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June 23, 2023

Link Tracking and iOS 17: What marketers need to know.

👋 Hello email enthusiasts,

Brace yourselves! Even though it feels like we've just started grilling our summer BBQs, there's a gust of autumn wind on the horizon. And it's not just pumpkin spice in the air…

…it's the iOS 17 updates.

Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) was a couple of weeks ago. There was discussion around the new Apple Vision Pro, what Apple deems a “revolutionary spatial computer that seamlessly blends digital content with the physical world”, along with a new 15-inch MacBook Air. Oh… and of course, new software — iOS 17.

The new update has impacts for many marketers, and even beyond. Let’s dive in:

Remember Apple Mail Privacy Protection (MPP)?

Back in 2021, Apple Mail Privacy Protection (MPP) was announced.

It changed how many email marketers gauged the effectiveness of email marketing. It also had impacts beyond email marketers as the word got out about Open Rate not being as reliable of a metric (For example: advertisers being less concerned with Open Rate).

MPP also had impacts on things like Location data, Send Time Optimization, Subject Line testing and more. You can read more about it here.

We have MPP, now let’s introduce LTP:

Say hello to Link Tracking Protection (LTP).

Announced to be rolled out in the iOS 17 update, it will also play a role in email marketing strategies… and more so beyond.

As a response to MPP, many shifted focus to measuring Clicks.

Clicks are helpful! They can provide a useful indication of recipient interest or engagement. This becomes particularly important when calculating Conversion rates.

For example, when considering all users you've sent an email to, you might look at:

  • Delivery rate: How many emails were actually delivered, accounting for things like bounces.
  • Open rate: How many recipients opened the email (though, remember that MPP has made this less reliable).
  • Click rate: Of those who received or opened the email, how many clicked a link?
  • Conversion rate: Of those who clicked, how many took the desired action, like making a purchase?

See where we’re going?

As explained in Apple’s June 5, 2023 press release:

Link Tracking Protection in Messages, Mail, and Safari Private Browsing

Some websites add extra information to their URLs in order to track users across other websites. Now this information will be removed from the links users share in Messages and Mail, and the links will still work as expected. This information will also be removed from links in Safari Private Browsing.

Our first thought was… does this mean UTMs no more? Will UTMs be pruned from the URL?!

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Wait, wait, wait… let’s check the iOS 17 preview page.

Apple


Okay. It seems like UTMs are going to be removed from URLs, no?

According to 9to5Mac, “Link Tracking Protection is a new feature automatically activated in Mail, Messages, and Safari in Private Browsing mode. It detects user-identifiable tracking parameters in link URLs, and automatically removes them.”

Well… what is defined as a “tracking parameter”? A UTM?

Reading an article by Wojtek Andrzejczak indicates that UTMs will not be removed.

As you can see from the column on the left, there are some query parameters that will be removed. It’s also important to note that users will need to be browsing privately in Safari, similar to MPP users needing to have Mail Privacy Protection enabled.

The exact details about user opt-in requirements or how it will be presented to users is still unclear at this point.

For email marketers, does this mean click data won’t be available?

It depends on how your ESP handles click tracking.

We tested this out in beehiiv and found that links direct to a beehiiv subdomain before going to their final destination. Meaning, it logs the click and then directs you to the final destination. It needs to hit beehiiv first, before directing you to the final URL.

We tested this out in Substack, and it doesn’t go to a subdomain, but a “substack.com/redirect/”. Again, needing to ping the ESP first before going to the final destination URL.

This is one ESP example of many. Mailchimp is an ESP mentioned on the list of tracking parameters that were removed. If you use Mailchimp, it may be something to look into.

How this will be handled in the browser and in ESPs is something we won’t really know until iOS 17 is released. Things may update between now and then.


This impacts attribution on a big level.

Since Apple will be cleaning URLs, trimming off some tracking parameters, this shift could have a wide-ranging impact, affecting everything from attribution to functionality of promotions.

Marketing oftentimes relies on these parameters in URLs that include specific identifiers in the links. This could be used for paid advertising, an email campaign, social media, etc.

It’s important to note that so far it doesn’t appear to impact UTM parameters, but more so, specific advertising click parameters appended to links, like FBCLID, that allow for specific user attribution.

It’s confusing because UTM and advertising parameters like FBCLID are both “tracking parameters”, but also a little different.

Justuno.com provided some insight into why Facebook (and maybe other companies) introduced their own versions of UTMs, or their own custom advertising parameters, hypothesizing it as a way to circumvent ad blocks or Apple’s Intelligent Tracking Prevention in Safari.

