Why the decline of the online tracking ecosystem could be the start of a golden age for digital advertising

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Advertising without digital is like transport without engines. Yes it’s possible and yes there is something quite charming about it, but it’s old-fashioned and less efficient: once you’ve tasted modernity, you can’t go back. Digital advertising has brought us capabilities beyond the 20th century marketer’s dreams: individual targeting based on behaviour and preferences, as well as cross-device tracking, programmatic buying and real-time optimisation.

Much of that was made possible by the humble cookie, but after 25 years its very existence is under threat. Indeed, tracking online activity is a house of cards that has been slowly but steadily collapsing over the last few years thanks to ad blocking, browsers blocking cookies, the rise of walled gardens and cookie-free environments such as apps, connected TVs and the Facebook stack, and privacy regulations. But what does that mean for advertising? In truth, no one really knows. Should marketers be quaking in their boots? Will programmatic die along with the cookie? Is the cookie even dying? In all the uncertainty, we can be sure of one thing: digital advertising will change and the successful marketer will be the one who adapts.

Look beyond the cookie for reach, frequency and frequency capping

Cookies can still be used to track and control reach and frequency in Google’s Chrome browser, which still has a majority market share in many countries, although its key competitors – notably Firefox and Apple’s Safari – have smart cookie-blocking technologies activated by default. This means that all browsers except Chrome are a black hole for measuring reach and frequency based on cookie data. Furthermore, Google is moving towards an opt-in version of cookie blocking, making the future of cookie-based tracking precarious.

One solution for ensuring that reach, frequency and frequency capping are still tracked effectively is the use of audience verification services, for example Nielsen DAR and ComScore vCE. These services validate delivery, reach and frequency for real human audiences with much less reliance on cookies. However, very few advertisers outside the US invest in these products – we expect this to change as the cookie continues to decline.

A return to contextual marketing

Targeting is another area that will be dramatically affected by the change in the tracking landscape – and nowhere is this truer than in programmatic buying. Much of what we recognise as programmatic buying relies on the cookie and is therefore likely to decline. That doesn’t however mean that DSPs will become useless: marketers will still be able to efficiently handle direct, high-quality publisher deals, as well as buy lower cost, mixed quality data-free inventory across select sites on the open web.

While the ability to target individuals on the open web is likely to decrease with the collapse of the tracking house of cards, contextual targeting is set to explode. Contextual targeting is based on the content the user is looking at, rather than their behaviour profile, meaning that ads are more likely to be relevant to their current activity. It puts an emphasis on the placement of the ad, so is similar in that respect to traditional print advertising – the focus is on producing and distributing relevant content. This approach allows advertisers to deliver marketing messages to consumers when they are in a specific situation or frame of mind; as consumer behaviour becomes more fragmented and unpredictable, taking the guesswork out of advertising can only be a win.

Contextual targeting is not just an answer to the demise of the cookie: it is also an antidote to many of the issues around brand risk and safety, and is a way to be less dependent on the personal data that is so heavily regulated by GDPR and CCPA.

Is this digital advertising’s moment?

While the collapse of the digital advertising house of cards may seem catastrophic to brands who have relied on precise targeting in their advertising strategies, in reality it opens as many doors as it closes. Indeed, with consumers now spending more time in apps than in longtail websites, making programmatic audience-targeting even more challenging, many marketers will already be exploring ways to bypass programmatic altogether. The resultant high quality, content-focused advertising is pushing out and replacing click-bait strategies. Perhaps the decline in the online tracking ecosystem will herald a golden age for digital advertising because, ironically, the shift away from targeting individuals will lead to a better user experience.

Image: Shutterstock

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