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SKAdNetwork 101: What is it? What does it mean for you?

By Yonatan Komornik June 25, 2020
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More than two years ago, in May 2018, Apple introduced a new concept and API called SKAdNetwork. That API would allow mobile app install attribution while preserving privacy. Back then, many questions were raised about the future of mobile attribution on iOS and the place of SKAdNetwork in it. Still, due to limited capabilities and no real incentive, everything has stayed mostly the same, and SKAdNetwork hasn’t been adopted.

That all changed yesterday when Apple announced their new updates to App Tracking on iOS, manifested in the AppTrackingTransparency framework and their new privacy guidelines. These updates, unsurprisingly, are causing the industry to look into alternatives. One such alternative is SKAdNetwork, which has gone through a silent face-lift at the same time. 

Singular has been preparing to utilize SKAdNetwork for a long time, and while we make those plans a reality we get many questions from customers and partners who want to learn more. This is the first post in a blog series that will explore how SKAdNetwork works, what kind of data points it provides, and how it can be used for marketing measurement. In this post, we will try to keep things high level, and in the next one, we will dive deeper into the gritty details.

What is SKAdNetwork and what does it do?

SKAdNetwork is a framework for privacy-preserving mobile install attribution. It aims to help measure conversion rates of app install campaigns (CPI) without compromising users’ identities.

You might be asking yourself how it achieves that and the key to understanding that is that Apple, and as an extension, the App Store itself is serving as a facilitator. The whole attribution process is actually conducted by the App Store and attested by Apple’s servers. It is then disconnected from user identifiers and temporal information and sent off to the network.

Apple iOS 14 Attribution

 

How does it work? Simple… (well, not really, but we will try to simplify it)

When an ad is clicked and the store is opened, the publishing app and the network provide it with some basic information such as network, publisher, and campaign ID. The App Store will then send a notification of successful conversion to the network. It will report the attached values alongside a conversion value that can be reported by the advertised app.

That notification will be sent at least 24 hours after the first launch and will be devoid of any device or user identifying information. Additionally, the App Store conducts the process so the advertised app has no knowledge of the original ad and publisher.  In such a way, the network receives an attestation that an install has happened, without tying the install to a specific user, thus preserving privacy.

What to expect when using SKAdNetwork install attribution

First, let’s cover what you get:

  1. Click-through attribution for ads displayed in mobile apps.
  2. Publisher ID of the publishing app, supporting full visibility and transparency into publishers.
  3. Campaign ID which is limited to 100 values and can be used to code any other campaign information (outside of publisher) such as campaign, creative, and placement.
  4. SKAdNetwork would tell you if this is the first time the user installed the app or not (is it a redownload).
  5. Conversion Value, which is a number between 0 and 63 that can be set by the advertiser after a conversion happens, allows basic post-install tracking (for example, it can be used to show the highest level the user got to in the first day of playing). That value’s purpose is to give some estimates to the users’ quality.
  6. Apple’s cryptographic, unforgeable verification of the attribution and parameters. This is important, as it means anyone can verify that an install really happened without compromising user privacy.
  7. Accurate and mostly fraud-free attribution.

 

Now, to what you don’t get:

  1. View-through attribution isn’t supported, an ad needs to be clicked for the process to start
  2. Click-through attribution for ads displayed in a browser, email campaigns, and any other media apart for native ads
  3. Real-time data – notifications are sent to the network after 24 to 48 hours. Any subsequent update to the conversion value would postpone the notification. (notifications are sent 24 to 48 hours after the app opened or the latest update to the conversion value). Apple is doing that so deter attempts to tie in the notifications with app activity to identify users.
  4. User-level data – notifications do not include user identifiers.
  5. Data on small campaigns or publishers –  Apple would send notifications only after a certain amount of conversions happened for the same publisher app and campaign ID.
    At this point, we do not know what the thresholds are and how this count is actually being done.
  6. Advanced attribution services such as deferred deeplinking and long cohorts / LTV.

Getting the most out of SKAdNetwork as the Advertiser

As an advertiser, you must be asking yourself what’s the best way to utilize this new mechanism that Apple has created. Here’s a short checklist of the must-haves:

  1. You’ll need your media partners to support it by correctly integrating with the SKAdNetwork API. Chances are you will be mostly covered here because it is expected that iOS 14 will have massive adoption, as is the case with all iOS versions. No one wants to be left behind.
  2. You’ll also need to collect and validate, either yourself or with a vendor, the cryptographically-signed install notifications from each and every media partner, in order to identify any issue or misuse.
    The goal here is to make sure everyone is telling the truth, and no funny business is going on. While we would all like to believe that everyone’s telling the truth, we also know that you can never be too safe, for the same reason that self-reported numbers should not be trusted.
  3. Next up is analytics and reporting, to make sense of it all. The SKAdNetwork API provides a limited set of values and identifiers, which poses a challenge, yet not an impossible one. This is where smart encoding would help you maximize the amount of information you can pass via Apple’s API.
    For example, Campaign IDs can be valuable but must be selected intelligently. You’ll want to ensure that the way that Campaign IDs are assigned is consistent across your channels and is supporting your reporting.
  4. Intelligent parameter selection can also make a difference in optimization and post-install measurement. Having only 64 values (represented by 6 bits) for conversion information is limiting, yet a lot of information can be encoded using these 64 values if used smartly. For example, users can be categorized based on first-day activity to create segments that would later get grouped and evaluated for performance.
    You will need an automated way of assigning and tweaking these values without requiring dedicated Engineering work for it, so you’ll likely want a tool that can manage them, and tie it back to your reports.

Measurement Partners are well-positioned to support this whole process, starting with media partner integrations and assuming the central role in verification, analytics, and reporting. Here at Singular, we have already announced a solution for implementing SKAdNetwork, and the above are the foundations we will be building into that solution. We expect others to follow us on this path. 

Interestingly, we see this move as a natural progression of Singular’s product. Singular’s unique position and unique integrations with media partners allow us to make the most out of this new API and enable our customers a fluid, seamless transition into this new age. We will work tirelessly to make sure our customers can utilize all the tools that are available to them.

This article is the first part in a series of articles discussing SKAdNetwork specifics. The next one will take a deeper dive into the mechanisms behind this API. Sign up to follow our blog below!

Join our Mobile Attribution Privacy (MAP) group on Slack to exchange ideas and ask questions about these new privacy measures.

User acquisition in iOS 14

 

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