The best of MDM in 2021

In some respects, 2021 was a banner year for Mobile Dev Memo: its readership, measured in website pageviews and newsletter subscribers, expanded dramatically. This happened primarily because Apple’s App Tracking Transparency (ATT) privacy policy engendered a wave of panic and anxiety across the mobile ecosystem. But ATT monopolized what I call my “attention budget”: the range of topics I can think deeply about enough to feel comfortable dissecting, given that MDM is not my full-time job and I can dedicate limited time to it. As a result, I ended up mired in the minutiae of ATT’s implementation, the reaction of various ad platforms to ATT, and the range of motivations that explain why ATT was introduced in the first place.

I started MDM many years ago as a means of personal edification. My thesis was: if my conceptual grasp of any given topic is strong enough to distill into an explanatory blog post, then I not only acquire knowledge through the disciplined exercise of regular blogging, but I also become a more seasoned and sharper communicator as a result. To date, the scope of this process was focused exclusively at what I see as the intersection of digital content creation, distribution, and consumption and the economic principles that dictate how users engage with that content. I feel comfortable in this particular intellectual space, which is roughly bounded by the topics covered in my book, Freemium Economics, written way back in 2014.

In 2021, that domain expanded: to commercial and competitive motivations that can’t merely be observed but must be intuited. I am less comfortable in this space because it requires opinionated conjecture, almost functionally similar to sales. I don’t enjoy the process of packaging conjecture and theory into a convincing rhetorical product. What I enjoy doing is dissecting complex, byzantine topics and presenting them in ways that are comprehensible and accessible. I find that distillation process fun. I don’t want to write OpEd pieces.

But on the topic of ATT, I felt as if I didn’t have much of a choice. Mainstream media coverage, particularly in the immediate aftermath of WWDC 2020 — when ATT was unveiled — was, if I’m being charitable, misguided and unhelpful. I genuinely felt during the pandemonium following the introduction of ATT that if I didn’t attempt to clarify, objectively analyze, and unpack the changes it would (and did) affect on the mobile ecosystem, that various parties like ad tech vendors, Apple itself, and ‘marketing gurus’ would dominate the conversation. I’m proud of the work that I did in elucidating ATT for a large audience of marketers, executives, and public markets investors, such as with this piece, this piece, and this piece.

But those articles were all written in 2020. The work of edifying a vast audience about ATT couldn’t be completed through merely discussing the what: the why, which are the commercial incentives undergirding ATT, was also important. I covered these motivations in 2017 in The coming war between Apple and Facebook. But a contemporary — and running — commentary was needed to help marketers envision the paths the participants in the public ATT scuffle were trying to cut, and that was the editorial focus of this website over the course of 2021. Doing that required wading into the philosophy of advertising, which becomes a no-win proposition for any commentator given the fraught, polarized discourse surrounding it.

In 2022, I plan to return to the roots of MDM: dry, uncontroversial, and mostly quantitative analysis. Until then, I present the Top 10 articles from MDM over 2021, listed in descending order of total pageviews.

Apple robbed the mob’s bank

In the most-read piece published on Mobile Dev Memo in 2021, I argue the case that Apple used its App Tracking Transparency privacy policy to capture share of the mobile advertising market from Facebook.

Content Fortresses and the new privacy landscape

I explain how the changing digital privacy environment places an operational premium on first-party data, and how the concept of “Content Fortresses,” which I introduce in this piece, allows large platforms to retain advertising efficiency while adhering to new privacy constraints.

ATT advantages Apple’s ad network. Here’s how to fix that.

I point out how Apple’s App Tracking Transparency privacy policy benefits its own advertising networks and present strategies for remedying the discrepancies in treatment.

“Allow this app to personalize advertising for you?”

I make the case that Apple’s approach to improving consumer privacy with App Tracking Transparency is self-serving and that the language used in its opt-in prompt is loaded and intimidating.

iOS 14, Privacy, and the Future of Digital Advertising

This is a narration of a presentation that I delivered in a Clubhouse room. This was also released as a podcast episode.

Facebook may take 7% revenue hit from Apple privacy changes

In this article, I present a quantitative estimate of the impact of ATT on Facebook’s revenue in a range across Worst Case, Base Case, and Best Case scenarios. This estimate was calculated months before ATT was propagated; the true impact of ATT, observed after Facebook reported Q3 2021 revenues, was consistent with my Worst Case estimate.

What is differential privacy in digital advertising?

I provide an overview of differential privacy, an approach to privacy preservation that has garnered increased interest recently as various platform privacy policies and government regulations change the operating environment for digital advertising platforms.

“Mobile advertising spend can’t just disappear”

I argue against the notion that “mobile advertising spend can’t just disappear” as ads targeting becomes less relevant as a result of ATT and other privacy initiatives.

Everything is an ad network

In this piece, I unpack the logic behind the fact that so many large consumer products are building (or purchasing) ad networks to integrate advertising into their core content proposition.

NFTs, Ultima Online, and player-run game economies

I present a framework for sustainably integrating NFTs into a player-run game economy.

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash