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SKAdNetwork 4.0 guide: Apple’s attribution API

Laiba Tariq

Updated: October 16, 2023

25 min read

Content

SKAdNetwork

If you’ve been in the digital space in recent years— as a user, advertiser, developer, or any other role— you most likely know the recent trend of everyone urging user level data and user privacy to be off-limits when it comes to advertisement.

Facebook was found to be selling user data on a global stage, but it certainly isn’t the only one on the list. And without personal user data, it’s not exactly easy to serve signed ads or create impactful ad campaigns! 

On the other hand, users prefer apps and websites that protect their individual sensitive data. 

So this time, we’re talking about SKAdNetwork, an ad framework that Apple introduced in 2018 to balance ad network’s responsibilities by providing aggregate data while protecting user data! 

What is SKAdNetwork?

Short for StoreKit Ad Network, SKAdNetwork is a privacy-driven advertising attribution framework for app developers and marketers to optimize their app’s ad campaign strategy. 

It was initially launched in 2018 by Apple to kill two birds with one stone: protect individual user privacy and provide realistic insights into advertising campaigns for marketers! It was introduced to attribute iOS’s ad campaigns across every advertising network out there, as well as tackle the ever-growing user privacy concerns.

And won’t you believe it? 

Developers, Mobile Measurement Providers (MMPs) and networks began adapting to the new network, ensuring compatibility and creating special dashboards to work seamlessly with SKAdNetwork! 

Main functions of SKAdNetwork

At its core, SKAdNetwork’s primary function is to provide advertisers with a secure and privacy-conscious method for attributing app installations and actions to specific ad campaigns.

But there’s a lot more that makes SKAdNetwork the necessary element of digital app privacy today.

Privacy-preserving attribution

SKAdNetwork is designed to maintain user privacy while allowing advertisers to measure the impact of their ad campaigns. It achieves this by providing attribution data without revealing individual user identities. This ensures that sensitive user information remains confidential.

Attribution without user data

Unlike traditional ad attribution methods that require sharing detailed user data, SKAdNetwork attributes app installations without accessing personal information. Advertisers can determine which ad source led to an app installation without knowing the specific user behind it.

Anonymized attribution

SKAdNetwork anonymizes user data before sharing it with advertisers. This aggregated data helps advertisers understand overall campaign performance without revealing details about individual users.

Conversion tracking

Advertisers can track user actions beyond just app installations using SKAdNetwork. For instance, they can monitor actions like making a purchase, registering an account, or reaching a specific level in a game. SKAdNetwork allows this without disclosing any personal user data!

Post-Install events

SKAdNetwork not only measures app installations but also tracks user actions within the app after installation. This provides valuable insights into user engagement and helps advertisers optimize their campaigns for desired post-install behaviors.

Ad network integration

Ad networks collaborate with SKAdNetwork to ensure accurate attribution. They register their identifiers and integrate with the framework, enabling seamless communication between the app and the network for proper campaign tracking.

Privacy compliance

SKAdNetwork aligns with Apple’s broader privacy initiatives, such as App Tracking Transparency (ATT), where users have more control over data tracking. It fits into Apple’s commitment to giving users greater privacy control.

Optimization Insights

SKAdNetwork’s data empowers advertisers with insights beyond mere installation numbers. They can understand user behaviors, evaluate the success of different ad campaigns, and adjust strategies to improve overall campaign effectiveness and return on investment.

Why is SKAdNetwork important?

The SKAdNetwork framework has emerged as a pivotal solution in the evolving landscape of digital advertising, bringing forth several compelling reasons that underscore its importance for advertisers and the industry as a whole.

Privacy-first approach

One of the most significant reasons for SKAdNetwork’s importance lies in its robust privacy-focused design. 

With increasing concerns over user data privacy and stringent regulations like GDPR and CCPA, SKAdNetwork provides a privacy-first solution that allows advertisers to track campaign performance and attribute conversions without compromising individual user identities. 

This not only ensures compliance with privacy regulations but also builds trust among users, fostering a more ethical and transparent advertising ecosystem.

