A Sustainable Marketing Ecosystem for a World Without Cookies
We all love a good deal.
Sometimes, that good deal comes out of nowhere because the store is closing out. Too many garden gnomes were ordered for the holiday season and there's a need to free up space on the shelves. But the vast majority of the time, that good deal comes to us because the shopkeeper thinks we’re special. We’ve shopped there before, they know us, and they want to see us (and our friends) again.
Marketing has always been a game of push and pull between merchants and consumers. We value the special attention and favorable treatment that comes when we share personal information with a business, but we’re quick to recoil if we feel that a vendor has gone too far. You see me order French cheese and tell me I need a glass of Beaujolais to go with it? Great. A cholesterol pill? Too far.
So it’s no surprise to see that pressure from consumers and advocacy groups has finally convinced governments to impose strict digital privacy rules around the world. The third-party cookie that has sustained the programmatic ecosystem for the past 20 years is on its last legs, and with the imminent deployment of version 2.0 of the IAB’s Transparent Consent Framework (TCF), the pendulum is clearly on the consumer's side.
That’s great news for consumers everywhere who are gaining better control over their personal data. Marketers and publishers, on the other hand, have been left scratching their heads. The complex web of DSPs, SSPs, and DMPs (and ad servers, trading desks, ad exchanges, etc.) was always hard to navigate, but now that complexity is compounded by eroding consumer trust, stringent privacy compliance, and vanishing personal identifiers.
What options are there in a marketing world without cookies? If you’re a publisher, you can bring the management of your ad space in-house and focus on growing your first-party data, forgoing the premiums and efficiencies that come with real-time bidding on the open exchanges. If you’re a marketer, you can spend all your money on the walled gardens (e.g., Google, Facebook, or Amazon)—and forgo the valuable audiences that come with niche publishers.
But there is a better way. And it starts by fundamentally reimagining the marketing ecosystem.
It all starts with identity.
Think of identity as a master profile for each of your customers. It includes media exposure data, web behavior and contextual data, mobile app data, geolocation data, demographic and lifestyle data, and shopping and retail data.
That profile contains their various interactions with your brand (if you’re a marketer) or platform (if you’re a publisher) across all channels, physical and digital, but also their interactions with other brands and platforms they have agreed to share personal data with; it comes with personally identifiable information (like name, address, phone, and email) that is regularly checked for accuracy, as well as non-PII information based on behavioral models.
It’s first, second, and third-party data all rolled into one, hosted in a centralized hub, and that data is constantly normalized, verified, and enriched through a network of reliable data partnerships.
That vision of customer identity isn’t new. There are bits and pieces already out there, scattered across CRM, CDP, and DMP systems, but nothing that approaches the scale and accuracy needed to weave together the entire ecosystem and carry the industry forward.
If we want marketing to thrive in a post-cookie and privacy-centric world, we’ve got to think big.
Identity makes real-time activation possible
In that new ecosystem, identity doesn’t sit still. With all due respect to the hard-working people at the U.S. Department of Commerce, this isn’t the decennial U.S. Census. For digital marketing to work seamlessly, a user’s identity needs to be up-to-date and ready to go the moment they authenticate themselves. What we need is a trusted system to build up that identity, block by block, a mechanism to keep it fresh and compliant, and a robust API to retrieve it on the fly when we want to activate it.
The system we’ve used until now is barely holding together. Cookie matching is a convoluted system prone to diluted match rates. More importantly, it’s not scalable (which leads to problematic latency issues) and much of the action is out of the hands of the original publisher (which is nonetheless responsible for data leaks coming out of the process). In the context of modern privacy regulations, it’s simply unsustainable.
With cookies gone and identity front and center, we have an opportunity to build a system we can grow with.
A system built on a network of trusted data partners
Of course, the data partners that are called upon to build consumer identities and support that new ecosystem need to be trustworthy. That trust comes from data transparency and utmost compliance with privacy rules and user preferences. It also comes from best-in-class encryption and data obfuscation where and when needed.
A good example is Google’s proposed privacy sandbox, whereby sensitive personal data might soon remain sheltered in the browser to help protect users’ privacy. If and when that development pans out, it is ad performance (and attribution) data that will flow back to the central identity profile we talked about, not individual exposure. Our new system will need to account for that distinction.
Facebook is another example. When we examine Facebook ad exposure in our Neustar MTA systems today, we already look at cohort data rather than individual data. Technically, this application of differential privacy isn't implemented the same way as Google’s privacy sandbox, but the effect is the same: we're able to estimate the behavior of a group of users without exposing any individual user's data. It’s close enough to be prescriptive without infringing anyone’s privacy.
The new marketing ecosystem we envision will need to offer seamless integration across the entire value chain—not just with walled gardens. That includes premium publishers, programmatic platforms, and non-digital data partners too, since people still live in the physical world after all. Every day, they access content, purchase products, and authenticate themselves across a vast variety of domains, and each of these domains has its own way of nurturing a trusted relationship with them. We need to be flexible to accommodate all those different interactions.
A call to arms
Is this all pie-in-the-sky thinking? Not at all. In fact, Neustar is already working with international standard bodies (like the IAB Tech Lab) and leading industry associations (like the ANA, the MMA and the 4As) to establish the technical specifications necessary to bring about these much-needed changes.
We’re so enthusiastic about the impact that this new ecosystem will have on marketing that we're committed to leading its development. But we know it won’t happen without active participation from all key stakeholders, and we're hopeful that you’ll roll up your sleeves with us.