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From Past to Future: Navigating Measurement Without Cookies

12 Mar 2020 Brandon Heagle
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in Digital, Stella Intelligence,

We live in an era where most everything we do is tracked, or at the very least, is feared to be trackable. I once asked Alexa if the NSA was listening to my conversation and was met with silence. The only creepier response might have been that random evil laugh that Alexa had for a while. But if you stop and think about it, there are a plethora of things that cause “surveillance anxiety.” Have you ever seen someone with a little slide cover for their web cam on their laptop so they couldn’t be watched? Or had a conversation about something and then saw an ad related to what you were discussing magically appear shortly thereafter, even though you hadn’t browsed, searched, or clicked on anything to indicate that you were interested? It is clear that big tech is listening, watching, and tracking, and this has caused consumer concern, especially since most people outside of the industry don’t understand the basic mechanisms behind how this happens.

To date there has been a social contract implied between consumers and many of today’s leading technology providers and platforms. For the free use of a curated social network, Facebook collects your personal data, your social connections and personal tastes. For the convenience of mobile payment through your iPhone, Apple collects your purchase history. For the ease of one-day shipping from the “Everything Store,” you allow Amazon to collect your online shopping behaviors (in this case for an annual fee, too!). And, of course, there is Google, which controls the largest share of online advertising spend, and continues to capture much of your online behavior through their portfolio of products.

Until recently there has been very little regulation over how user data is managed. But we have now reached the day of reckoning. Facebook was fined $5B to settle privacy concerns after the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which allowed the firm to data scrape 87 million user accounts and allegedly influenced the 2016 U.S. presidential election by using those profiles to digitally gerrymander, allowing disinformation in political ads and custom messaging on hot-button topics. This led to congressional hearings in the U.S., and the scrutiny is intensifying and widening over companies like Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Amazon. The EU’s passing and enforcement of GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) has ushered in a new era where consumer data is protected, and everything must be designed with user privacy in mind. We’re seeing a slew of U.S. states developing their own similar consumer privacy protection laws, starting with California’s CCPA (California Consumer Privacy Act) and nearly a dozen other states following suit. There is mounting pressure for a federal national standard to avoid contending with 50 state privacy laws.

In the name of consumer data privacy, under the auspices of GDPR and the congressional hearings, many of the big tech companies have taken measures to limit the data flow from their products and platforms. Where it was once possible to connect user journeys through ad-servers, little by little this has become more difficult. And soon it might not be possible at all without significant change to industry tracking standards. To further understand the future, we must go back to the start of online tracking: the unassuming cookie.

What is a cookie? A cookie is a tiny text file that is stored by a web browser with a unique ID tag. They are created when you visit a website that uses cookies, primarily to aid in the user experience. For example, it may remember your registered login name, your theme selection, and other custom preferences. But cookies have historically been used as the mechanism for online user tracking and can also be used to track your movements on a website and the activities that you take while visiting. The website often stores a corresponding file to the one set in the browser (and tied by the unique ID) to keep information on your movements, actions and any data you may have given while visiting the website, such as your email address.  

The Internet was built on open standards (think HTTP, SMTP) just like other technologies such as GPS or WiFi. For many years, cookies were the only way to recognize a user since it was the only capability built into all browsers. But now we are seeing the cookie disappear faster than your favorite Avenger in Infinity Wars. The old reliable cookie has finally been exposed as antiquated and insufficient for modern times and needs. We have seen our media consumption shift towards mobile devices, users delete cookies at higher rates, and the privacy push to protect user data through modern regulations. The very browsers, where the cookie originated, are themselves continuing to push for more and more privacy controls and it is clear that the industry’s dependence on the cookie will end. Some key activities over the last two years that signal this change include:

  • The EU’s privacy regulations (GDPR)
  • California’s Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), plus many states following suit
  • Google’s removal of the DoubleClick ID (now the Google ID) from its log files
  • Chrome will no longer allow third-party cookies (beginning in 2022)
  • Apple's Intelligent Tracking Prevention (ITP 2.2)

That said, there is a need for smarter data management and user control over their data in a way that the consumer chooses. While there are many negative applications of data abuse, it must also be noted that most consumers do want the brands they love to know them better and provide more personalized experiences. Users also want less frequent, but more relevant ads that provide a better user experience. The truth is, that to provide the right customer experience, there needs to be a unified industry mechanism for tracking and managing user data. If there are dozens of partitioned walled gardens, none of which know the frequency of ad delivery to a consumer, how then do you ensure a consumer doesn’t get bombarded with dozens of ads from the same brand every day? That’s a poor user experience, an inefficient use of media dollars, and could even have damaging branding implications. In addition to frequency capping challenges, retargeting goes away, conversion exclusions disappear (so users will see ads for things they just purchased), behavioral based contextual targeting becomes more difficult, as does the ability to track view-based activities.

The other challenge for marketers is that the partitioning of data also makes the ability to track, measure and attribute media impacts much more difficult. Until there is a new industry standard which offers a more reliable and consistent approach to measurement (which is being worked on by the IAB, 4As and ANA under Project Re-arc) and ideally user level conversion attribution, marketers will need to turn back to some traditional media measurement approaches that were historically leveraged. Here are a few methods for your consideration:

  1. Marketing Mix Modeling
  2. Attribution Analysis
  3. Brand Studies
  4. Local Market Testing

At Stella Rising, we provide best-in-class measurement solutions in the changing face of a cross-device and soon to be cookieless world. Need help navigating your measurement challenges? Connect with us.

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