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What Marketers Should Know from Apple WWDC 2021 Event

How Apple aims to turn its entire ecosystem into a social network, put Siri on third-party devices, and enable more brand opportunities

All image credits: Apple

Editor’s note: This posted is an abridged edition of our Fast Forward newsletter. For the full version, please contact our VP of Client Services, Josh Mallalieu (josh@ipglab.com) to send a request.

Executive Summary:

  • New “Shared with You” and SharePlay features deconstruct content sharing and group activities anchored around FaceTime and iMessage
  • New privacy features double-down on Apple’s stance on user-empowerment
  • New features positioning Apple Wallet as an identity authentication hub
  • Siri on third-party devices and Matter interoperability standards help Apple extend smart home reach
  • New ways for brands to test different versions of apps and promote in-app events
  • Surprisingly light on AR features during the keynote, but several new features point to AR-based interactions

The tech conference season reached a new height this week with the start of Apple’s WWDC developer event. The week-long event kicked off on Monday with a virtual keynote where CEO Tim Cook appeared in an auditorium full of Memoji. In this jam-packed, two-hour-long keynote, Apple unveiled its latest software updates across its ecosystem. 9to5Mac has a detailed run-down of everything that Apple announced during the keynote and beyond. As always, the Lab team is here to help you decode the ones that matter the most to brand marketers.

New Media Sharing Features Deconstruct Social Networks

Among the many, many new features announced during the keynote, two features stood out for their direct impact on media consumption across Apple devices. A new “Shared with You” feature leverages Apple’s on-device machine learning to pull out the articles, music, TV shows, photos, and more that are shared in Messages conversations, and conveniently surfaces them in apps like Photos, Safari, Apple News, Music, Podcasts, and the Apple TV app, making it easy to quickly access the information in context and make Apple’s first-party apps feel more personalized than ever.

Then there is SharePlay, which is a new FaceTime feature that allows users to watch or listen to content in sync with everyone else on the call, either by casting the content to an Apple TV device while staying on the call or by watching both on the same screen using Picture in Picture. Even better, this feature is not just limited to syncing media playback in Apple TV+ or Apple Music; instead, it comes with an API that other developers can integrate their services into. Disney+, Hulu, HBO Max, Paramount+, Twitch, and TikTok are among the video content services that are already on board to support SharePlay, although Netflix and Spotify are notably absent from the lineup at launch.

Interestingly, SharePlay is not only great for hosting co-viewing parties, which have grown popular over the course of the pandemic, but it could also serve as a great gateway for apps to acquire new users. Of course, not everyone on a FaceTime call would have the same apps installed, and Apple has an elegant solution for that. According to Apple’s Developer site:

“If someone in a FaceTime call initiates a group activity with an app that someone else on the call doesn’t have installed, SharePlay guides them to the App Store to download it. The Group Activities API gives you an opportunity to bring up onboarding flows for new users or special trial offers designed specifically for SharePlay users. It’s a quick and easy way to get people to try out your app experience alongside friends who already use your app.

This is a great way to onboard new users with special trial offers while also incentivizing app developers to support SharePlay.

Taken together, these two new features can help Apple users more easily consume media content shared by their friends in context — whether surfacing them in the right apps for time-shifted consumption, or as a shared group experience via FaceTime calls. If we think about the “jobs to be done” for today’s social media platforms, sharing media content would rank pretty high. Over half of Americans (53%) either got their news “sometimes” or “often” from social media, per data from Pew Research Center. And peer recommendations remain one of the key drivers for media consumption. In a way, Apple is essentially activating the whole OS as a deconstructed social network to enable users to easily share, consume, and discuss various formats of media content with each other, with the entire experience anchored around iMessage and connected across its first-party apps via “Share with You.”

