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In a time when certain tech CEOs are sharing white supremacist memes and telling advertisers to go ^&#$ themselves, and OpenAI is busy firing and rehiring its CEO, and a crypto billionaire is going to prison for doing crypto… it’s a little bit of a relief when the big news being made by Apple is “We are changing how link tracking works in our new software update.” It’s a normal, manageable change—but still one we need to be ready for.

Apple recently released a new operating system update, iOS 17, for iPhones in mid-September. Included in it are updates to how the operating system will handle link tracking, which Apple calls Link Tracking Protection (LTP). As with other deliverability changes, we wanted to explore what this means for our pals in digital fundraising. TL;DR: Digital advertisers might see some turbulence, email fundraisers should be fine. 

What is Link Tracking Protection?

Link Tracking Protection will strip out some tracking information/ parameters added to the end of URLs. Lots of people are worried that this will strip out all of their tracking and they’ll never be able to source a donation ever again—a.k.a. the nonprofit fundraising apocalypse. Don’t worry, it’s not that bad. 

Tracking Parameters are the little pieces of extra information at the end of a URL. They pass important information to your CRM or analytics tracking system and website. They might be used to track lead source information, track uses of donation form, or identify which email a user donated to.

They look a little something like this:

This tracking can be broken down into Click Tracking and User Tracking

  • Click Tracking is less specific to an individual user. Mainly this comes in the form of Urchin Tracking Modules (UTM) parameters, which allow us to add broader tracking details, like channel, source, or campaign. UTMs are specific to Google Analytics. Some other Click Tracking includes, epik (Pinterest) or si (Spotify). This is the red highlighted portion “utm_medium=email”.

User Tracking usually comes in the form of URL parameters or query strings. They allow us to add information to a specific URL that is unique to the user. These are Google ads, Facebook advertising, and Google display network. This is the purple highlighted portion “gclid=EXAMPLE”.

What exactly is changing?

Apple’s stated reason for rolling out Link Tracking Protection is to protect the privacy of its users (but I’m sure it doesn’t hurt that it inhibits Apple’s competitors like Google and Facebook). This is likely why Apple is targeting tracking that can be linked back to their users, while being less concerned about more general click tracking.  

Which means user tracking parameters like these will be removed:

  • gclid — Google ads 
  • Dclid — Google display network
  • Fbclid — Facebook advertising
  • Twclid — Twitter Advertising
  • and a bunch more

Broader tracking parameters like these will not be removed:

  • UTM — Google Analytics
  • Epik — Pinterest
  • Si — Spotify
  • ef_id — Adobe Advertising Cloud
  • s_kwicid — Adobe Analytics

Who does this affect?

Anyone using Apple’s iMessage, Apple Mail, or Private Browsing Mode in Safari (with the option to enable it outside of Private Browsing). That basically means that this will affect anyone who uses an iPhone or a Mac, which is… a lot of people:

  • iMessages are texts, photos, or videos that you send to another iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, or Mac over Wi-Fi or cellular-data networks. About 17% of the U.S. market uses iMessage, or 1.3 billion people. 
  • Apple Mail is Apple’s email client. Link Tracking Protection applies to any email address used in Apple Mail, regardless if it’s an apple email address or not. About 58% of the market uses Apple Mail as a client. 
  • Private Browsing Mode on Safari doesn’t track the pages a user visits, their search history, or attempt to Autofill Information. A recent study has shown that 46% of respondents had used private browsing at least once. 

When does this go into effect?

It already has, though people rarely rush to update their phones. Typically we see the highest rate of iOS adoption around the holidays, when people are receiving new devices preloaded with iOS 17 as gifts. 

What does this mean for your program? 

The impacts on programs will vary! So far, it hasn’t had a huge impact on email fundraising at M+R, but many of our clients use UTM tracking in their emails. 

This update will likely have the biggest effect on digital ads on Meta, making tracking even worse. Before we jump into the impact of iOS 17, let’s quickly go back to 2021 and iOS 14 to remind ourselves of where we are and how we got here.

The impact of iOS 14 and Apple’s Tracking Protection was huge, causing Meta to no longer be able to track users — 90% of users chose not to be tracked. This caused major issues primarily with conversion tracking, retargeting audience sizes, and lookalike audiences. In fact, this update has caused a significant decline in Meta ROAS recently.

So Meta was left with only a handful of trackable conversions that they use to optimize their ads and model their lookalike models. Fast forward to iOS 17, Apple is restricting that data even further. Essentially, these changes take the few measly conversions they can currently track and strip away any audience data. Meta will know those handful of conversions exist, but they won’t have any data about who made that conversion. Any data that lookalike models could be based on will be wiped from Apple devices. 

All that being said, Meta’s performance was already so poor after iOS 14 that we expect this to only have a slight effect on performance compared to the drop we saw in 2021. 

Note that this will also have an impact on other platforms like Google, but to a lesser extent given they are already heavily optimizing ads to Google environments anyway. 

Given all this, M+R recommends continuing the course of diversifying your advertising media mix. We’ve seen success with shifting ads to other channels like Digital Video, Display, Podcasts, and CTV (and search, of course!).

Andrew Uhring is an Account Executive at M+R. When he’s not responding to emails about emails, he’s probably brewing pour over coffee or replacing the ink in his fountain pens. You can find him at