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The perfect storm: How to survive the erosion of consumer trust and the shifting tides of privacy

An advertising storm is heading our way

This week marks the beginning of the Atlantic hurricane season. And while The Weather Company’s chief executive officer Sheri Bachstein is used to preparing for storms, she says it’s the multiple headwinds coming directly at the media and advertising industry that are setting off alarms. Bachstein weighs in on how web publishers and applications should be thinking about the long-term impacts of Apple’s recent privacy updates.

As we approach Q3, most open web publishers and app owners should feel the revenue impact of Apple’s latest privacy update which will be a potentially painful reality check for those who haven’t been preparing for the change. And of course, right on the heels of IDFA is Google’s expected deprecation of the third-party cookie.

Whether we like it or not, all open web publishers are united by our unfortunate dependency on walled gardens and device operators, and lately it feels as if they are reaching farther than they ever have. I’m concerned that in our race to find ad targeting solutions, we have forgotten to talk with our consumers and thus have left that communication in the hands of others.

The recent narrative that any form of tracking constitutes an erosion of consumer privacy is misleading. And the insinuation that the entire open web uses data maliciously is preposterous. Respectable open web publishers understand the responsibility that comes with their relationship with consumers. And when consumers share data with trusted apps and sites, it’s widely accepted that these publishers assume the duty to uphold and enforce privacy-forward protections and standards.

There are two very simple reasons for consumers to share basic data signals with trusted content owners:

  1. It ensures they get relevant information back from those content owners, such as the weather forecast when an impending storm is headed their way, and other news that they are interested in, rather than indifferent about.

  2. It helps underwrite the cost of content creation so that consumers don’t have to pay for every app or website they visit. To be clear, I am not talking about social security numbers and credit cards. For the most part, I am talking about anonymous data signals that don’t in any way empower publishers to ‘track’ individual people.

Labeling all data usage as ‘tracking’ is fundamentally misleading consumers and limits their ability to make their own choices.

At The Weather Company, it has always been our mission to educate consumers on the weather happening around them, and give them details and data in an open, transparent way so they can make the right decisions for themselves and their families. Publishers need to do the same thing as it relates to advertising. At The Weather Company, we have spent the past couple of years actively evolving our business around privacy regulations, deepening consumer trust and transparency and minimizing the impacts of changes being made by walled gardens so that we can continue to offer a free option to consumers.

I’ve spent a lot of time talking with my peers about all this of late, and what’s clear is that we must come together and be more proactive in educating consumers about what’s really happening online. We will have no one to blame but ourselves if we continue with this collective silence.

There are two things that I believe we should do together.

Unite around consumer education

Not to oversimplify it, but when the question a consumer is presented with is ‘do you want to be tracked?’, it’s pretty easy to understand why they’re not excited about saying yes.

Put aside the fact that one could make a strong argument that most open web publishers are doing a lot less tracking than walled gardens. We can spend a lot of time complaining about it among ourselves or we can join forces and do something. We should be collaborating and committing to sharing the truth with consumers.

Essentially, consumers have two options: share some of their data with apps and publishers that commit to only using it for content programming and anonymous advertising that underwrites content — as has always been the case with TV and radio — or choose to underwrite the content directly.

Consumers are smart individuals capable of evaluating the options, deciding what’s best for them and then making that choice. Right now, consumers are getting trained on what ‘tracking’ means by just one company. We should be doing this collaboratively as an industry. If we don’t start educating consumers and articulating the options more directly, consumers will pay the price – literally – with a big, unnecessary content bill every month.

There’s an important consumer story we should be telling about the value of ad-supported content and the positive impact that data can have on content quality. We should be telling the same story, and I believe we could benefit from that type of collective campaign.

Double down on shared innovation

The industry needs standardized tech that’s available to all of us. There are several encouraging workstreams within different industry bodies including Digital Content Next (DCN) and Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) that should be strengthened and accelerated, given what’s at stake.

With IDFA alone, we are just weeks away from what will likely be full adoption of iOS 14.5 across Apple devices, and based on early industry numbers, the percent of opted-in users will be far lower than forecasted.

For our part, we have been actively working on this for about 18 months, and I feel fortunate to have the benefit of IBM technology in house. We’ve learned a lot and we’ve started to use AI in many ways to solve for the long game, including creating and growing a subscription offering. Our AI ad solutions are open for use across the open web, and we are continuing to look for ways to innovate further and help create the new foundation we will all need in an identifier-constrained and cookie-free future.

When you break it all down, consumers simply deserve better. They deserve to be given honest information about what’s what and what any given choice could mean for them. They deserve to be trusted to make that decision for themselves. And they deserve to have the choice to engage with the publishers they want, how they want. For all of us that make up the open web, we must do better at ensuring consumers get what they deserve.

Sheri Bachstein is chief executive officer at The Weather Company and general manager of IBM Watson Advertising.