For brands, this opens an intriguing new channel for content marketing. While things shared via iMessage could still fall into the so-called “dark social” since there’s no way to track attribution, the SharePlay API does allow brands to ensure their in-app content can be shared in a social context and acquire new users. This is important for media and entertainment companies for promoting their content, of course, but it could be used to circulate other forms of branded content as well. Following previous examples set by Pepsi, AB InBev, and Nike, L’Oreal recently became the latest brand to experiment with producing a TV series. And the pandemic lockdowns have made many industries, such as education and fitness, realize that at least part of their products and services can be delivered over live video. With more and more brands getting into the content business, it only makes sense to ensure that they can be easily shared by Apple users (which makes up the majority of U.S. mobile users, especially among the younger generations) by leveraging the SharePlay feature.

New Privacy Features Further Empower Users

As expected, Apple once again doubled down its stance on protecting user privacy and promoting data transparency with a series of new first-party features. In iOS 15, Apple will introduce app transparency reports in settings that show which third-party sites their apps are transmitting data to, something that all brands with apps need to heed. Also added to first-party apps like Mail or Safari are new features for hiding users’ IP addresses and email addresses from online service providers. Expanding on the capabilities of Sign in with Apple, Hide My Email lets users share randomly generated email addresses with any website that forward to their personal inbox in order to keep their email address private.

As part of the new iCloud+ service, paid subscribers to Apple’s cloud storage service can now opt to encrypt their web traffic via Private Relay, which is essentially a VPN service designed to obscure a user’s web browsing behavior from internet service providers and advertisers. With Private Relay, all traffic leaving an Apple device will be encrypted twice through different servers, and even Apple can’t identify who the user is and which sites they visit. It also stands out as the first privacy features that Apple users would have to pay extra to access.

Siri also received a notable privacy upgrade with on-device speech processing, which means users’ “Hey Siri” requests are now processed locally. This means that commands that do not require internet access, such as launching an app or setting a timer, can now be carried out without an internet connection. Switching to on-device speech processing not only speeds up Siri’s response time, it also addresses one of the biggest privacy concerns for voice assistants: unwanted audio recording.

These new additions to Apple’s already-robust privacy and security features further cements its industry-leading position, as the company continues to tout its privacy features in its marketing efforts as both a selling point to consumers and a defense against regulatory scrutiny. So far, this strategy has worked pretty well for Apple, whose privacy infrastructure has earned the level of brand trust it needs so as to successfully expand into big markets like personal finance and health, where personal data is even more sensitive.

This strategy sets an interesting example for brands to follow. As consumer awareness around data privacy continues to rise and more GDPR-inspired laws come into effect, it is no longer enough to simply treat user privacy as an issue that needs to be defensively fixed; instead, brands now must prioritize it as a business imperative, one that, if correctly implemented, can result in real competitive advantages against competitors.

Apple Wallet as an Identity Authentication Hub

As another manifestation of the high level of brand trust that Apple has garnered, the Wallet app is being expanded with new features centered around identity authentication. In its continued quest to help users eliminate the need for carrying anything but their iPhone Apple is expanding its existing support for transit passes and digital car keys in the Wallet app with new support for house keys, hotel keys, company IDs, and even government ID cards. While opening smart locks with NFC-equipped smartphones is not exactly a new thing by now, this is the first time Apple has integrated the function into the Wallet app, instead of outsourcing it to a third-party app.

For the hotel key integration, Apple announced it is working with Hyatt to enable virtual room keys in “over 1,000 properties worldwide” this fall. And users of iOS 15 in “participating” U.S. states (not every state supports virtual ID cards) will soon be able to scan their driver’s license or state ID and securely store a digital copy in the Wallet app. Apple mentioned it is working with the TSA to make use of these digital IDs at airports.

And although this was not mentioned in the keynote, Apple Wallet recently also became a hub for storing proofs of Covid-19 vaccination for residents of select cities like New York City and Los Angeles. Users fill out an online form with information on their vaccination status, and once approved, the system would generate a QR code, which they can safely store in Apple Wallet for easy access whenever proof of vaccination is needed. Going forward, users will have an additional option for storing medical records of immunizations and test results directly in the Health app.