Reliable campaign attribution

SKAdNetwork addresses the challenge of attribution in a multi-touchpoint customer journey. Advertisers often struggled to accurately attribute conversions to specific touchpoints due to discrepancies and data fragmentation. SKAdNetwork simplifies this process by providing a reliable and standardized attribution mechanism. 

Advertisers get more insight to understand which marketing efforts led to app installations and subsequent conversions, offering clarity on campaign effectiveness and eliminating ambiguity in attribution.

Data-driven optimization with limited intrusion

SKAdNetwork empowers advertisers to optimize campaigns while respecting user privacy. Despite the limitations on detailed user-level data, advertisers can still derive valuable insights from post-install events and conversion values. 

This data-driven approach allows for continuous optimization of targeting, creatives, and conversion funnel strategies, enhancing campaign performance without resorting to intrusive data collection practices that could alienate users.

How does SKAN work?

Before I jump into how SKAN works and all of its conversion values, we have 4 parties that are foundational for the network to operate. 

The 4 main players of SKAdNetwork are: 

  1. Ad network: Ad networks are a platform that connects app publishers with app advertisers, reporting informational app metrics like conversions and installs.
  2. Publishing app: Publishing apps are those that display ad campaigns and serve signed ads from SKAN.
  3. Target app: Also known as the advertised app, target apps are the ones being advertised on the publishing app thanks to specific ad network IDs.
  4. Mobile Measurement Partners (MMP): These people are responsible for performing SKAdNetwork metrics such as calculating ad campaign effectiveness, coarse conversion value, and ad impressions. 

Now that we know all the players on the field, let’s take a nosedive into how SKAdNetwork works in the first place! And no, the process doesn’t have to be complicated at all. 

Here are the 6 steps that enable SKAdNetwork to operate:

Conversion Value

Advertisers assign a conversion value to specific user actions (e.g., in-app purchases). This numeric value helps measure user engagement.

App Registration

Advertisers register their app with SKAdNetwork and obtain unique identifiers (SKAdNetwork IDs) specific to their campaigns.

App Installation

When a user installs an app, SKAdNetwork captures this event without revealing the user’s identity. But it does extract any relevant and generic data that can be used by advertisers to target the app downloads and conversion values!

Attribution Signal

SKAdNetwork compiles attribution data into a signal. This signal contains details like the source of the ad (the ad network or source app), the SKAdNetwork ID, and the conversion value.

Anonymization

Crucially, SKAdNetwork anonymizes the signal, ensuring user privacy. The signal only contains aggregate data, protecting individual user details.

Ad Network Interaction

The signal is then shared with the relevant ad network for attribution. Ad networks interpret the signal to attribute installs to specific campaigns without knowing the individual user behind the installation.

These steps combined create a seamless and graceful SKAdNetwork flow for marketers to review ad attributions, conversion values, and ad impressions while maintaining secrecy around user-level data!

The SKAdNetwork flow

Before you come into the SKAN flow, you’ll need to register your ad network with Apple and receive an ad network ID. The diagram above reveals the typical journey of an ad impression leading to successful attribution. In a general context, the ad network serves an advertisement that becomes visible within an application. 

As users engage with the ad, either by viewing, clicking, or downloading the promoted app, the process of SKAdNetwork comes into play. The steps in this process are outlined as follows:

  1. The ad becomes visible within the source app. As this occurs, the app where the ad is displayed initiates a timer set for 3 seconds and communicates this event to SKAdNetwork.
  2. Should the ad remain on-screen for at least 3 seconds, the source app informs SKAdNetwork of this duration, leading to the recording of a successful view attribution.
  3. If the user’s interaction with the ad goes beyond just viewing and extends to interaction, the app that displays the ad invokes StoreKit.
  4. At this juncture, SKAdNetwork takes note of the interaction, registering the event of the ad being rendered through StoreKit.

How does the postback system work?

Postback system refers to the communication of data between one server and another, or rather from the publishing app to the target app. So how does it work in Apple’s SKAdNetwork?

The device initiates install-validation postbacks to several ad networks that have endorsed their advertisements (applicable to SkAdNetwork version 3 or newer). Among these, the victorious ad network is the recipient of a postback containing a “did-win=true” signal, indicating the ad impression that successfully secures the attribution.

