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Hey Academic Marketers: Did Apple just bite into your audience?

Hey Academic Marketers

You’ve got to hand it to Apple – everyone’s paying attention to their iOS 14.5 update. At least, those of us in marketing.

This typically benign move (yawn…another update) has Facebook screaming, “Alert: The sky is falling!” In our experience, most marketers have had their Chicken Little moments over the years. Some more than others. Remember when the movie industry thought VCRs were going to decimate their revenue stream? Or how about Y2K?

But what exactly is it that’s got everyone crying foul (er, fowl)? In short, data. Or, lack thereof.

The new update aims to add transparency to user data tracking. All App Store apps are now required to ask users for permission to access the Identifier for Advertisers (IDFA), a unique tracking code for mobile devices. So, each time an iPhone user downloads an app from the Apple Store, they must actively opt-in to be tracked. If they don’t, the policy prohibits certain data collection and sharing. Apple is positioning the move as protecting the consumer.

Early word from Flurry has it that 94% are opting out. That number is a big deal to businesses who’ve come to rely on this data to optimize, target, and report on tracking pixels, the bits of code that detail user behavior. It’s certainly a big deal to Facebook and Google and to those of us who rely on their insights.

Truthfully, prior to this iOS change, iPhone users already had the ability to opt-out of IDFA, but this move by Apple prompts and forces a user decision and almost everyone is opting out.

While the change only affects Apple’s mobile audience (leaving desktop and Android users alone), that’s still 1 billion active iPhones worldwide, one-fifth of which are in the US. (iOS has notable but significantly less presence in key international student recruiting markets with 44% market share in Saudi Arabia, 36% in Vietnam, 27% in South Korea, 22% in China, 13% in Brazil, 8% in Nigeria, and just 3% in India, per Statcounter GlobalStats.)

As this policy takes hold, academic marketers will have much less insight into the iOS users who are clicking on apps. That inhibits the ability to micro-target, which is a problem.

To know for sure the significance of the iOS update on your campaigns, institutions should compare the percent of traffic that engages through mobile, then the percentage of those who use iOS. This is all readily available through your Google Analytics. The higher the number, the greater the impact the iOS update will have on you. Your lead generation efforts will be affected, but we imagine less so than say e-commerce businesses (think Amazon, Etsy, Target, Best Buy, etc.).

Of course, this isn’t just about privacy. It’s also about money. The big tech players are competing with one another for your ad spend. Remember, Google makes over 80% of its money on advertising, as does Facebook. They want to maintain control. Can we blame them? (Yes, of course we can, and do. Nevertheless…).

And that’s the bigger picture. Marketers who feel like the sky is falling feel that way because they are losing some control over the crux of their campaigns: their audience and their ability to define and target them. The risk the Apple update poses to your institution is your diminishing ability to reach desired audiences accurately and affordably through paid digital channels – primarily in the US. 

So, while the sky may not be falling, do read on to learn how your academic marketing team should respond…

Most institutions are primarily using online properties for lead generation. As such, your ability to track website conversions across media sources is a must. Apple’s new update makes this difficult for paid media, especially for Facebook whose 1.8 billion active daily users access it through its iOS app (98% of whom visit via mobile devices, per Statista).

Unfortunately, we’ve all gotten comfortable building our lead gen strategies according to Facebook or Google. We’ve built systems based on their insights. We’ve subscribed to their methodologies. We’ve established entire creative processes based on their data.

Now, their reporting and targeting capabilities are weakening. Slowly, but surely. And it’s affecting each industry a little differently.

For academic marketers, it’s about relationship building. Big, thoughtful purchase decisions like this are slower than, say, your typical online purchase of a blender. Content, much of which is delivered via the iOS platform, needs to be richer and more educational to engage and convert students.

Which institution has the best program for my academic interest? What about the campus environment? How far will my academic record take me? Is there a valuable alumni network and do they provide career development support? Will I make friends and fit in? Will I need loans? How do I evaluate the institution’s online reviews?

Compare this to the buyer decision-making process for that new blender via Amazon, Target, Best Buy, or Walmart. Which blender model/features are important? Which store has the best price and delivery options? How do I evaluate the online reviews?

The buyer journey is so very different and smart academic marketers know that you can’t simply flash an “add to cart” or “purchase now” button to make a sale.

Let’s focus on what your institution can do now to regain control of your audience:

Step 1. Audit your analytics. Review your existing Google Analytics goals and administrative set up, and do the same with your Facebook Pixel event management system. See how these tools are performing, or not performing. Are they capturing your custom audiences? Has your audience changed since the iOS 14.5 update? You should expect weaknesses across all paid media channels including Facebook Ads, Google Ads, LinkedIn Ads, and all programmatic media systems. Measure the changing performance of your paid media and research and develop alternative acquisition strategies as necessary. By knowing what is changing in your specific ad performance and results, you can come up with creative adjustments. If you are not sure how to approach this work, drop us a note.

Step 2. Boost your organic traffic. Over 65% of Google clicks are on the top 5 organic results. So, organic search matters a lot. As do organic social media posts. Invest in your institution’s online presence. Fully optimize it. Keep it current. These critical marketing tools are entirely within your control. This work requires focus and time – both in short supply these days. We can help.

Step 3. Get acquainted with paid media conversion tracking. Apple’s privacy update is a wake-up call for institutions to invest in their understanding of conversion tracking. Go online and educate yourself on this changing landscape. Be aware that tutorials vary wildly across business models, but a good starting point for the uninitiated are the official Google Analytics and Google Tag Manager trainings via Google Analytics Academy. Meanwhile keep an eye out for the next generation of conversion tracking systems to evaluate and potentially deploy. Leverage your IT team members at this juncture. Their expertise is essential as tracking is an increasingly technologically complex and campaign-crucial effort. Again, drop us a note if you need a hand here

Take A Breath, Focus, and Don’t Sit on Your Hands

There’s no doubt that the iOS 14.5 update is having an impact, but it’s no Chicken Little event. See the update for what it is: a nudge to boost your organic presence, take ownership of conversion tracking, and regain hold of your audience.


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