For most publishers, the basic mechanics of the digital ecosystem still stand. Survival depends on offering inventory that benefits both advertisers’ and publishers’ bottom lines — and that, in turn, requires the ability to track online audience activity and deliver targeted messages. What’s unclear, however, is how they can do so amid the demise of third-party cookies.
Despite endless discussions about “life after cookies”, the balance between user privacy and data-driven marketing remains a grey area. Leading industry players are working to find alternatives to cookie-based methods; key among them being Google’s efforts to address issues created by its own cookie-support deadline with the Privacy Sandbox project, and concepts such as TURTLEDOVE.
But as media organisations keep watching the horizon for a magic bullet, the clock ticks on. Instead of accepting the uncertain status quo, it’s time for publishers and marketers to start objectively weighing up current options and considering what they can do to sustain digital marketing, and their revenues.
Could TURTLEDOVE take flight?
Two years ago, Google’s Privacy Sandbox initiative was launched to create “a thriving web ecosystem that is respectful of users’ privacy by default.” Within the sandbox, initiatives such as TURTLEDOVE aim at reconfiguring current practices by changing the way behavioural data is stored, from remote databases to the user’s browser, and so keeping the ad cycles running while limiting the flow of data to advertisers.
The industry’s view is unanimous, new proposals and ideas that get the privacy-centred conversation started, with industry peers invited to share open feedback through business groups such as GitHub and the WC3, are all positive developments. But there’s confusion and concerns as to the modalities that will allow this to work in practice and the truly impartial nature of some of the approaches.
Firstly, TURTLEDOVE is part of a conceptual framework for an application performance interface (API) that potentially could bring significant benefits, not a live solution that can be implemented today, while privacy is an ongoing challenge for most digital businesses. Also up for debate, frequency capping, brand safety, dominance from the most popular browser and the response from other browsers who could begin developing their own solutions to compete. The result could be greater complexity, fragmentation and a sizeable step back from the fairer and more balanced digital media ecosystem the industry is trying to achieve.
There’s no doubt about it, the industry must come together to find sustainable replacements to third-party cookies. Conceptual solutions such as SPARROW, from French ad tech company Criteo for example, are not just an independent sounding board to Google’s proposals but a sign of the industry wanting to break the status quo by including voices from different corners of the industry. Although eclipsed by the heavy focus on cookies, options already exist that can provide privacy compliance while enabling data-driven advertising.
One: Making the most of first-party data
Publishers are often told they have access to valuable first-party data that forms the ideal basis for ad targeting, but there’s too little focus on how it can be leveraged. One of the biggest issues they face is bringing data into usable order; with information frequently both disparate and incomplete. Our own analysis has shown that only 2%-10% of logged-in users typically declare their age and gender, meaning most users remain anonymous.
Fortunately, there are tools publishers can tap to overcome these hurdles. As well as translating their data into a holistic pool of manageable audience insight, AI-powered technology can help fill in the gaps for specific users, making it easier to refine segments and fuel effective, cookie-less targeting.
Today, for example, smart algorithms are capable of running in-depth analysis of consented on-site activity to instantly gain deeper insight into user interests, habits, and preferences. This will not only give publishers greater understanding of who users are and what’s likely to spark their attention — instead of waiting weeks or months for cumulative analysis — but also the ability to update user profiles and offer personalised ads, in real-time.
Additionally, known attributes or ‘ground truths’, such as account information, can also be harnessed as the basis for sophisticated audience modelling and expansion. Once key patterns are identified for individuals with specific attributes, these learnings can be applied to enrich the profiles of users who hold similar traits, even if they aren’t logged in; meaning ad targeting capacity can be scaled up across the entire audience.
Two: Modernising contextual targeting
As third-party cookies lose their usability, contextual targeting is making a comeback. There is increasing recognition that by aligning ads to the context of digital content, publishers and advertisers can reduce reliance on external data; with the particular benefit that this approach further enhances publishers’ knowledge of their audience’s preferences.
It goes without saying that publishers have the most granular insight about their own content. But once again, seizing predictive analytic capabilities will help them use this data to maximum advantage. Through advanced automated analysis, publishers can efficiently assess content individuals consume across their digital properties; identifying keywords that go beyond broad terms to cover specific areas of interest. Combined with equivalent analysis of first-party data, the result is a precise item-to-user view, where the item is the content, action or object of interest.
Put simply, publishers can achieve a higher level of contextual targeting. Advertisers reach users who are actively engaged with content related to their offering, while consumers get high-quality content accompanied by genuinely relevant ads, meaning a better overall experience.
If the digital ecosystem is to keep operating, the industry needs a new way forward, and one that works in the interim. Solutions don’t need to be necessarily tied to work-in-progress proposals from tech heavyweights to be effective. The whole industry can benefit from acknowledging solutions that have been developed and enhanced over time outside the walled gardens. Advanced AI-powered tools, especially, offer publishers the chance to break out of third-party cookie limbo and use their valuable insight to build holistic audience understanding, actionable profiles, and an enduring digital economy.
CEO of 1plusX