In cases where the ad impression meets the criteria for attribution but does not emerge as the winner, the respective ad network obtains a postback featuring a “did-win=false” status. This process is repeated for up to five ad networks, offering insight into the attribution outcome for the given ad impression.

Want to know what happens to an ad impression that qualifies for the ad attribution but doesn’t win it? Here’s what that flow looks like:

Latest updates on SKAdNetwork 4.0

Over the years, Apple has been actively developing SKAdNetwork to make the framework robust, reliable, and the best of its kind. And fortunately for Apple, the world has been growing increasingly concerned about protecting user privacy. 

So with both those factors combined, SKAdNetwork 4.0 has come a long way in updating with key changes from its original version in 2018. Here are the 4 latest updates and changes you can find in SKAdNetwork 4.0.

LockWindow

This innovative approach allows app developers and marketers to utilize a lockWindow feature, enabling them to freeze a conversion value within a specified postback window. 

This way, they can receive postback information more swiftly without waiting for the entire period to conclude. For instance, instead of spanning the entire 3-7 day window, the second postback’s timeframe could be locked at any specific point within this range.

However, it’s important to grasp that employing the lockWindow involves making a trade-off. It grants you the advantage of obtaining postback data sooner, yet it also means potentially sacrificing the inclusion of certain vital information that might occur later in the postback window. 

If the conversion value is locked too early, you could miss out on capturing important user actions that are yet to happen.

Drawing parallels to the industry’s adoption of Facebook’s lockWindow in SKAN 3.0 (set at 24 hours), we can speculate that a similar approach might apply to SKAN 4.0 as well. 

This anticipates the likelihood of aligning with a comparable timeframe for achieving a balance between expedited insights and capturing comprehensive postback details.

Hierarchical conversion values

Apple has introduced a new option that grants access to limited, broader data – a shift from the previously available detailed data. This data accessibility, termed “Crowd Anonymity” by Apple, correlates with the number of installs your app accumulates. 

In essence, the more installs your app garners, the more data insights become available to you.

The recent update to Apple’s SKAdNetwork 4.0 focuses on maintaining user privacy by facilitating limited data sharing through postbacks. 

Notably, this update introduces a tiered system – encompassing low, medium, and high tiers – determined by the level of conversion activity within a campaign. Furthermore, this update extends the postback count to three, enhancing data granularity.

In SKAdNetwork 3.0, developers and marketers were restricted to fine-grained conversion values spanning 0 to 63. However, with SKAdNetwork 4.0, the realm of conversion values has expanded to encompass a broader range. 

These values can now be categorized into three levels of granularity: low, medium, and high, denoting various degrees of user engagement. The positive aspect is that even smaller campaigns, which previously fell beneath the privacy threshold, can now implement these broader conversion value models for better insights.

Multiple Conversions 

In the latest version of SKAdNetwork (SKAN 4.0), there’s an enhancement in how postbacks work. Instead of just one, up to three postbacks can now be received, each representing a specific time period for conversion analysis: 

  • 0-2 days, 
  • 3-7 days, and 
  • 8-35 days. 

It’s worth mentioning that within these time windows, multiple user interactions can be taken into account. In terms of conversion values, there’s a distinction:

  • The initial postback can now carry either detailed (fine-grain) or broader (coarse-grain) conversion values.
  • The second and third postbacks, however, are limited to only accepting broader (coarse-grain) conversion values.

Like the previous SKAN version (SKAN 3.0), there’s still a delay before each postback is sent, which is illustrated in the provided visual. 

Even though there are now three postbacks per user, it’s essential to understand that these postbacks won’t reveal specific user-level details such as IDFA or device ID, maintaining a focus on privacy.

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How to set up and register for SKAdNetwork?

Working with SKAdNetwork is relatively straightforward, but there are essential steps to take before fully relying on SKAdNetwork 4.0’s capabilities.

To begin, it’s important that the majority of iOS users update their devices to iOS 16.1, the version that supports SKAN 4.0. For the full benefits of SKAdNetwork 4.0 solutions provided by MMPs (Mobile Measurement Partners), app owners and developers must update their software development kits (SDKs). 

