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iOS 17 Link Tracking Protection: What it Means for Marketers

Another day, another iOS. If you haven’t heard already, Apple is getting ready to roll out iOS 17 and MacOS Sonoma, which will likely be fully released by September and October of this year, respectively. With each release comes new features to help make Apple’s operating systems more secure for users. This release, in particular, has some privacy and security updates that have marketers concerned.

In a world that’s becoming increasingly more data-centric, Apple is prioritizing data privacy and giving users the ability to control the data they share. As Craig Federighi, Apple’s senior vice president of Software Engineering said, “We are focused on keeping our users in the driver’s seat when it comes to their data by continuing to provide industry-leading privacy features and the best data security in the world.”

With these privacy and security updates, however, come some changes that may shift the way marketers operate. One change in particular—Link Tracking Protection—will impact how marketers collect customer data. Don’t panic. Remember, iOS updates are meant to improve the overall customer experience, so let’s talk link tracking.

Revisiting URL Structure

We’ll get to the new link tracking protection update, but let’s rewind a bit. Links can hold a lot of information besides the basic URL. Within a link there are often URL parameters, which, as defined by Google, are “way[s] to pass information about a click through its URL.” Google breaks down parameters into two buckets: 1) content-modifying parameters and 2) tracking parameters.

Content-modifying parameters are link additions that send users to a specific page on your website or personalize the content or behavior of the page. Tracking parameters, however, are added to the end of a URL and can track user behavior across websites and marketing channels. These tracking parameters will be impacted by the iOS17 Link Tracking Protection update.

What is the iOS17 Link Tracking Protection Update?

With this new release, Apple announced Link Tracking Protection which, in a couple of key scenarios, will strip away the parts of the URL that Apple identifies as tracking parameters.

These scenarios include:

  • Any time you share a link with another person via Apple’s “share” menu in Messages or Mail apps
  • Any time a user clicks a link via Safari Private Browsing (This includes browsing around, or clicking a link in email or messages when Safari Private Browsing is enabled.)
Screenshot showing a link with a full tracking parameter in tact. Then, post-iOs 17 the link is shown without the string of numbers at the end.

This example shows the tracking parameter being stripped off of a link. Source: Peel.

While Apple says that the links will continue to work, and typical Urchin Tracking Modules (UTMs) won’t be impacted, removing the tracking parameters will prevent things like cross-site and click tracking at an individual level. Which, as a cross-channel platform powering billions of personalized conversations across multiple channels, prompted us to dig in further to understand what these changes mean for our community.

There’s No Need to Panic

Deep breaths. In reality, there’s no need to panic. After all, not all parameters from all sources are being stripped and your existing links won’t break. Apple seems to be focused on large, egregious tracking offenders like Facebook, Tiktok, and Google. Yes, the list of parameters that Apple will strip could expand, but for now, there seems to be a select group. Plus, these are only impacted on Apple-related software—Apple Mail, Message App, and Safari Private Browsing.

And—even better news—at this point, Iterable’s links don’t seem to be impacted by this update. So, if a customer opens an Iterable link via Apple Mail, for example, Iterable’s tracking parameters are still intact and Iterable customers can still see click metrics.

To protect against link parameter stripping in the future, we’re taking proactive measures behind the scenes. We, of course, will continue to closely monitor the situation, but for now everything is business-as-usual.

Rethinking How to Measure Success

Link Tracking Protection is just one more step in Apple’s continued trend of taking action to give consumers more control over their data. The industry saw the visibility and reliability of open metrics impacted in iOS 15, and now with these latest moves we are seeing Apple move farther down the funnel into click data.

As this trend continues, it is becoming more and more important that marketers start to shift their thinking. Rather than relying fully on what some may consider “vanity metrics”—like clicks and opens—marketers may need to start incorporating more down-funnel conversion metrics into their assessment of success to understand the impact of their efforts.

Consider what is leading customers to convert once they’ve reached your website or app. What metrics can you look at that really tie to a return on investment (ROI)? Consider conversion metrics like conversion rate, leads generated, purchase, order value, etc., and engagement events like streamed, favorited, or other events that drive retention.

You can also start to lean into first- and zero-party data more to better understand your individual customers. First-party data would include any behavioral data or purchase data you have collected implicitly from a customer interacting with your website or app. Zero-party data is data you collect explicitly from customers—so think surveys, quizzes, customer support chats, and so on. This data can help inform marketing strategies in ways beyond just link tracking.

The Silver Lining of iOS 17 Link Tracking

Apple isn’t releasing these new features to spite marketers. Apple is only keeping the customers’ best interests at heart and, at the end of the day, that’s what we, as marketers, should strive to do as well. Continuing to rely on data from clicks and opens isn’t going to push us to be better, but change will. Rather than seeing each customer as a click, each customer should be viewed as an individual.

Emails should contain content that provides value, not clickbait. SMS messages should be a two-way conversation that gives both the customer and the brand insight into the person on the other end. Personalization is about more than just a number on a dashboard and the iOS 17 link tracking protection update is just another step towards recognizing customers as individuals.

To learn more about the iOS 17 link tracking update and what it could mean for you, reach out to your Iterable Customer Success Manager or, if you’re not an Iterable customer yet, schedule a demo today.

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