Overall, these access-management features for Wallet are an indication of Apple slowly opening up its NFC and Ultra-Wideband chips to support more use cases that brands can leverage. In turn, they further entrench iOS into more parts of the user’s daily lives. Ultimately, Apple Wallet is being positioned as the native hub for Apple users to manage their personal identity in the physical world, in addition to personal finance. For hospitality and auto brands, integrating with Wallet for key access would help significantly reduce friction and add value to the user experience. The same goes for OOH entertainment brands, as the Disney Pass integration demonstrates, as well as other businesses that manage access to products and services, such as car rentals, bars, and cinemas.

Extended Smart Home Reach via Siri and Matter

It’s no secret that Apple is behind Amazon and Google in terms of conquering the home as a platform provider. The two Apple products made for home, Apple TV and HomePod, are far too pricey compared to similar devices made by Amazon and Google. Even the new HomePod Mini, which is far more affordable than its non-mini predecessor, is still twice as expensive as the Echo Dot or Google Nest Mini (even without the heavy discounts Amazon and Google typically run for these devices).

High prices aside, another reason Apple has been falling behind in the home is its refusal to let third-party developers integrate Siri into their devices. Until now, that is. During the keynote, Apple announced that Siri will be headed soon to third-party HomeKit devices that aren’t made by Apple. Voice control on an Ecobee thermostat via Siri was shown as a demo. But Apple being Apple, this will still require a HomePod mini or the (now discontinued) HomePod to route your Siri commands as a privacy measure. In contrast, both Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant can be natively integrated in a wide range of third-party devices, which helps them get into more homes, although sometimes at the expense of potential data privacy issues.

Apple also highlighted Matter, the recently rebranded smart home interoperability standards, as part of the upcoming changes to its HomeKit services. For a refresher, Apple joined the likes of Amazon, Google, Samsung, and smart home device makers like Zigbee as part of the “CHIP” alliance in 2019 to promote smart home devices that work across multiple platforms. That alliance is now called Matter, and Apple confirmed during its keynote that connected home devices certified by this alliance are expected to hit stores later this year.

The Matter alliance essentially exists as a ceasefire agreement among the tech companies aiming to conquer the home platform. By now, all the major smart home players have realized the Walled Garden approach won’t work well for the development of smart home, for there are simply too many home appliances and gadgets to upgrade, and not one player can offer a whole-house solution yet. The lack of interoperability between the various smart home platforms has been hurting smart home adoption, as it confuses users and dissuades them from connecting more devices to the home network. Matter allows multiple voice assistants to coexist at home, so consumers will have to be locked into one particular home platform.

So now, with Matter (and Siri being available on third-party devices, to a lesser extent), the consensus strategy is no longer about competing against each other to wall off individual households in their own ecosystem, but rather to work together to further advance the adoption of smart home devices and shared the benefits of a growing market. In this stage, competition will be based on features, and Apple will no doubt continue to put privacy at the top of the list for why you should use HomeKit over Amazon’s and Google’s offerings.

New Promotional Tools for Brands in the App Store

The App Store is currently the subject of regulatory scrutiny, but that had not dissuaded Apple from shining a spotlight on its success. Apple proudly announced that the App Store now receives 600 million weekly visitors, and it has paid $230 billion to app developers since its launch. And it is about to help developers make more money with two new features designed to help developers better promote their apps.

The first one is a dynamic testing option for the app product pages. Soon developers will be able to create multiple custom product pages, with different app icons, app descriptions, and screenshots, to emphasize different aspects of their apps. This will allow developers to do some A/B testing to see which version of the app product page is best at attracting users, and target different versions of the product pages to different audiences. It’s wild to think that we now have dynamic creatives and audience targeting in the App Store, even though everything is done through first-party data.

The second feature is a promotional tool for Events, which will allow developers to feature the virtual in-app events on their respective app product pages, where users can sign up for reminders so they don’t miss the fun. For example, Pokemon Go can use it to promote its upcoming in-game events, and Disney+ can feature the upcoming movie releases available via Premier Access. In addition, Apple will editorially curate the biggest events to be featured on the homepage of the App Store, which will no doubt further increase the exposure of the featured events. Apple even made a new App Store widget that will feature upcoming events right on users’ home screens.