“ITP is Apple’s way of coming down on third-party cookies, which is a contentious topic regarding traffic attribution. While no one knows for sure, those are both likely reasons for the creation of FBCLIDs and their appearance in your Google Analytics,”

Again, UTM parameters are not used to track individual user clicks, but more so to help understand the effectiveness of various campaigns. To be able to drill down on specific campaigns, sources and mediums, but not individual users.

Advertising parameters like FBCLID and GCLID are used to individually and specifically track each user and clicks, and with that functionality, you can go on to build data models and “lookalike” audiences, etc.

Apple removing specific information from links clicked in the Apple Mail client, or when privately browsing in Safari may result in impacts to not only attribution, but other integrations that rely on such information like how websites may apply promotions.

If you’re currently building audiences or affinity models based on which users clicked through an email, on an ad, etc. – these audiences will likely experience a sizable drop as people enroll in iOS 17 and potentially more of the privacy features like private browsing.

The question of how many users will use some of these features is also to be considered.

Not everyone will update their OS on the first day its released or want browse privately, but it’s important to consider that people purchasing the new iPhones will have iOS 17 loaded. And considering this will be during Q4, a big time for many marketers around the world due to the holidays, it could get interesting.


Here are a few potential implications:

  • Decreased attribution: Marketers often use tracking parameters in URLs to understand who clicked on their links and measure the success of different campaigns. LTP will automatically remove these tracking parameters, making it harder for marketers to attribute website visits or conversions back to specific campaigns. Again, it doesn’t appear to be UTM parameters, but custom parameters.
  • Impacted personalization and segmentation: By removing user-specific parameters in URLs, it can become more challenging to offer personalized experiences or content based on a user's past interactions. This might also affect the construction of specific user segments based on click-through behavior.
  • Limited retargeting capabilities: The user-specific identifiers are frequently used for retargeting purposes, for instance, to show ads to people who clicked on specific links. With LTP, these identifiers will be removed, potentially affecting retargeting efforts.
  • Analytics and reporting challenges: Removing tracking parameters can impact the accuracy and detail of analytics and reporting. Metrics like click-through rates, engagement rates and conversion rates might become less accurate.
  • Mitigated tracking: The Mail Privacy Protection feature, introduced by Apple earlier, already affected Open Rate tracking by pre-loading content. Now with LTP, Click tracking may be impacted depending on how your ESP handles links.

The above impacts will largely depend on the extent to which Apple users adopt the new iOS 17 and its privacy features, as well as any updates Apple may have between now and release this Fall. Still, it's clear that marketers may need to adjust their strategies in light of these changes. This might involve finding new ways to measure campaign success, such as focusing more on bottom-of-the-funnel metrics like purchases, or utilizing more privacy-friendly methods for personalization and attribution.


What to do?

Given the changes with the introduction of Link Tracking Protection in iOS 17, here's are some suggestions:

  • Leverage contextual data: While individualized tracking may be limited, you can still collect contextual data such as the time an email was sent, the subject line, the content of the email or campaign, etc. This can provide insights into what types of content and strategies are most effective.
  • Privacy-first attribution: Consider leveraging privacy-first attribution models such as Apple's Private Click Measurement. These models provide some level of attribution without compromising user privacy.
  • Direct engagement: Encourage direct engagement from your users. This could be through replies to your emails, or prompting users to take actions that are trackable on your website, such as filling out a form or completing a purchase.
  • Feedback surveys: Send occasional feedback surveys to your audience to gauge their thoughts on your content, and adjust strategies accordingly.
  • UTMs: It appears that UTMs will maintain their functionality. If you are using some of the other types of parameters that may be removed, consider using UTMs and adjusting accordingly.

While some of these strategies might seem fundamental, they become all the more essential in a landscape where individualized tracking is limited. And while these changes will certainly present challenges, they also represent an opportunity to innovate and create new strategies that respect user privacy.

At this stage, it's unclear how extensively LTP will impact click tracking. We anticipate more clarity as we approach the iOS 17 release.


Planning For LTP: Next Steps

  • Assess your attribution: Evaluate how much of your attribution model relies on link tracking. Do you use FBCLID? GCLID?
  • Stay Informed: As we get closer to iOS 17's release, more information on the impact of LTP will become available.

Phew! Navigating the constantly shifting digital landscape is never easy.

In the coming weeks and months, we will continue monitoring developments around iOS 17 and LTP and will keep you updated with the latest insights.

We try to think about it as an opportunity to find new ways to connect with our audience, better understand their needs and ultimately deliver value that goes beyond the click of a link.

🐾 Thank you for reading, stay pawsome.


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