Digital Innovation Guest Columns
4 mins read

Follow the cookieless road

Cookies, consent & IDFA, oh my! As if 2020 wasn’t challenging enough, much like in Oz, publishers both big and small are grappling with their houses being picked up and crashed back down in a cookieless world.

For many, high up on the 2021 to do lists will be adapting to a slew of browser and operating system updates and navigating an increasingly fragmented global privacy legal environment. But the question remains: how to pivot and embrace this new era of greater transparency?

One thing we do know for sure along this journey is that where there is change, there will be innovation!

Hold On, Why Does This Matter?

Cookies have long been leaned on to deliver greater personalization and attribution. Arguably this over-reliance has created a void of innovation, after all if it ain’t broke, why fix it?

But underneath is a growing unease. Consumers wouldn’t settle for many of these applications of data offline, so why should they allow it online? With the influx of fake news, and social media’s recent impact on the U.S elections, consumers are increasingly wary and aware of who has access to their data and how it can be used to target and manipulate. And this is without the prospect of connected smart devices creating new avenues to be listened to, learned from and profiled.

To create a stronger foundation for trust online, we’ve seen regulations handed down from governments, and the industry itself. Leaders in the industry, like Google and Apple, have paved their own steps to dictate the usage of third-party cookies and online identifiers in their operating systems and browsers such as iOS 14 and Google Chrome.

Third-party cookies are living on borrowed time, something that can only have better outcomes for consumers. This creates challenges for those who have long relied upon them, So, what can be done?

Here are three themes we expect to feature in this space in 2021:

The Rise of New Industry Protocols

There’s a need for innovation, and that time has come to fruition. There is a strong call for greater cooperation and publishers need to have a seat at the table. Embracing and ensuring readiness and participation in new industry standards will create firmer and more transparent foundations for the safer passing of anonymized data signifers. Which in turn can be used to power more engaging and personalized experiences for audiences & advertisers. Protocols such as those recently seen from LiveRamp, The Trade Desk, Prebid.org and the IAB offer an opportunity to ensure advertisers are still able to access publishers’ inventory and take advantage of audiences, scale and unique data products.

Doubling Down on First-Party Data Strategies

Expect to see a growth in publishers creating logged-in experiences, cross site passports and various forms of metered paywalls. Pursuing strategies that build on their unique connections with their audiences. This is a great opportunity to deepen audience engagement, rebuild brand loyalty and improve user experience. In exchange, we hope to see a move away from heavy-handed and invasive advertising, to a more transparent and sustainable revenue model.

The New York Times is a great example of a publisher who is using first-party data to better engage their readers. They recently launched an advertising data program for the company’s direct-sold ads business that uses NYT’s own data and data science techniques.

The challenge for publishers is that not everyone will have access to the product resources or brand awareness needed to make a go of it. Forging partnerships will be key and ensuring that logged-in environments provide enough benefit that overcomes the tradeoff in seamless cross-site experiences.

Contextual 2.0

With Web 1.0, contextual targeting was commonplace, in fact it has long been the backbone of many digital businesses. But as advertising technologies grew smarter, the industry shifted to new behavioural techniques to drive relevance and advertiser ROAS. These are now set to be challenged, and as a result we expect to see the resurgence of contextual techniques.

Many are coining this as contextual 2.0. Innovation in the space provides publishers and their advertising partners with user-first ways of deriving relevance to engage audiences. Consider how to better capitalize on cultural trends and popular topics in real-time, to unlock the unique value of your context and the mindset that publishers can create via audiences engaging with editorial. Contextual 2.0 will require a deep understanding and application of your 1st party data, new methods of capturing audience mood, sentiment and emotion. Much like Dorothy in Oz, who discovered the ability to get back home she had possessed all along. Publishers who thrive will be the ones who are able to understand and unlock the unique assets they already possess, their context & content!

For too long third-party cookies have been the lazy option. They have worked, and worked extremely well, but at a cost of murky waters for users’ privacy online. There is no neatly laid yellow brick road to follow here, but much opportunity for innovation along the path to a cookieless future. The digital media industry is adaptive, fast-paced and always finds a way to survive. Let’s hope when we get to Oz the future is about great personalization, interesting ad experiences and great user experiences. Keep calm and let’s lay the bricks for a more transparent, engaging and sustainable open web, together.

Jonathan Bradford
Director of Product Marketing, Outbrain


Outbrain is the world’s leading discovery and native advertising feed for the open web. A third of the world’s Internet-connected population explore and discover information through its feed technology, which is trusted by emerging to established brands and integrated into thousands of media companies’ tech stacks to manage and monetize their publishing operations. Outbrain operates in 55 countries and is headquartered in New York City with offices in 18 cities worldwide.

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