“Data Driven Thinking” is written by members of the media community and contains fresh ideas on the digital revolution in media.
Today’s column is by Andrew Shebbeare, Founding Partner and Global Chief Strategist at Essence.
Don’t worry; I’m not planning to reprise the old debate over whether data is good or evil here. I assume this audience sides mostly with the argument that using data to make ads better for informed, consenting audiences is A Good Thing. Instead, I want to talk about how we might try to fix the rapid erosion of our common currency, the humble cookie.
Our industry is among the most innovative on the planet. The speed with which the face of advertising has changed is bewildering – a testament to the power of free enterprise and accelerated competition with good information. On the other hand, we have a pretty poor track record in standardization or creation for the common good. Throughout the 13 years I’ve been lucky enough to be in the business, it has been awash with complaints about standards – including ad specs, viewability, GRPs, Do Not Track and so many more.
The one thing on which we’d been mostly able to agree was the basic building block of our data ecosystem – the cookie. Yet we can take no credit for inventing this standard; the cookie was never designed with advertising in mind. It was an accidental gift to marketers, one with which we made hay until “cookie” became a dirty word.
Now that gift is being taken away. Unlike Do Not Track, where the ad industry can simply snicker and dismiss IE 10’s efforts, we can’t unblock a rejected cookie. Our hand is being forced, and quickly. At Essence, we see around 9% third-party cookie rejection in the US. As Firefox updates, we’re expecting that figure to rise to 20% by late August. With two major players now taking this stance, it’s easy to imagine Microsoft following suit. That could easily get us to 40%, or two in five users for whom we’d find ourselves unable to measure reach, to frequency cap, to sequence ads, to hold out control audiences, to measure conversions – some of the key selling points of the digital medium.
The Internet has the potential to change the face of advertising for the better, but to get there we need to make ad experiences valuable to users and to brands. That value rests on relevance and accountability.
So what’s the alternative? Can the industry develop and police a mechanism that also looks after the consumer’s interest? Personally, I’m not sure any of the options available today qualify as silver bullets.
First-party ad serving? Serving all your ads as xyzadvertiser.com rather than abcadserver.net might help if someone has already visited you, but if your ad is placed on someone else’s site, you’re still a third party. So that change wouldn’t help any further up the funnel than a click, and it doesn’t help grow new audiences. Big brands with huge first-party coverage would see some extra mileage here, but a B&B owner in Vermont would struggle.
Fingerprinting? Very clever – and a brilliant hack – but not the long-term answer, in my opinion. Much like the cookie, fingerprinting uses a feature of HTTP for something far from its intended purpose. But the fingerprinting arms race and low barriers to entry are creating fragmentation and inconsistency, making it difficult to manage privacy well. Some of the innovators in this space are already reinventing themselves as media companies to monetize their inventions, exacerbating this silo effect. Fingerprinting is probably helpful in the near-term, but it all feels very fragile. I could easily see browser makers altering their security models to obscure the data used for fingerprinting from third parties altogether.
Panels? Great for all sorts of things, but I can’t see them becoming the single currency of digital marketing. They’re inherently proprietary, biased, limited in reach (especially globally), and they suffer from sampling issues. Finally, they only really help with measurement anyway; they aren’t going to form the basis for a data economy.
Logins? Facebook, Google and Apple are rapidly heading for domination of the data market, thanks to logged-in user bases on their respective platforms. Tracking and targeting users across mediums and devices will help them monetize in completely new ways, which will create amazing opportunities for marketers. Yet relying only on logins would reduce the accessibility of our ecosystem. That would, in turn, diminish innovation in our business because so much of our innovation comes from the smaller players.
For the record, I do think all of the above are helpful. In fact, we use or recommend them all to our clients today. I’m just trying to take a punt at a long-term solution. We’re in a classic collective-action problem; it’s in everyone’s interest to find an answer, but no individual interested player can get us over the hump. My sense is that a sustainable answer has to be designed specifically to fix this problem, has to be understood by consumers and has to be “open,” or not owned by anyone.
