Why Apple Needs to Get Better at Ads

Apple needs to get better at ads. Not its own ads, but its ad product for third parties. Why? Well, a couple of reasons: streaming audio and streaming video.  The challenge is advertisements don’t come naturally to Apple. But it’s going to have to conquer those challenges if it’s to be successful in the next phase of delivering digital content.

First things first: Apple’s ad product today is iAd. Its become relatively sophisticated since Apple first launched it in July 2010 and now offers quite a few options for would-be advertisers across iOS apps and iTunes Radio. It offers targeting by device, age, gender, location (down to designated marketed areas in the US but only country level in the other 13 countries it serves), iTunes Store preferences (i.e. what has the user bought before from the App Store or iTunes Music, Video or iBook stores), and app category. Over time, Apple has increased the percentage of ad revenue developers get to keep from 60% to 70% and reduced the minimum spend commitment from a reputed $1 million to just $50. Given Apple only got into the ad business in 2010 (with its acquisition of Quattro Wireless), its come a long way. With that lower threshold, higher revenue share to developers, and more self serve tools, the iAd product is significantly more attractive today to both developers and advertisers than it was back in 2010.

But Apple faces many challenges, several of which are likely due to an ingrained resistance to the kind of behavior that makes advertising work. In order to be successful today, online and mobile advertising needs to offer the following:

  • Very effective and detailed targeting of users. Apple incorporates some useful signals here but they’re all either generic (age, gender and location) or iTunes specific. There are few explicit signals of interests outside the digital content categories Apple sells, such as general retail, clothing, cars, or beverages; or demographic data such as income, family size and so on.
  • Successful tracking of users across devices and platforms. That data comes from capturing a large portion of end users’  behavior across multiple devices and platforms. Because Apple’s data is limited to what users explicitly provide to it through manually entered information and iTunes/App Store purchasing behavior, it’s nowhere near as rich as competitors’ data. The shift by Apple away from UDIDs and towards CFUUIDs was actually partly an attempt to thwart this sort of tracking across devices, for privacy reasons, but it set Apple’s ad capabilities and advertisers back in the process. The newer Ad IDs and IDFVs are a partial solution to this problem, but give users yet more privacy options, thereby potentially limiting what advertisers can do. 
  • Retargeting. Closely related to the previous item, retargeting is the process of re-approaching users who saw an ad but didn’t engage with it, following them around the web, for example, until they click on another ad and hopefully completing a purchase. Given Apple doesn’t have an online ad product, it can’t play in this space at all. Its Ad IDs and IDFVs remain limited to single devices and so prevent even retargeting across Apple products.
  • Attribution of sales to ads. Given John Wanamaker’s famous saying about not knowing which half of his advertising was working, it’s natural advertisers want to be able to track the effectiveness of their mobile and online ads if the tools exist to do so. As such, attribution is a hot segment of ad tech today, and both AOL and Google made acquisitions in this area last week. Apple offers attribution (and therefore cost per acquisition options) for app installs and video views, but not for other products. Attribution is tough when you’re not following users into the next phase of the purchase process, which Apple doesn’t currently do.
  • Programmatic buying and other forms of automation. Another key ad tech area at present is programmatic buying, or the shifting of more and more ad spend to automated platforms which algorithmically allocate spend to the ideal platforms to achieve objectives set by advertisers (or their buyers). Even though iAd has come a long way towards self serve, individual campaigns are still subject to sign off from Apple and as such can’t be part of broader programmatic buying campaigns.

All of the above may be seen as a sort of backhanded compliment to Apple – in its desire to protect users’ privacy and prevent subpar ad products from reaching them, Apple has significantly limited its own attractiveness as a destination for advertising. Its ad products haven’t performed anywhere near as well in revenue terms as other mobile ad platforms as a result. As a side effect, of course, other mobile ad platforms are capturing that spending instead and are pushing many ads to iOS apps in the process, most of them inferior to the standard Apple sets for iAd.

But why is this important? Unlike Google, Apple doesn’t have to generate massive amounts from advertising to keep its business afloat, so does it even matter? Well, yes it does, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, as Apple pushes further into streaming music (either organically or through the rumored Beats acquisition) it is likely to want to expand its range of ad-funded streaming music options beyond the current iTunes Radio product. Though Beats itself has eschewed the ad-funded model, Apple hasn’t and that’s a recognition ad-funded streaming is going to become increasingly important. According to the IFPI, streaming music has risen from 12% of digital music revenues to 28% in the last five years and ad-funded streaming remains at about 30% of total streaming revenues. If Apple is serious about getting into the broader streaming music business, it will have to have an ad-funded option, and that will increase pressure to provide an optimal advertising product.

Secondly, Apple will likely need to adopt a streaming model for video services too, eventually including live video. If it wants the rights for live video, it will have to provide ad insertion technology for that platform too in order to fill the many ad slots in linear programming on most broadcast and cable networks. Even if it doesn’t want to do live video, it may well need to look at ad-funded models for a streaming service over time. That requires much better targeting than it is currently able to provide, as well as some of the other features discussed above.

Apple doesn’t appear to need advertising as a revenue stream today, and it’s arguable it could continue as it is for some time. But given the shift in both the music and video markets towards streaming, it will have to adapt if it is to maintain its stagnating digital content revenues. And that will mean addressing the tension between protecting its users and creating an effective platform for advertisers. It needn’t sacrifice its principles to do so, but it may well need to make further ad tech acquisitions and continue evolving the iAd product in order to fill competitive gaps and make iAd a more attractive option for advertisers. It has an enormously attractive base of customers for advertisers to target – many of them high income, high spending users – but needs to give advertisers the tools to target them effectively and to measure the potency of their ads. Doing that while maintaining its commitment to user privacy and product quality will be a tricky balancing act to pull off.