Plus, ad networks and SRNs (Self-Reporting Networks) should ensure compatibility with SKAN 4.0 to effectively receive postbacks from Apple. While these steps are still in progress, marketers can start considering how to utilize the extra data points made available by Apple.

The first practical step in implementing SKAdNetwork 4.0 is setting up your app within the App Store Connect portal

Once this is accomplished, you’ll need to integrate the SKAdNetwork SDK into your app (or configure it via a different MMP). This integration enables your app to monitor and gauge the effectiveness of your ad campaigns. 

It’s crucial to remember that each SRN and ad network comes with its own SKAdNetwork settings, which means adjusting your campaign configurations accordingly for each SRN.

After embedding the SDK, the next stage involves arranging your campaigns, defining post-install events, and more. Following this, you’ll map out your ad networks and SRNs, essentially setting up in-app events and attributing revenue values to each source.

Ultimately, you can harness SKAdNetwork data to measure your performance, facilitating an in-depth analysis of your campaigns for optimization as needed. 

Though the process involves several steps, SKAdNetwork 4.0 provides a promising avenue for marketers to track and enhance campaign effectiveness while respecting user privacy.

SKAdNetwork limitations

Beyond the benefits of SKAdNetwork protecting user level data and still being the top choice for mobile measurement partner’s effective advertising campaigns, SKAN has some limitations that can be fickle to solve in some instances. 

But that doesn’t mean you don’t have ways to get around these limitations! Here are the top 7 limitations of SKAdNetwork and how you can solve them:

Aggregate data challenge

SKAdNetwork delivers campaign aggregates without device ID or user-level visibility, posing obstacles to retargeting and multitouch attribution. 

To address this, advertisers can explore probabilistic modeling techniques, which analyze patterns to identify user behavior indirectly. Additionally, building strong relationships with trusted networks and collaborating closely can provide more accurate insights into campaign performance.

Post-back timing 

The 24-hour post-back delay impedes real-time optimization and hampers the network’s ability to optimize campaigns effectively. Advertisers can adopt predictive algorithms that leverage historical data to anticipate post-install user behavior. 

While real-time optimization might be restricted, predictive modeling can help fine-tune campaigns over time, compensating for the lack of instant feedback.

Lack of impression tracking

The absence of view-through attribution necessitates a shift in tracking strategies. Advertisers can prioritize click-through attribution and focus on optimizing ad creatives to encourage more clicks. 

Utilizing A/B testing and analyzing the correlation between clicks and subsequent actions can help gauge ad effectiveness and impact on user behavior.

Post-install activity 

SKAdNetwork’s limitation of reporting a single post-install event hinders the correlation of in-app actions to installation. Advertisers can leverage in-app analytics tools to track and understand user behavior within the app. 

Linking these insights with SKAdNetwork’s installation data enables a broader understanding of user engagement and helps measure campaign success beyond installs.

Deferred Deep-Linking 

The absence of deferred deep linking impacts user experience and conversion rates. Advertisers can implement contextual CTAs within the app, guiding users to specific sections related to the ad’s content. While not as seamless as deep linking, this approach maintains user engagement and minimizes the conversion rate impact.

Implementation Challenges

The implementation complexities of SKAdNetwork require ongoing development efforts to integrate new ad networks. Advertisers can streamline this process by utilizing deep linking platforms that offer integrations with multiple networks, reducing the need for extensive development work every time a new network is added.

Workflow Disruption 

Lack of access to underlying device-level data disrupts workflows that rely on it for audience building and more. Advertisers can adopt a hybrid approach, combining SKAdNetwork insights with other available data sources, such as contextual information or first-party data, to create more comprehensive audience profiles.

Getting the most out of SKAdNetwork as an advertiser

While SKAdNetwork presents challenges with its data limitations, advertisers can still extract valuable insights and optimize their campaigns effectively. Here are 4 ways you can use SKAdNetwork to work in your favor as an advertiser.

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Generate an organized campaign setup

Advertisers should define clear goals, and target audience segments, and establish key performance indicators (KPIs) that align with their campaign objectives. Having your goals and objectives on paper can help you deliver the results effectively with the right steps!

