will be affected too. Websites that rely on advertising revenues will feel the impact more than others and reporting won’t be as accurate anymore because of tracking limitations.

Before these changes, digital marketing was based on third-party cookies and informed by individual activity across websites. This is what we call behavioural data. Now that this behavioural data isn’t accessible anymore, there will be a bigger focus on contextual data. What does that mean when it comes to advertising? Ads and content will complement each other. For example, you will only be able to see theatre ads on the theatre reviews page of a newspapers’ website.

What to do with all this information?

We know, it’s a lot of things to take in and it can be confusing. You could continue to spend your marketing budget on Facebook sponsored posts but is it wise? Considering it won’t be as effective as it used be, it’s probably best to review your current marketing strategy and see where to reallocate your money.

Let’s put paid advertising to the side for a minute. There are other things you can do in the meantime to improve your visibility and prepare for future reporting:

  • Focus on your content and website design. SEO isn’t affected by Apple and Google changes so your copy and how user-friendly your website is, are as important as ever.
  • Find out more about contextual advertising techniques. There’s A LOT of information available online and a quick Google search could give you some ideas.
  • Install Google Analytics 4. It can run alongside the current version of Analytics and won’t affect it in any way. Better to install it now as you will be starting on a blank page, so it will start tracking information about your website visitors sooner rather than later. (The positive: You won’t need your developer to do anything, only your current Google Analytics User ID)
  • Find the time to collect and gather all the things you already know about your audiences. If you have a CRM or ticketing system, it will be easy to put together. If not, that’s ok! Your website and social media analytics will be a great start.
  • Things are moving quick and as we finished writing this blog, Apple announced the details of their new release iOS 15. This time, the update will have an impact on email marketing. It will make it more difficult for us who use newsletters to measure success. But that’s food for thought for another blog as we see those changes roll out. (If you'd like to read more about it in the meantime, this blog from Digital Culture Network explains these changes and impact quite well)

Maurane Ramon

Head of Client Development

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