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What Google Chrome's cookie phaseout means for publishers

By Mike O'Sullivan

January 30, 2020 | 6 min read

We’ve entered an interesting era for the digital media industry — one marked by shifts, shake-ups, and rapid evolution. And on 14 January, Google put the nail in the third-party cookies’ proverbial coffin, announcing they would be phased out of the Chrome browser in the next two years.

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What Google Chrome's cookie phaseout means for publishers

It wasn’t shocking news — as noted, we’ve been talking about the end of cookies for quite some time. But while it definitely answered the question ‘When is the cookie going away?’ it also raised a number of others, particularly for publishers. Namely: What happens next? What will the impact be?

Put simply, the industry needs to pivot to a framework whereby consumer trust, consent, and a clear ‘value exchange’ are the foundational principles by which media companies and their technology partners build, operate, and innovate.

Before we address these implications, though, let’s reflect on what brought us to this point (and what will ultimately take us forward).

The backstory

Prior to the announcement, Safari’s approach to third-party cookies gave rise to the arms race of fingerprinting (which is completely opaque to users and publishers, with no effective method to opt-out). In September, publishers began to worry that Germany was the ‘canary’ in the coal mine — when Firefox enabled ETP, German publishers saw an almost 30% revenue drop overnight. Immediate revenue declines of this severity make it nearly impossible for publishers to continue to operate and generate high-quality content. For marketers, publishers, and technology companies, the potential end of the third-party cookie hung like the Sword of Damocles over the entire industry. The future was unclear, and the present state sustainable.

Google’s announcement brought clarity — the industry has two years to move away from the third-party cookie. While the Privacy Sandbox includes a number of proposals across different scenarios (conversion attribution being one of the most flushed out), the central question for publishers remains: How do I maintain addressability of my media to buyers?

The impact on publishers

For those of us who have spent the last few years focused on building people-based, privacy-first solutions, the answer and solution haven’t changed — the key is crafting technology that unlocks true, people-based addressability, sandboxed to individual publishers, with the user in complete control (Stylist talks about its efforts in building a similar proposition here).

Picture the login or signup modal to a publisher’s page (for example’s sake, let’s say The Drum, which employs this type of ‘modal’ today). When you log into The Drum, your login (an email hash) serves as a ‘key’ that unlocks great content, but there’s an opportunity to use that login ‘key’ against a second lock: Media addressability.

A critical component of this ‘dual-unlock’ approach is disclosure and consent to the user. In the case of a ‘consenting user,’ The Drum’s tech partners can transform that email hash into web-safe, publisher-specific identifiers that unlock different digital advertising scenarios. Crucially, it provides a way for buyers to understand the audience on a given publisher and execute their media campaigns accordingly. It’s important to note that this is sandboxed — if you visit The New York Times after The Drum, your information isn’t shared across domains. You remain anonymous until you, as a user, choose to ‘unlock’ a given publisher.

The opportunities ahead

“Come on, you’re dreaming — how is this actually going to be better?” you may ask. Well, moving forward, marketers and publishers can run people-based campaigns instead of the legacy, cookie-based campaigns of today. The evidence in favour of people-based campaigns is obvious, as marketers flock to closed-platforms that exclusively transact against people-based audiences. (What else explains why closed platforms account for just 45% of consumers' time spent online, but swallow more than 70% of media spend?) As the cookie-based layers of our ecosystem crumble, we have the opportunity to construct a new foundation for digital advertising; to use the progress we’ve made to date and establish a new normal.

With progress and change comes uncertainty, though, and we understand that the move away from cookies is a disruptive one. Acknowledging that this shift will be positive for our industry, it’s still a shift. And as tech partners, we understand that it’s our role and responsibility to ensure this transition is as smooth as possible for publishers (it’s part of the reason we’ve spent more than years building in anticipation of this change). Which poses the question: If partners can help facilitate the transition via technology, what can and should a publisher do today to prepare for the new normal?

The answer? Focusing on the value exchange between user and publisher. In practice, this means ensuring a great experience for users (think: High-value content, respectful ad density, and settings like auto-playing), over time, users develop a trusted relationship with the publisher, and become comfortable with creating an account and logging in. Many publishers have already started to experiment in this regard ⁠— providing several articles or a limited form of access before asking for a login— on either their entire property or on traffic from a browser that only provides unknown traffic today. In a world without third-party cookies, understanding and optimising against this value exchange is what will distinguish successful publishers.

It’s vital to maintain an open and heterogeneous advertising ecosystem where publishers can still monetise and marketers can execute and measure relevant campaigns. The new paradigm is (rightfully) trust and consent, both of which are forming the foundational framework on which all technological innovation is built.

As an industry, we have two years to shift that foundation. Let’s get to work.

Mike O’Sullivan is vice-president, product at Index Exchange.

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