Virtual events have become a lot more popular over the past year thanks to the circumstances imposed by the pandemic. Some leading online games now also double as digital venues for hosting online events. And given how much of those events are accessible through mobile apps, it is no surprise that Apple would come up with this new promotional feature. All events now have a digital component that should be accessible via live video, and if your brand has an app, why not make it accessible via the app to drive engagement?

Given how these events are promoted across the whole ecosystem, including on the App Store homepage, putting them right in front of an audience seeking out new apps and experiences would likely give them a boost in reach. Right now, It is unclear whether this would be a paid opportunity for brands to promote their in-app content and events, but judging by the way other promotions in the App Store are executed, it would seem safe to assume that this option would be available sooner or later.

Subtle Features Pointing to an AR Future

For all the interviews where CEO Tim Cook has talked about the “AR future” that Apple is gearing up for, this WWDC keynote is surprisingly light on AR announcements. Outside of last-mile AR navigation in Apple Maps, which is playing catch-up with Google, and a new developer API for capturing and generating 3D assets from physical objects directly on Apple devices, there wasn’t much mention of augmented reality at all. Nevertheless, if we take a closer look, one could easily see that there are many new features that, while not directly related to AR, subtly hints at AR-based interactions.

First up, Apple is catching up on visual search with Live Text and Visual Look-up, a pair of new features that will train more people to use the camera as an input device. With Live Text, iPhone and iPad users will be able to capture texts from images, which can then be easily copy-pasted into other apps. It would also recognize phone numbers so users can make a call to a number captured in an image with a few taps. As for Visual Look-Up, it essentially functions as a rudimentary visual search tool that is currently capable of identifying things such as pet breeds, books, famous artworks, and landmarks. Compared to companies like Snap, Pinterest, and Google, which have all been iterating on their respective visual search products for years, Apple no doubt has a lot of catching-up to do in this space. Nevertheless, using the camera as an input device is a crucial part of AR headsets, and these new features are a step in the right direction.

Of course, AR is not just about 3D visual overlays; audio will be a big part of the AR headset UI. Throughout the keynote, Apple sprinkled in several mentions of Spatial Audio, which is coming to the new tvOS, macOS, as well as the revamped FaceTime. Currently supported only on the AirPod Pro and Pro Max, Spatial Audio will be a key part in delivering a more immersive mixed reality experience. In addition, with iOS 15, AirPods users will be able to ask Siri to announce their notifications the same way that Siri can already read incoming text messages. Along with the new Notification Summary, generated by on-device AI, Apple is laying the groundwork for Siri to become part of its AR interface as well.

Besides, enhanced messaging features on the Apple Watch and the new Quick Notes can also be seen as set-up for a next-gen OS that relies on quick inputs sans keyboards. Along with the AR view in the Find My app that Apple unveiled along with the AirTag in April, all these features are essentially lining up the various pieces of an AR interface to be deployed on the long-rumored Apple Glasses. To prepare for this impending computing paradigm shift, an AR strategy is a must-have for brands, starting with creating a library of branded 3D assets — something the aforementioned Object Capture API can help with.

Want to Learn More?

Overall, Apple kicked off this year’s WWDC events with a lot of interesting software updates. While some of them may just be checking boxes and playing catch-up with competitors (looking at you, iPadOS and Apple Maps), most of them are genuinely innovative updates that will improve the user experience and further enhance Apple’s overall ecosystem while setting it up for the AR future. Some of the new features have clear use cases for brands, while others may impact user behaviors that marketers need to heed.

If you are keen to learn more about Apple’s latest announcements and their marketing implications, or simply to chat broadly about how to adapt to changing user behaviors and future-proof your brand strategies, the Lab is here to help. You can start a conversation by reaching out to Josh Mallalieu (josh@ipglab.com).

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