Why Apple’s SKAdNetwork 4.0 release could affect mobile app measurement

Alongside the release of iOS 16.1 last week, Apple quietly rolled out SkAdNetwork 4.0 (SKAN 4), the latest version of its privacy-based campaign measurement framework. The new iteration of SKAN contains key improvements that promise to make the tool more efficient for both mobile app developers and marketers.

Apple launched the first edition of SKAN in 2018, with the goal of boosting users’ privacy while still providing marketers with the data they need to grow their businesses. To accomplish this, SKAN shares conversion data with advertisers without revealing any user-level or device-level data

Several key updates to SKAN 4 promise to make the framework more accessible and useful to companies looking to measure the performance of their mobile marketing campaigns. Digiday spoke to several experts to learn how the launch of SKAdNetwork 4.0 could impact the mobile app marketing and measurement space.

The key numbers:

  • The first version of SKAdNetwork was released in 2018, with later versions rolling out in 2020 and 2021. (The release notes for all versions, including SKAN 4, are publicly available on Apple’s developer website.)
  • Since its release, SKAN has become relatively widespread in mobile app marketing and measurement, but not entirely ubiquitous. “On the publishing side, we all have the SKAN IDs for the different ad vendors that serve their ads within our apps,” said Dom Davies, a mobile games consultant. “As far as user acquisition goes, I would say about 75 percent of our spend goes through ad networks that utilize SKAN attribution.”
  • Observers had been anticipating the release of SKAN 4 since early June, when Apple announced the impending release of the updated framework at its 2022 Worldwide Developers Conference. But some were surprised when SKAN 4 did not come out alongside the initial release of iOS 16 on Sept. 12.

Problems with past versions:

Increased privacy is certainly a good thing for users, but less so for developers. And SKAN has struggled to attain mass adoption across the mobile app development landscape. Some marketers complain that past versions of SKAN simply don’t give them enough information to act on.

“The majority of our customers are still trying to figure out how much they can get reporting and measurement to work for them with SKAN as it is today,” said Katie Madding, Chief Product Officer of mobile measurement company Adjust.

At the moment, Madding said, Adjust still has customers who have been wary of dipping their toes in SKAN because of the complexity of the tool. Skepticism from some corners could be a significant factor behind the changes Apple implemented in SKAN 4. 

“At the moment, it’s so ridden with issues, and a lack of any sort of measurement data, that there’s really no incentive for customers to move over to this new framework,” Madding said of SKAN 3. “Unless, of course, Apple throws down the gauntlet and says, ‘Everybody, you have to do it now.'”

Major changes:

There are three major improvement areas in the newest version of SKAN that experts say could make the tool more appealing to users:

  • Campaign measurement: Simply put, SKAN 4’s updates give marketers a better understanding of which campaigns are successfully driving quality users to their apps. Under previous versions of SKAN, campaigns could only be identified via a Campaign ID number between 0 and 99. SKAN 4 includes a function called “Source ID,” which assigns a detailed four-digit identifier to each campaign. Now, there are 10,000 different ID combinations, as opposed to only 100 campaign IDs. 
  • Conversion values: SKAN 4 expands marketers’ options for measuring the quality of in-app engagement — in other words, whether users are actually making purchases or driving other users to purchase. Marketers can assign conversion values to low, medium or high grains, essentially giving them more opportunities to understand the value of specific users. 
  • Web support: SKAN 4 gives marketers access to improved web-to-app attribution, allowing them to better understand how advertising in traditional web browsers connects to in-app engagement. If companies have ad inventory across both apps and the web, this makes it easier for them to execute cross-channel attribution. “Prior versions of SKAN didn’t support that whatsoever,” Madding said.
  • (This blog post by Madding provides a more detailed technical breakdown of how these improvements work.)

The future of SKAN:

Despite the aforementioned fixes, SKAN 4 is still far from perfect. And although it could make life easier for developers and marketers across the mobile app development space, its release is a relatively subtle shift for most users. 

“It’s a behind-the-scenes change,” Davies said. “We know SKAdNetwork has its issues, and we’ve factored those shortcomings into our model already, so we’re pretty comfortable buying with it. At this point, anything that comes through, it’s only going to make things easier on us.”

As the industry adjusts to SKAN 4, Davies said he anticipates more updates and changes to the framework in the future, but he does not see any major upheaval on the horizon.

“I think it’ll always be a work in progress; there’ll always be small refinements,” he said. “But I think we’re over the worst of it at this point. At this point, it works — it’s just a matter of refining it.”


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