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The identity crisis
August 21, 2023
By Mark McEachran, VP, product management, platform
The exact date upon which the third-party cookie vanishes is tough to pin down. What we are reasonably certain of is that sometime in the second half of 2024 the Google team will release a version of Chrome that will have them turned off by default.
One of the foundational underpinnings of online advertising will cease to exist. Falling away will be the common key used to value and target ad opportunities, contextual signals used to build audience segments, attribution functionality used to gauge performance, not to mention the collateral impact that losing all these things will bring.
It’s important to explore both the direct and indirect impact of cookie deprecation to have as much of a complete picture as possible. If one becomes too focused on the direct impact, they will lose sight of the long-term and peripheral damage from the wake of this change.
The open web
The most obvious and directly impacted media will be the open web. While contextual advertising is back on the rise, prying cookie-based buying out of the hands of advertisers and agencies is impossible to do without the market forcing the transition.
Relying solely on cookied users up until the last minute is a game of chicken that will end careers. Those marketers unwilling or unable to adapt ahead of time may find themselves playing catch-up while their counterparts are thriving.
Cookies gave marketers a level of certainty that they were targeting the exact person or device that was appropriate for the campaign. Retargeting benefited greatly from this functionality once it was combined with the ubiquity of header bidding, RTB and programmatic stacks. Reaching the person who left the store after “just looking” frequently brought them back to buy the thing they were looking at.
Several agencies went so far as to acquire data companies. These acquisitions could easily turn to write-offs without intelligent, targeted investment in wholly new paradigms of finding and building audiences.
Many see the walled gardens as fairly insulated from the loss of cookies. It’s not true. The immediate impact that Apple’s ATP had on Facebook should be proof of that. Without an ability to read an ID in a 3rd party context, walled gardens lose much of their ability to extend their media buys across other properties or even show attribution metrics.
In these murky times, it’s unclear as to whether or not the open web will benefit by receiving more direct buys from advertisers, or if the advertisers will just double-down on the O&O of the walled gardens. It’s the same audience they were reaching before, but the deterministic signals are mostly stuck inside the walls now.
Without a cookie, data companies cannot pin behaviors to a user. They cannot build a deterministic profile. Everything online, absent something like hashed emails, which are scarce, becomes probabilistic, and temporally unstable.
It’s not as though other IDs or designators don’t exist in different contexts, that’s a given. The problem is that the open web offers a richness of context unmatched by any other segment of media. Without that context and a reasonably stable identifier, audience segment diversity dwindles. With the web: auto enthusiast, charitable, camping, and a hundred other interests can be derived from browsing activity. Without the web: a dozen well-used apps, a few regularly watched TV shows, sports.
When the audience signals fade, the impact spreads far beyond the web. CTV, mobile, even Digital Out of Home targeting leverages the contextual segmentation from online, web activity. Identity graphs may do well to continue linking devices together, and create household profiles. That doesn’t help fill in the audience signal gap that sits behind the graph in the segment targeting of a campaign.
It’s not just the targeting, but the post campaign analysis that may suffer. With fewer signals, the audience becomes more difficult to discern. Understanding which group converts, where to target the follow-up, finding opportunities, all these things become, if not more difficult, less reliable.
Light in the darkness
Some believe there’s yet one more reprieve from the third party cookie’s impending demise. The chance of it living beyond 2024 is shrinking, not growing. All recent indications coming out of the Chrome camp suggest that they’re going to stick to their commitment to deprecation in 2024
The industry has been preparing for the loss of signal for several years now, thanks in part to Google moving the deadline. It was a good wake-up call. Solving the online advertising problems that arise from a lack of cookies, however, takes time. Thankfully, we’ve had just that, even if we aren’t likely to get any more.
Several tools are out there. Most are currently in a foundational stage, alpha and beta testing, and being applied in practice to browsers that are already cookie-crippled. Hashed emails (HEMs), third party IDs, first party IDs, browser fingerprints, and IP addresses are just a few identifiers in play. Not all are as privacy friendly as some of the platforms and privacy advocates would like, and others might not be as popular (yet) with all industry players.
Even with these alternatives, buyers and sellers must still fundamentally shift the way they do business. None of these solutions offer the same level of coverage on user activity as the cookie does, even with only the one, mostly-dominant browser still supporting them. And some of these solutions will be threatened by the same forces that are pushing the cookie out.
Ad tech has been–and still is–in the process of hedging their bets, partnering with multiple solution providers, augmenting systems to recognize and leverage some of these alternative methods of identity, and talking about new ways of doing business that are more privacy friendly. Don’t be caught flat-footed. There’s work still to be done by everyone. But that’s why we all got into this business, right? There’s always another challenge around the corner.