Published by

Jan Dawson

Jan Dawson is Founder and Chief Analyst at Jackdaw Research, a technology research and consulting firm focused on consumer technology. During his sixteen years as a technology analyst, Jan has covered everything from DSL to LTE, and from policy and regulation to smartphones and tablets. As such, he brings a unique perspective to the consumer technology space, pulling together insights on communications and content services, device hardware and software, and online services to provide big-picture market analysis and strategic advice to his clients. Jan has worked with many of the world’s largest operators, device and infrastructure vendors, online service providers and others to shape their strategies and help them understand the market. Prior to founding Jackdaw, Jan worked at Ovum for a number of years, most recently as Chief Telecoms Analyst, responsible for Ovum’s telecoms research agenda globally.

22 thoughts on “Why Apple Needs to Get Better at Ads”

  1. “Apple doesn’t appear to need advertising as a revenue stream today …”

    Adverts are almost always detrimental to the user experience. (With the possible exception of Ads in a search query)

    The day that Apple decides its needs to change things to improve its advertising revenue stream is the day that Apple ceases to be Apple.

  2. I have to disagree. The lack of ads in the Apple ecosystem is an advantage. Raise your hand if you like ads in your face… anyone? anyone? Now, I don’t mind ads integrated in a nice way that makes sense and even adds value for the user (5by5 as an example), but Google is treading on thin ice right now. I wouldn’t want their business model going forward. Privacy, security, and curation are the future. A business model that depends on selling user data doesn’t seem wise.

    Keep in mind that Apple is steadily cultivating a user base that is willing to pay for value, and I think part of that is not having ads shoved in your face.

    1. And yet they have apps with ads in them, and launched a product – iTunes Radio – which plays ads on the free version. Apple has already embraced ads as a business model and revenue source. Given the shift to streaming video and music, and the popularity of free, ad-supported options, Apple’s choice now is whether to embrace that or watch its digital content revenues continue to decline.

      1. Some advertising is simply reality, but if incorporated in a good/smart way ads are not annoying. Apple has the luxury, the freedom, to implement ads in this way. Google does not. When I said ‘lack of ads’ I didn’t mean zero ads. But in my use of Apple’s ecosystem I rarely see ads. Is that true of Google’s ecosystem? Or Facebook? Apple may be the only refuge for users concerned with privacy, security, and curation.

          1. Yes, perhaps we agree more than I had originally thought. Still, I would not want Google’s business model going forward.

  3. Apple will soon have one billion credit card carrying users. Google and Facebook will never get there. Who in their right mind would give their credit card number to an ad firm?

      1. Not like Facebook and Google are ad firms, at their hearts. The point to this article is how scary ads are for Apple and so it does poorly at them. Apple has a much bigger game to play in health and wealth industries, which will require trust and confidentiality.

        1. I agree that Apple is a fundamentally different kind of company in that its survival doesn’t depend solely on ad revenue, and therefore is somewhat immune to the pressure to push boundaries on user privacy and so on. But to the extent it wants to maintain a good business in digital content, which drives hardware purchases, it will have to become more proficient at providing really competitive ad products.

          1. Competitive ad products? For whom? If your assumption is that advertisers are Apple’s sole customers (as in, the ones who pay your bills), as they are for Google and Facebook, then competitive ad products are central issues. Apple’s customers are the users. It’s major concern is competitive user products.

            As you say, Jan, Apple is from Venus, Google is from Mars … bars.

            And it’s last in, last lost, when it comes to security and privacy.

          2. I’m very aware Apple’s main customers are its end users. But its advertisers are also an important constituency (see all the material at http://advertising.apple.com/). Just because users come first doesn’t mean its offering to advertisers couldn’t improve. But that’s the tension here.

          3. OK. At a billion credit card carrying users, however, quantity might just trump quality. Or as the marxists put it, quantity transmutes into quality.

          4. As I said, advertisers want all the things I listed, and Apple is providing some but not most of them. It’s up to Apple what it does, but if it wants to be more successful than it has been in ads, it needs to step up its game. Quantity and quality of eyeballs are both attractive, but the discussion has moved well beyond those. Advertisers want to target, retarget, track and attribute, and Apple will need to do more to help them if it wants to do more ad-based products.

          5. The web is the web. If you somehow perceive Apple as immune to “molery”, I wish you a blissful existence.
            You speak of “Freebooters” as if it’s exclusively a bad thing. Well then, perhaps Apple should go a “tithe system” and really kick things up…

          6. Nobody’s immune. Apple struggles to build transparency as a company and brand. Google’s rich boy owners struggle to hide their finances and molery.

            Please don’t misunderstand: Apple must hide trade secrets. That’s integrity, not secrecy. Fences make good neighbors.

            About freebooters: I’m one of them; I use Google services. Nothing wrong with freebootery generally. They just aren’t customers in any real sense.

          7. I doubt that an ad funded content business will drive hardware purchases. An ad business has to be attractive for the consumer. Otherwise it won’t work long term because consumers will be annoyed. If ads do work for consumers (watching ads, buying advertised stuff) big money will follow – even if there is no targeting at all.
            Targeting is not the major reason why search is working. Search works because people find what they are looking for (with a lot of people looking for items with the intention to buy). Plus ads in search are not nearly as annoying as an ad in the middle of a classic concert on YouTube. No matter whether one is interested in the product advertised or not.

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