Did App Tracking Transparency Really Ruin Small Businesses?

Patrick McGee from Financial Times penned an article named “Small businesses count cost of Apple’s privacy changes“. The piece, as the title may already suggest, focuses on the premise that privacy changes from Apple, namely App Tracking Transparency (ATT), increase marketing expenses for small businesses. To make his case, the author cited a few companies that had to scale back, fire staff or even close shops due to rising marketing costs.

The alleged impact on SMBs’ customer acquisition expense has been one of the primary talking points of ATT critics. Make no mistakes here, I do think that ATT did make acquisitions more expensive, but it’s not right to say that Apple wrecks the advertising world or every company regardless of size. First of all, privacy and personal data belong to users. Facebook’s business model hinges on selling access to such data even though there was never explicit consent. There is no prohibitive policy on what Facebook does to user data captured on Facebook platforms. What Apple did is to simply give users an ability to allow or disallow Facebook to track them off-platforms. If it were wrong to let the end users have a voice in the use of their own data, then we would have a bigger problem at hands, wouldn’t we? In a world where personal freedom is considered sacred, why can’t we have a say in how our own data should be used or in whether we should be tracked on our own phone?

Facebook and other ads platforms were quick to use ATT as an excuse for their disappointing financial performance. However, as Nick Heer deftly pointed out, the timing of ATT and the reported numbers in the subsequent quarters indicate that there are other forces at play.

The actual figures tell a much murkier story. I do not think it is fair to suggest ATT does nothing, but its effect does not seem as pronounced as either its biggest supporters or its biggest naysayers suggest. Snap, for example, is a company that has no major revenue stream outside of ad placements in its smartphone apps. But in Q3 2021, a full quarter after ATT’s public debut, Snap posted year-over-year revenue growth of 57% overall. In North America, it reported 60% growth — higher than in any other region.

The following quarters all show overall revenue gains in North America just one percentage point below the company’s total growth. It is a pattern that more closely mimics the number of daily active users. Snap has only posted modest, single-digit year-over-year gains in North American users, but decent double-digit growth elsewhere. Meanwhile, its growth in the average revenue per user has been stronger in North America since ATT’s debut than anywhere else.

Meta’s business is the one everyone appears to be watching because two quarters this year have been rough. In its most recent, it reported its first ever year-over-year revenue decline, which dropped by about a billion dollars in Europe and about $600 million in the U.S. and Canada. That is alarming for the company, to be sure, but it still does not track with ATT causality for two reasons:

  • iOS is far more popular in the U.S. and Canada than it is in Europe, but Meta incurred a greater revenue decline — in absolute terms and, especially, in percentage terms — in Europe.
  • Meta was still posting year-over-year gains in both those regions until this most recent quarter, even though ATT rolled out over a year ago.

In the case of Facebook, this is a tough environment for their business. TikTok is insanely popular among younger users and shows no signs of abating. A few days ago, Pew Research reported that only 32% of teenagers aged 13 to 17 in the US used Facebook, a massive drop from 71% reported in 2015. Additionally, supply chain, inflation and the threat of an economic downturn are red-hot concerns for every business and they all prompt businesses to take a hard look at expenses, among which advertising is the easiest and most obvious choice. When there are such headwinds, it’s a little bit dishonest and misleading to say that ATT is the primary reason for financial mishaps.

Think about it this way. If regulators cracked down on the sales of dubious cryptocurrency or increased the scrutiny on this business, the issuers would say: well, your actions would affect companies that sold accessories like cold storage. How do you think about that argument? For me, it’s pretty similar to what we have regarding ATT. Businesses that directly or indirectly benefit from shady practices should know that eventually there will come a time when somebody refuses to look the other way.

I’ll let the CEO of one of the companies cited in the article reflect on how ATT impacted his business

Shelly Cove’s Schroeder has cut his digital ads budget to one-third what it was a month ago, hoping that returning customers will keep the business afloat. “It’s irresponsible to say ‘Apple killed my business’,” he said. “I’m self reflecting — I realised I was way too reliant on Facebook.”

I don’t believe that as a society, we need surveillance tracking which Facebook is engaged into, in order for small businesses to survive. As the owner of the biggest social media apps in the world with millions of daily active users, Facebook has enough at their disposal to compete. They can afford expensive PR campaigns to repair their image and generate goodwill. These will lead to more trust from users and ultimately permission to track the them across apps. Moreover, the executives already thought about changing their business models. They just decided not to, out of concern that it would hurt the bottom line. Well, perhaps the recent onslaught on the stock may change their minds.

In this debate, I support Apple, but I am under no illusion that the company is an angel. The company is driven by the top and bottom line too. Though Apple has their own reasons why they do certain things and I believe them in many cases, I also believe that if they could curtail their greed a bit and do things a little bit differently, there wouldn’t be as many criticisms leveled at them as what we see now. Examples are:

  • Invest more in app reviews. Some developers complain about the time-consuming aspect of the review process and how it can be used to coerce developers into paying the company more
  • Be more discreet about the ads business. The launch of ATT and the ads business were pitifully close to each other. It’s no surprise that folks lament that Apple cares more about its financials, than users
  • Stop pushing their own services at every chance. Even I am annoyed that Apple advertises their own services on the Settings or Profile page on my iPhone. As the most followed brand in the world, with the financial resources at disposal, I am sure Apple won’t have to worry too much about consumers not knowing their services

In short, I am in favor of ATT and giving consumers more say in how they are tracked. Having said that, I do understand why some folks are frustrated with Apple and doubt their motive. I am sorry that some small businesses got caught up in this whole situation. But I have no empathy for Facebook, even the slightest.

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