Facebook’s Winter of Discontent

By Lior Charka, Head of Demand-Side Product at Outbrain

Though Facebook and Apple have been taking jabs at each other for years, the past two years seems to have been an acceleration toward an unavoidable crash. One that the industry has been nervously watching. And for many, the underlying question is: how will this ongoing battle impact the AdTech industry?

Today, we’re going to dive into this battle of Facebook and Apple, and discuss the impact on the industry.

Where it All Started

In January 2019, Apple cut off Facebook’s developer access after Facebook’s VPN app violated Apple’s rules. This rendered Facebook employees unable to perform basic work functions on their Apple devices and underscored where the real power lies in the app ecosystem. Facebook may be the biggest social network, but Apple is the biggest distributor of apps — and the gatekeeper to devices consumers use them on.

During WWDC 2020, Apple unveiled iOS 14. During the announcement, it was clear that the Identifier for Advertisers (IDFA), which has been used across the mobile app ecosystem for targeting, attribution, exclusion — and anything else you can think of when it comes to tracking consumer activity — was dead. This move sent shockwaves through the mobile app world, as it signaled the fact that the ability to deterministically optimize using consumer data would be gone.

Facebook’s Rebuttal

Serendipitously, a mere few days before Apple’s announcement, Facebook published a whitepaper concluding that there is a 50% drop in publisher revenue on Facebook Audience Network when using no personalized signals.

Just two days later, Apple’s announcement of the removal of IDFA for personalization confirmed that Facebook’s worst fears would soon come true. And that the platform would likely take an unprecedented revenue hit driven by mobile app install ads.

A few days later, Facebook announced its Q2 2020 earnings where The company’s CFO, David Wehner, addressed the forthcoming IDFA changes: “But at the very least, it’s going to make it harder for app developers and others to grow using ads on Facebook and elsewhere. So advertising clients are asking us how to maintain their performance, and we’re working on it.”

On August 26th, 2020, Facebook issued a statement regarding the upcoming iOS 14 changes, attacking Apple’s new model. It said that due to Apple’s changes, it might make Audience Network ineffective on iOS 14 and that they might stop offering it on devices running the new OS because of this. In my opinion, this move will eventually lead to Facebook shutting down Audience Network completely especially when (and not if) Google follows with a similar change to Google Advertising ID (GAID). A move like that will mean that Facebook won’t be able to leverage its unique data set for targeting and optimization, forcing the platform to consider alternative solutions. Contextual signals and innovation will be needed in order to create a solution that still provides marketers with a significant ROAS as what they had with IDFA.

Taking it further, Facebook announced it would not ask users for permission to use their IDFA, but instead, stop using it altogether. In addition, Facebook has also released additional changes on December 16th, 2020, again continuing the battle with Apple. The platform decided to treat the mobile web with the same rigorous constraints as the app traffic. A move that cements the idea that Facebook will move from optimizing using user data to optimizing using inferred data models that are less accurate (deterministic approach vs. probabilistic).

Marketers: What’s Next?

And while there might not be an ending to the Apple vs. Facebook battle in the near future, one thing is certain – app marketers are wondering what’s next?

As an industry, no one knows how well the new Apple attribution (SKAdNetwork) is going to work, nor how marketers will be able to optimize for lifetime value (LTV). SKAdNetwork will limit the number of campaigns marketers can track and optimize at one time, and will reduce the visibility marketers have into their performance across apps. One thing is certain – this change will even out the playing field for the short term, as it will render Facebook’s data useless when it comes to using it on iOS 14.

Now is the time to consider moving budgets to the open web and away from the walled gardens. The open web will provide a more diversified marketing strategy and create engaged audiences who will now consume quality journalism, rather than uncontrolled user-generated content. It also provides app marketers the opportunity to capitalize on scalable mobile web traffic given the IDFA changes only impact in-app traffic.

In a way, Apple is regulating Facebook’s dominance of the ad market in a way that governments and regulators have been unable to. While beneficial short-term, the regulator, in this case, is still a tech giant. And when Google does the same thing with GAID, two of the biggest tech platforms will only become more dominant. Though these forms of regulation are steps in the right direction, one can’t help but wonder what it means for Apple and Google to have even more control over the ecosystem.

The bottom line is that now, for the first time in a while, all the ad networks, including Facebook, are starting from the same place. All platforms are now facing an uphill battle while working to identify ways to honor user privacy and abide by regulations. Apple will continue to focus on creating more privacy-oriented features as they made it their calling to provide the best user experience. And for now, they don’t have a stake in the advertising ecosystem so we can expect more emphasis on user privacy.

With the release of iOS 14, Apple is rewriting the mobile ad-tech landscape. I fully expect Facebook to solve this in the long term and create the gold standard of targeting and optimizing by using probabilistic measures. But in this new environment, companies that will win are those with the deep machine learning experience, direct relationships with audiences, and strong demand, and supply relationships, which can win and thrive more than ever.