So what might this magic something look like? I’ve got a rough sketch of a potential solution, and I’d love to know what you, the AdExchanger readers, think. I’ve kicked this idea around with colleagues, but I’m sure we’ve missed plenty of angles. I started thinking about the two roles that the advertising cookie serves today, then about how we might solve for each one if we were designing from scratch.
1) Measurement: We need to know if our ads work. At a basic level, this means comparing the behavior of people who see our ads to those who don’t. I don’t think this needs to happen at the user level.
Here’s an idea: When a browser is installed, we could have it generate a persistent, anonymous, random and non-unique group identifier. A number from 0 to 100, for example. Let’s call it the Audience Group for now, or AG for short. The AG would be passed to the server with every HTTP request the browser makes, so that advertisers could use it to persistently segment audiences into up to 100 groups. It could be reset by the user, much like the Apple IDFA. For most advertisers, there will be thousands or millions of individuals in any AG.
Marketers would use the AG to compare relative ad effectiveness between groups. Instead of looking at clicks, CTRs and so on, we’d all be engaged in the much sounder practice of comparing the real overall effect of ads on audiences. Show Ad A to Group 1, Ad B to Group 2, no ad at all to Group 3, then compare their behavior. It would be easy to build proper Group-based creative tests rather than make spurious comparisons across rotating ads at uneven frequency or recency levels. We might finally get everyone aligned on conversions that are genuinely incremental rather than post-click or post-impression.
I suspect people will be reading this and silently complaining that they can’t build an attribution model without data-describing sequence, frequency and recency. That’s true, but it’s the price of real anonymity. On the bright side, since every publisher and ad server would see the same AG value, all media would have equal access to the segmentation, making it easy to create pretty amazing experiments to measure the contribution of different channels (such as, for example, avoiding showing half your audience generic search terms and subsequently comparing the number of brand searches they make and/or their likelihood of watching your video to completion).
2) Targeting: This is where user-level data comes in. To measure reach, to frequency cap, to retarget, to run behavioral campaigns, to trade in data, to build an attribution model, we need to be able to identify individuals in a consistent way.
If we’re getting personal, we should ask for permission. So here’s another idea: When a browser is installed or updated, we could prompt users to tell us if they’re prepared to share anonymous data about their web browsing, recorded against a Tailored Advertising Flag – or TAF – unique to them. We’d explain that sharing this data would help support the sites they enjoy, help advertisers to deliver ads that are relevant to them and reduce the amount of repetitive ads they see. I see no need to default to opt-in or opt-out; just ask people to make a choice. Should the user opt in, we’d generate a random, unique TAF that would be passed into every HTTP request, just like the AG. That key could be used just like a cookie is today, except that the value would be the same across all requests. This would make it easier for users to manage their privacy while also making it easier for marketers to use different platforms and for ad people to trade data. All the systems we have today would basically still work; we’d just change the key and accept the fact that only a part of the audience would be covered.
Advertisers would probably gravitate toward the TAF opt-in audience, and we’d have to find ways of understanding and managing ads against those who opt out. For example, if we can’t frequency cap, we have to expect worse results for users who opted out. This might create a bit of a two-stream digital-ad economy, but at least the choice would be made -- and understood by -- consumers. You don’t have to look too far ahead to imagine asking users to pay a small fee to opt out, or to reward them for opting in, with money, access to premium content or fewer ads. This seems only fair, given the revenue differential for publishers.
This route has the significant advantage that only the browser makers would really need to change anything significant. Sure, those browser makers are behemoths with less-than-aligned interests, but they’re getting better and better at this standards malarkey.
If we can align behind something like this, the reward feels worth some effort. We’d finally have a solution consistent with the principles of the Internet – owned by no one , helpful to everyone. We’d have a level playing field for innovation, better tools for marketers and clearer choices for consumers.