Take advantage of creative elements

Advertisers should experiment with different ad formats, visuals, and messaging to determine which combinations resonate most with their audience. 

A/B testing can yield valuable insights into what drives engagement and conversions, enabling continuous refinement of creatives. 

And once you’ve got your million-dollar blend of creative elements, you can drive up app installs, and ad impressions and enjoy a higher-rating and download rate in the app store!

Plot a conversion value strategy

Conversion value strategies play a significant role within SKAdNetwork. Assigning appropriate conversion values to different in-app events helps gauge user engagement accurately. Strategic placement of these values provides a nuanced understanding of user behavior beyond mere install attribution.

When advertisers strategically assign conversion values to different in-app events, they’re essentially ranking the importance of these events in relation to their campaign goals. 

For example, an e-commerce app might assign a higher conversion value to a purchase event compared to a product view event, indicating that a purchase holds more value in terms of user engagement and campaign success!

Perform contextual targeting and audience segmentation

Contextual targeting and audience segmentation are one way to improve your ad impressions and ad network effectiveness. Leveraging available data such as device type, location, and contextual information can enhance campaign relevance, leading to improved performance.

Although SKAdNetwork minimizes data granularity, advertisers can gain insights by analyzing post install events and performance patterns over time. Trends in conversion timing, frequency, and cohort analysis can unveil valuable information about user behavior and campaign efficacy.

To put this into perspective, let’s say your app is a workout app. Advertising it in a children’s game like Talking Tom wouldn’t reach your target demographic and will lead to poor ad impressions and installs. 

Instead, with contextual targeting, you’ll notice a jump in downloads if you advertise your workout app within a dieting app or health app!

Conclusion

SKAdNetwork stands as a framework designed to empower app developers in gauging ad campaign efficacy while upholding user privacy. This framework facilitates the measurement of ad clicks and conversions without disclosing any personally identifiable user information.

Foremost, SKAdNetwork extends a pivotal advantage by enhancing app developers’ comprehension of their ad campaign performance, enabling them to refine strategies accordingly. This refinement translates to improved ad targeting precision, heightened conversion rates, and ultimately, amplified revenue generation for the developers.

Moreover, SKAdNetwork plays a pivotal role in safeguarding user privacy by curbing the extent of data shared with advertisers. This aspect contributes to nurturing user confidence within the app ecosystem, a crucial facet in light of escalating concerns surrounding data privacy and security!

FAQs on SKAdNetwork

The primary function of SKAdNetwork is to enable ad attribution for app installations while safeguarding user privacy. It allows advertisers to determine the source of app installs without revealing individual user data, ensuring user privacy remains intact in the attribution process.

Also known as SKAN, SKAdNetwork’s full form is StoreKit Ad Network. SKAdNetwork is Apple’s API-based framework for ad measurement and attribution, with a high focus on protecting privacy. SKAdNetwork provides an aggregated form of insights to advertisers without providing any individual user data.

To set up SKAdNetwork, update your app’s SDK, and add SKAdNetwork identifiers to the Info.plist, integrate the SKAdNetwork API for attribution, work with ad networks for campaign alignment, configure conversion values, thoroughly test the implementation, and monitor post-launch performance. As a cherry on top, you should also collaborate with ad partners for accuracy.

SKAdNetwork installs might be lower than expected due to its privacy-centric design. It aggregates attribution data to maintain user anonymity, resulting in fewer individual install records. Additionally, inaccurate conversion values or incomplete setup with ad networks can affect attribution accuracy, contributing to lower reported installations.

Yes, Google supports SKAdNetwork! The Google Mobile Ads SDK helps you perform conversion tracking using Apple’s SKAdNetwork. Hence, by integrating the API through your Google accounts, you can enjoy a seamless experience of working with aggregate insights for attribution and ad measurement!

Yes, Facebook supports SKAdNetwork, which is Apple’s privacy-preserving attribution framework for measuring the effectiveness of mobile ad campaigns without revealing user-level data. This enables advertisers to track app installs and conversions while maintaining user privacy.

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