What is IDFA?


IDFA stands for Identifier for Advertisers and is a Mobile Ad ID that refers to the unique, anonymized identifier Apple assigns to each iOS device. It's basically a digital name tag for a user’s device - keeping a user’s identity anonymous while enabling advertisers to serve the most relevant, personalized ads and track campaign performance. 

Let’s explore how the IDFA works, the April 2021 policy that ended it, and how game developers can overcome the obstacles of losing access to it. 

Why did Apple kill the IDFA? 

Until 2021, the Apple IDFA was opt-out: users could go into their iPhone settings and opt out if they chose, but by default game developers could see their players’ IDFAs. With the iOS 14.5 update in April 2021, Apple started rolling out App Tracking Transparency, a new framework that made IDFA opt-in, meaning users get to decide whether to give each app access to their IDFA. You’ve probably seen those pop-ups in apps asking if you're okay with being tracked. That's the ATT in action.

Apple did this as a way to protect user privacy and give users more control over how app companies track them. 

How has IDFA deprecation impacted game developers?

Deprecating the IDFA had major implications on game developers, as it totally transformed how user acquisition for mobile games worked - making game growth extremely difficult. Here’s why: 

Naturally, most users choose not to opt in to the Apple IDFA - many don’t understand its implications and when prompted, will choose to maintain internet privacy. In fact, in Q3 2021, only 20% of iOS users chose to opt in, resulting in 40% of advertising impressions being lost. As of March 2022, ATT opt in rates increased to 46% - however, that’s still less than half of all iOS users. 

The Apple Identifier for Advertisers was critical to game developers because it connected ad impressions to installs on the user-level. How? Game developers could see that the same IDFA viewed an ad on Facebook and then installed the game a day later. This is how developers could attribute installs to specific marketing campaigns and get insight into how effective their UA spend was, informing decisions on where and whether they could spend most profitably. 

But when users opt out of the IDFA, mobile game developers no longer know which channels are driving which users, making it nearly impossible to run user acquisition and measure the success of their ad campaigns. 

On top of that, IDFAs were essential for targeting ads to a game’s most relevant users. If a player enjoyed strategy games, that would be associated with their device identifier - meaning developers, and particularly those that are more midcore or niche, could easily find the users who were most likely to install and engage with their game. Without an IDFA, it’s much harder to know which ads are most relevant to show each user, hurting both the advertisers, who are less efficient in their ad spend, and publishers who are monetizing their ad space, because they can’t price their inventory as effectively. 

To summarize, losing the Apple Identifier for Advertisers impacted game developers in the following ways: 

  • No ad personalization: Deprecating the IDFA doesn’t mean fewer ads, it means fewer personalized ads - without access to user-level data, game developers can’t customize their ads for certain players, limiting the effectiveness of their user acquisition campaigns.
  • No targeting and remarketing: Since game developers don’t know which channels players frequent more than others (like Facebook, Instagram, etc), they can’t run targeted remarketing ad campaigns to get a specific player back in the game.
  • Limited measurement: Without knowing which marketing channels deliver high-quality and high-paying users, game developers can’t easily measure ROAS (return on ad spend). Ultimately, that means developers don’t know which marketing channels to allocate more budget to and which channels to pause. 

Alternatives to IDFA 

ATT is here to stay so game developers have to adapt to a new world. Adtech companies have tried to mitigate the loss of IDFAs by using other information to identify devices through a practice called “fingerprinting,” which uses other data associated with devices (like IP address, device type, etc.) to try to identify users. Though better than nothing, this type of “probabilistic” modeling is a much less effective way of approximating IDFA-like device identification and has been continually under attack by further limitations imposed by Apple on the use of device data.

The best developers are those that recognize that a new era requires new and innovative approaches. Our suggestion? Building direct-to-consumer channels like web shops and first-party game launchers

It’s well known that once ATT went into effect, mobile games began to struggle - starting with an immediate 9.8% decrease in mobile game revenue. However, a handful of game developers managed to circumvent that crash - namely Playika, Huuuge, and Plarium. How? By going direct-to-consumer. 

With a direct-to-consumer channel, only you - the game developer - get to own and access all your user data, not an app store or operating system. That means, there can’t come a time when a third-party like Apple or Google takes away a key piece of identifier data from you. 

Let’s say for example, you’re a game developer that’s built a web shop - an owned channel that sits outside your game and on the web, where you can sell items directly to players and without going through the App Store's In-App Purchase system or Google Play’s billing system. Think of it like Shopify for your game. 

A user visits your web shop and purchases an item. To confirm the purchase and get a receipt, they enter an email address. Now, that email address is your own first-party data, which you can use as an identifier between purchase behavior and game behavior. That’s arguably even better than an IDFA! 

By getting access to your users’ email addresses, you can retarget them, build new lookalike audiences, and communicate directly with your active players - all of which became practically impossible since Apple deprecated IDFA in 2021. 

Without IDFA With D2C
Create a unified user ID ❓(only if they opt-in) ✅ (email, phone)
Build lookalike audiences
Communicate with users directly

That’s exactly what Playtika, Huuuge, Plarium, and others did, which we covered extensively in this blog. To recap:

  • Huuuge’s revenue decreased from $78M in 2022 to $72M in 2023 - likely because of ATT and IDFA. However, profit increased from $24.5M to $27M in that same period. How can that be? Because their direct-to-consumer revenue increased from 3% to 8%. That means that going direct-to-consumer pulled Huuuge out of the ATT slump so many other game developers experienced. 
  • The same happened to Playtika. Playtika’s revenue increased from $2.58B in 2021 to $2.62B in 2022. However, they experienced a $65M decrease in app store revenue during that time period. How did revenue increase if revenue decreased? Direct-to-consumer increased by 15%. 

Overcome the IDFA today

Reach out to us at Stash to learn more about setting up your own direct-to-consumer channel and overcoming Apple IDFA hurdles. We’ll help you build a best-in-class web shop, where you can collect first-party user data like email addresses - so you can finally get back what IDFA deprecation took away from you. 

Not ready to reach out? Play with our demo web shop here and see what we can do for you.

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