the age of ad-pocalypse

Facebook CAPI, Server-side GTM, and how the 20’s are the 00’s all over again

It’s hard not to notice the feud brewing between our friends at Facebook and Apple. One side keeps talking about small businesses not being able to reach their customers, and the other about people not having privacy online anymore. So what gives? Like anything worth jawing about, it’s complicated. Let’s dive in.

how’d we get here?

In the early days of the internet, you had to dig into your server logs to know how much traffic your site was getting. It was difficult and generally limited to IT and software development departments. (Though that started to change with software that could build easy-to-digest reports.) But server logs were always pretty bare bones—you could count page views, but what users actually did on your pages was a mystery.

That all changed with page tags: snippets of HTML and JavaScript that tracked visitors’ activities in much greater detail. These page tags could track interactions between page loads or mark you with cookies suggesting preferences or patterns. Apps were even better—tracking was virtually unblockable and marketers could be far more confident they were targeting specific groups based on the data they had collected.

It was all rather convenient for marketers and folks using the web for their businesses. Unfortunately, it was a little less convenient for visitors and customers. Sites got slow. One day you’d buy a vacuum cleaner from your favorite digital storefront and the next, you’d see the rest of the internet lit up with ads suggesting you buy two, three, or even a dozen more vacuums. It seemed like sites and services knew a lot more about you than you did—and that sealed page tags’ fate.

so what now?

We’ve gotten used to news of data breaches and privacy violations over the last decade. It seems like the bill’s due for the tech sector. Legislation and regulation is coming—if not already here—and it has folks reasonably spooked. More immediately, Apple’s making pretty big changes around how they handle user data on their platforms.

Apple has kicked these updates down the road a few times so don’t hold your breath, but the TL;DR on what’s starting to happen with iOS 14 and macOS Big Sur:

  • Any updates to apps in the app store will require an explicit declaration of what data is and is not collected from users’ activities. If the apps go outside those boundaries, they could get kicked off the App Store.
  • If apps follow those rules and try to access users’ data, users will see a serious-looking modal, the App Tracking Transparency prompt. Put simply: “is it okay for this app to collect this data about you, and can that be used to track you across multiple apps or websites?” (In a recent interview with Tim Cook, Kara Swisher fairly pointed out this might be a leading question.)
  • Unsurprisingly, many marketers are worried users are going to hit the “heck no” option. This has the potential to deliver hefty blows to ad tech companies’ revenues.
  • Websites are going to see some pretty big changes, too. Most web analytics trackers won’t be able to stitch data together across different websites, and many ad trackers might be blocked outright.

As users, all this sounds long overdue. As digital marketers, there is a lot of uncertainty around where we go from here.

CAPI and the age of “privacy”

While Facebook is busy making a real fuss over these privacy changes via full-page ads in the national papers, folks are already charting the new frontier: server-side analytics. But wait a minute, isn’t that what we did back in 2002? Kinda. Facebook is promoting their Conversions API (CAPI) and Google has Server-side GTM. Here’s how they’re a little different than in 2002: 

Analytics and ads page tags will still exist, but when they collect data, it’ll have to be forwarded from your own servers to your analytics or ads platform of choice.

Rather than sending their data to directly facebook.com or analytics.google.com, page tags will need to set up your own servers to relay that data to Google, Facebook, etc. This can be fairly simple (like CAPI, which just asks that you tell Facebook when a user they sent buys something) or more complex (Google wants to mirror many of your existing analytics through an intermediate server). This is going to be a lot more complicated and harder to maintain than regular page tags. Your dev team will probably be mad, then a little excited to be doing something a bit more ambitious than copy/pasting JavaScript snippets.

Breathe in. Breathe out. We good?

what comes next?

Let’s be real: while this is a little scary for companies like Facebook and Google, they are much more likely to come out of this unscathed than your mom-and-pop ad-serving shops. Google announced Chrome is going to drop support for third-party cookies (i.e. random ad and analytics trackers) in the next few years; Facebook is undoubtedly focused on keeping its ad offerings compelling across their platforms.

If we’re being optimistic, multi-billion dollar companies are generally a lot better about keeping data secure and mostly-anonymized so nobody can do anything too nefarious. If we’re being pessimistic (or realistic), it’s convenient Google will be the only one able to sell targeted ads for Chrome users, and Facebook has their suite of apps and companies.

So what’s your friendly neighborhood e-commerce business supposed to do? We recommend you start here:

  • Revisit your digital advertising campaigns and their ROI. It turns out some advertising platforms’ ROI numbers aren’t quite as rosy when they can’t claim a transaction someone placed four weeks after they scrolled past your ad on Instagram. In fact, after using a nifty ROAS template from our friends at Common Thread Collective, we realized Facebook was overattributing one client’s spend quite a bit once Facebook could only track conversions 7 days out. (Spoiler alert: that client has since stopped spending money on Facebook)
  • Rethink your relationship to your customers’ data. Be honest: do you need to know every.single.piece of information you’re asking your customers for? As digital marketers, we have become comfortable knowing a lot about our customers. We believe it’s time to redefine the relationship. Forgive us for being old-fashioned, but sometimes it’s better to have real conversations and ask your customers what they want. (Or at the very least, think of other ways to identify your customers’ problems like return policies or checkout, rather than letting an algorithm take potshots at their wallet.)
  • Make a plan for how you’re going to handle data collection moving forward. Browser and app tracking changes are going to force a lot of difficult decisions—you’re much better off getting a jump on them now. Time to upgrade to GA4? Or perhaps buy a new analytics platform entirely?

Rome wasn’t built in a day and a new standard for advertising and analytics won’t be either. The world of adtech has lots of moving parts and you’re not alone if you feel lost or confused about next steps. There’s nothing we like more than setting facts straight and being thoughtful about our clients’ problems, so drop us a line. We’re here to help.

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