T-Mobile wants to unlock user data for advertisers on mobile devices—but even the U.S.’s third-largest carrier by subscribers won’t cross Apple.
Like all major wireless carriers, T-Mobile is developing its advertising technology platform, seizing on concerns that privacy pushes from big tech companies, like Apple’s recent moves to increase privacy on iPhones, are cutting off data that can be used to target advertisements.
Carriers could play a potentially outsized role in the future of mobile advertising, since they are an all-seeing eye into data and activity on devices. However, as T-Mobile builds what it calls its “Marketing Solutions” unit, it will focus on Google Android devices, which is considered more friendly to advertising experiments with data. In a recent interview, T-Mobile told Ad Age about its biggest initiatives in advertising technology, like its interest in mobile data and a new personalized advertising push using data from devices running Google’s Android operating system.
“Certainly we’ll keep an eye on what Apple’s doing and act accordingly, but we’re focused on Android devices,” says Mike Peralta, VP at Marketing Solutions, a division of T-Mobile USA. “And since the focus is on mobile ID and identifiers, we look at that as sort of a richer trove of data that’s not going to be deprecated any time soon like a cookie.”
Last week, Peralta, who spent years in the ad tech space at companies like Criteo and AudienceScience, was named head of marketing solutions by T-Mobile. T-Mobile is working on advertising ID products, which are unique identifiers to track consumers online and connect the dots between them and advertisers. Apple's major privacy changes, included limiting the entities that can store ID data coming from iPhones. Google also wants to restrict advertising IDs that rely on personal information, but its dictates are often seen as less stringent than Apple, giving companies like T-Mobile a potentially easier path in the ad space.
T-Mobile is just one example of how wireless carriers are attempting to use their position as the gatekeeper between mobile phones and the internet to become players in ad tech. “Mobile data is hands down the best indicator of consumer interest and intent,” says Peralta. “Customers use their mobile devices all day, every day, which makes mobile data far more rich than other data sources, like web browsing data.”
That data can be used to track things like app usage and metrics. “Using mobile data, we can identify patterns in app ownership and app usage to create powerful audience insights,” says Peralta. “For example, marketers can see how many users of one app have another; how app usage correlates to transactions; or how many target consumers use competitor apps.”
T-Mobile is not alone. Verizon Media, which recently was spun off as a separate entity from Verizon Wireless, is developing ad tech products that help target ads and measure ad campaigns. AT&T also owns Xandr, the carrier’s in-house ad tech provider.
These efforts all look to fill the gaps that Apple, in particular, created by shutting down ad data coming from iPhones. This year, Apple’s iOS is set to introduce even stricter policies and safeguards on how apps, advertisers and ad tech partners collect and share user data.
Carriers, however, sit above much of the ecosystem. Apple can shut off the data that apps in its own App Store collect, but the network operators that serve the phones still have access. In March, T-Mobile challenged the privacy tide by announcing it would auto-enroll wireless customers into a personalized ads program, which shares data with advertisers to deliver targeted ads and measure performance. Apple’s new iOS policies are a framework that forces apps—including ones from major players like Facebook, Google, Amazon, Snapchat and Twitter—to receive express user consent for ad tracking.
Apple’s policies drew a line in the sand that many advertising technology, internet and media companies are trying to navigate. It’s telling that T-Mobile won’t challenge Apple directly, as the company says its marketing and tech products are only going to draw on data from Google Android.
Google is changing how data is collected on Android devices and considering similar measures to Apple, like restricting access to the Google Advertising ID (specific codes tied to every phone). The IDs have been one of the easiest ways to track a mobile phone user’s internet history and serve targeted ads by sharing that data with multiple parties that bid on digital ad inventory. The IDs are also crucial to measuring if a campaign led to downloads of apps, visits to websites and sales. On web browsers, cookies, which are online tracking files, are also going away after serving as the basis for targeted internet advertising for years.
Privacy watchdogs, however, are concerned about the way wireless carriers could work around the data safeguards affecting other parts of the advertising industry. Network providers are the conduits between a smartphone and the internet, and in a good position to collect advertiser information on customers.
“There are quite a few ways that an entity that really wants to create profiles of users, as a phone carrier, probably still can,” says Zach Edwards, founder of Victory Medium, a data supply researcher and boutique analytics agency. A tangle of new ID systems and alliances are emerging from carriers and ad tech companies like The Trade Desk and Criteo as they rush to replace the device IDs Apple and Google are restricting.
Meanwhile, T-Mobile, like Verizon and AT&T, says that it is trying to be sensitive to consumers while also creating a personalized advertising experience on phones. “We have always believed that customers deserve transparency, control, and simplicity when it comes to their personal data,” Peralta says. “Customers can opt out of having their data used for advertising purposes at any time, but they might prefer the more relevant advertising this data use offers.”