Thesis: iOS users want privacy. Marketers want to market. Something had to give.

Where you are is who you are. Knowing the customer is key to any brand engagement or marketing effort, and location is a central factor in customer identity. But there's a line in marketing between raising customer awareness about a product and influencing purchase behavior, and dubious attempts to monetize an audience. In 2017, that line is more clear to customers than ever. Privacy is ascendant. Users increasingly care about their data footprint, and have learned over the years that every trace of their digital lives is being tracked, analyzed, and used to target them for marketing. With the release of iOS 11, Apple has taken a firmer stance on the side of customer data privacy, particularly in terms of location tracking.

All the energies devoted to such monetization strategies could be better applied to make apps more relevant, timely, and useful to users. Such changes would naturally lead to increased adoption and retention. Why don’t more publishers opt for a more transparent approach to privacy? It mostly comes down to this: Marketers need to market, and a user’s mobile data trail is one of the richest veins of data available.

In the past, when an iOS application wanted to request a user’s permission to use location services, they would ask for global access which the user could only approve or deny. If approved, it was up to the application developer to tune their apps use of the different "tools" in the location toolbox. Developers could request that their app was notified only when the user's location changed significantly, ask the system for a less accurate, general "fix" on the user, or ask for fine-grained location for use in navigation or driving apps. The idea was that developers would "do the right thing", and not abuse either the system or their users' trust.

Naturally, while most apps played by the rules, enough of them wound up taking advantage of the service and this created a problem for Apple. Users didn’t have easy ways to recognize apps that were overzealous in their use of location tracking. Apps that used location services without good reason wasted users battery life, and streamed detailed tracking data to ad platforms and other data management systems. Such user problems reflect poorly on iOS, something Apple takes a dim view of. Something had to give.

Following early steps in this direction in iOS 10, iOS 11 changes this dynamic. No longer can apps surveil user location in the background without explicit user approval for doing this. Developers who want "Always on" background location data on a user must ask for this permission, and make their case for it. The OS itself will periodically re-validate whether or not the user still wants this permission enabled. While an inconvenience for developers, it forces business owners to think harder about their value proposition. Do I really need this permission? If so, have I made my case well enough? Are users willing to accept this? What metrics am I tracking here, to validate my assumptions?

In light of iOS 11's new location privacy controls, we've come up with a set of simple guidelines all apps should follow with regards to mobile location permissions.

  • Implement a two-step permission request.
  • Make the value proposition clear up front when initially asking for “When in Use” permissions.
  • Have a "maybe later" option that gives marketers another chance later to re-ask for permissions.
  • Ask for background location tracking in context of why it is valuable to the user, for example, when a user is engaging with geo-relevant marketing features, but not before.

The following diagram outlines the best practice we feel gives the Marketer the best chance of achieving their goals when trying to get users to agree to always on location permissions. 


At SessionM, we power some of the world's largest brands’ digital marketing efforts, both online and in their mobile apps. Our roots are in mobile, and we've grown up with this ecosystem. We're deeply committed to its success. We view Apple's stance as a net-benefit for users. Isn't an informed user base, willingly engaging with a brand's mobile app because they love and value it, a better brand experience? Isn't such an app more valuable long term to a brand’s overall strategy? We think so. This has been a core value at SessionM since our founding. We think Apple’s changes are a clear step in the right direction, and are an opportunity to create more meaningful brand engagements with users.