As a small player ourselves, we’ve been through all the typical reactions to the re-drafting of the digital map, starting with panic and denial and gradually arriving at acceptance and even optimism. And we want to help others, particularly brands, who are making the same journey. So here’s our version of what to expect and what you can do about it.
To the human-sized brand marketer, watching the big tech companies scheme and jostle can be like gazing up at the mountaintop lives of ancient gods. Whether we’re contemplating Google and its far-reaching privacy plans, or Apple’s clash with Facebook over App Tracking Transparency, all most of us can do is gape in awe and aim to dodge the lightning bolts.
But it is certainly true that such storms in tech heaven have industry-shaking consequences. All around, the giants are asserting their own privacy strategies, and while these will have no great impact on the data-rich big players themselves, they promise shuddering consequences for almost everyone else in the business of digital marketing.
Is cookieless really happening?
Google’s shift to third-party cookieless mode in Chrome is no bluff - it is happening. And when it happens, sometime in or after Q1 next year, we will lose the backbone of digital measurement.
Instead, there is a proposed suite of products in Google’s Privacy Sandbox. There is no business-as-usual cookie substitute, but there is FLoC, a browser-based standard that will allow brands to target interest groups - known as cohorts - but not individuals.
FLoC is a fairly limited proposal that doesn’t seem to meet the needs of the programmatic advertising world as it now stands. But what could bring it to life is collective innovation, as data companies and ad-tech firms race to make meaningful use of Google’s new tools.
What about alternative IDs?
Ad-tech players are backing an initiative called Unified ID 2.0 which looks like a fairly direct cookie replacement, allowing advertisers to track consenting consumers across the web and onto other platforms too, using anonymised email addresses.
But questions remain about the ability of such a system to operate at scale, given the need for many publishers to sign up and many more users to log in. Also, Google has also confirmed UID 2.0 won’t work in Chrome, and doubts linger around its privacy credentials.
So what is a small company to do?
There is very little any of us can do to influence the various power-plays consuming the digital advertising world. Google is in listening mode, but it isn’t exactly proposing a vote on its cookieless solution; IDs, meanwhile, will sink or float on the basis of many complex factors.
Most of us feel like tiny crumbs as we look ahead into a cookieless world, but that doesn’t mean we have no control over our own destinies. From what we know now, success in this dawning era will come to those who can take four strategic principles to heart:
- Cultivate your first-party data. After third-party cookies, this becomes extremely important for integrating with Google and publishers in general. Google has indicated that it will allow publishers to develop custom audience segments from their own data and sell them through its Ad Manager platform. Publishers are working hard to build their own first-party data businesses, and advertisers with high-quality data of their own stand to get the best results. Nurture subscribers and customers, tend your data well and prepare a future of ongoing targeting and consensual, mutually beneficial marketing.
- Catch up with the rebirth of contextual. As with old-school TV, magazine and newspaper ads, contextual advertising for the web involves delivering ads against content that matches the advertiser’s target audience. The difference today is the ability to use machine learning to analyse content and consumption and serve relevant ads in real time. Numerous contextual solutions are coming to market, and companies such as Comscore are combining automotive, financial, location and panel data with contextual crawler technology to offer privacy-friendly personalised audiences. Many of the hopes of the post-cookie industry rest on contextual, and not without justification.
- Step up your creative game. Hyper-personalised targeting has done a great deal to devalue the importance of digital creative, but as the sun sets on intrusive cookie-driven marketing, the true possibilities of great creative are evident once more. Eye-catching, engaging visuals in high-impact formats are more vital than ever as ads become fewer, better and more considered.
- Piggyback on the big guys. This is the default setting, but also the only sensible one. The large, scaled players will decide on the standards for identity infrastructure, because they are the gods and we are the mortals. And while innovative advertisers, publishers and agencies might be tempted to fight back and build their own solutions, they would be far more wise to stick close to the large platforms and build on top of their end solution.
These are daunting times, and it is true to say that after the demise of the cookie, targeting, retargeting and measurement won’t ever be quite the same again. But breaking our cookie dependency will offer new opportunities as well.
First-party data, contextual targeting, engaging creative and new evolving methodologies will all prove their worth. Brands will adapt to new methods, ad-tech companies will fall and rise, publishers who deliver value will weather the storm - all within a privacy-first ecosystem that is built to last. And while the gods might barely notice it, digital marketing mortals will collectively survive and thrive.