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Serving Up a New Way for Cookies in a ‘Cookieless’ Era

By Bryan Noguchi

Here’s the truth: No matter who you are or what industry you work in, you should be happy that the death of the third-party cookie is finally visible on the horizon. Your personal privacy, your identity, and your peace of mind have value and are worth protecting (or commoditizing if that’s what you choose to do).

As an advertising agency and media planning veteran, I’ve spent most of my career reassuring people that their personal identities are safe. If you are truly an individual, singularly unique in the world, I have no professional use for you — what matters to me is whether you effectively represent some part (or all) of a larger group: I don’t care that you’re “Roberta” who likes using Facebook, I only care that you want to buy a widget I happen to be selling, and that your buying motivations are similar or identical to the numerous other people whose first names I also don’t care about.

The good news is that a cookieless future theoretically leaves you with one less thing to worry about. As an advertiser, you should be relieved as well, because soon there will be only three things we really need to concern ourselves with: consent, context, and the difference between “personalization” and “addressability.” Let’s tackle each of these.

Opt in or Miss Out?

Consent is the thing behind why this transition from third-party cookies will have all of the impact of the Y2K bug. While third-party cookies are set to go away, first-party cookies will ensure that large swaths of the population will basically have the ad experience they’ve always had. I challenge you to list every single site you’ve “opted in” to. Each one of those instances, from the little pop-up you got when visiting a new website, to setting up your Vizio TV, was you giving away your consent and making yourself part of probably dozens if not hundreds of “first-party” cookie pools.

I expect that over the next year, we’ll see a parade of media vendors promoting their “revolutionary” “first-party” media networks and exchanges. It’s noteworthy that grocery chain Kroger recently announced it will leverage its (first-party) customer data to let advertisers target consumers on Snapchat.

I think this is just the beginning — advertisers will have the opportunity to purchase targeted inventories of people with myriad segmentation options based on where and how these audiences were opted in. At first, the only thing that will be missing is large enough scale to allow reliable segmentation and some degree of frequency control. But the inventory we’ll be able to purchase, we can buy with the confidence that these first-party pools were assembled in accordance with GDPR, CCPA, and other similar laws. We may pay a small premium for this, and we’ll certainly be challenged to cobble together reach from multiple sources, but I expect the base performance expectations to remain unchanged if not slightly improved.

For consumers, I expect at least some opportunities to pop up allowing you to trade your consent for tangible rewards, as vendors attempt to build first-party ad networks from scratch. Think of this as a 3.0 crop of “AllAdvantage.com” companies. (“Get Paid to Surf the Web,” remember?) My guess is that the more attractive you are as a consumer, the more opportunity you’ll have to parlay your consent into goodies. The downside of you brokering away your consent? You’re still going to be getting mysterious Facebook ads about sweaters right after you mentioned being cold within earshot of your Amazon Alexa.

One of These Things Doesn’t Belong

Ad technology has never been particularly good at sniffing out context: It can figure out that you searched and shopped for oil filters, but not that you bought one — and that two months later while shopping for socks and underwear, you don’t need to see oil filter ads anymore.

The absence of third-party cookies will drive many advertisers to revisit the value of context. NOT personal context, but rather the environmental context that comes from placing your ads within relevant content. A recent study by Double Verify only reconfirms that audiences respond positively to ads that relate to the environment in which they’re seen. Even without this study, this is the reason that big brands have intuited that advertising on Twitter is becoming increasingly risky. Context matters. So welcome to the resurgent age of traditional media planning strategy: We’ll be looking a lot closer at where our ads appear as we try to gain resonance with audiences.

The Creep Factor

Personalization is mostly a parlor trick simplified by data technology that’s designed to make you feel special. But more often than not, it probably just feels “creepy” when implemented aggressively outside of email and direct mail. I wish I could tell you the creep factor will disappear along with third-party cookies, but first-party tactics will probably quickly (and seamlessly to consumers) fill this void.

I do, however, expect we’ll be talking much less about “personalization” and much more about “addressability” — a characteristic that is indeed directly impacted by third-party cookies disappearing. Addressability in the “cookieless era” may be derived mostly from advertising context together with intelligence about group behaviors driven by “first-party” consent.

But there’s also an intelligence wildcard here — in the form of anonymized real or synthetic data overlays — that could be effectively combined with basic audience targeting. (Disclosure: Facteus, referenced in the last link, was once an Ideas Collide client). As a tactic, addressability will be almost completely invisible and reliably non-invasive, capturing that “sweet spot” between context and audience intelligence derived from numerous sources.

Back to Basics

As it turns out, the future is far from “cookieless,” and probably more about how rich you want your serving of cookies to be. That being said, I foresee positive times ahead for both consumers and digital advertisers. These good times will come as we find ways to strengthen the bonds between each side. And that’s achieved through transparency, consent, experiential relevance, and applying ethically sourced audience insight — things we should have been emphasizing all along.