Not so long ago, everything seemed so clear. People don’t like spam. They don’t like being treated as one of the herd. They do like personalisation. Customisation. Being seen as an individual and treated accordingly. Digital marketers knew just what to do: deliver tailored, relevant content on a one-to-one basis and win the hearts and minds of consumers. The problem was that the end goal of hyper-personalised content has not proved sufficient to justify the means: third-party tracking cookies.
It turns out that people value their privacy as much as the relevance of what they read and see online, and that regulators agree that they’re entitled to this privacy. Tracking cookies, which literally follow users around the web and spy on their browsing habits, are now, rightly, anathema. So, is the era of digital one-to-one marketing over, or will a new approach to cookieless personalisation emerge?
In the past, consumers were largely unaware of how tracking cookies function. As a result, they were happy to benefit from personalised content without any concerns. Advertisers for their part were happy to pay a premium for targeted placements that could deliver their brand content to the right people, at the right time. And as these advertisements funded free-to-consume content and services, consumers benefitted twofold.
However, with greater awareness of tracking cookies, particularly since the GDPR came into force in 2018, consumers’ perceptions have changed. Today, many are far less willing to part with their personal data. According to one UK survey, 70% of consumers took steps to limit cookies in the space of a one-week window. Almost a fifth reported that they opt out of cookies daily. In the US, meanwhile, just 32% of consumers say they always accept cookies, compared to 43% that habitually decline them. A 2021 survey of French and German consumers found that 57% of respondents do not want their personal data used to target them with ads.
Next year, Google will withdraw tracking cookies from Chrome, and already cookies are restricted on Edge, Mozilla, and Safari. So, is the game up for personalisation? Are we heading back to the bad old days of pay-and-spray content that ad as little value to peoples’ lives as spam email?
If consumers have any say in the matter, the answer is a resounding “no.” The tricky thing for marketers and publishers alike is that internet users still appreciate personalised content and in no way want their highly tailored digital experiences to be diminished. Survey after survey stands testament to this fact. For instance, 71% of consumers say they prefer ads that are tailored to their personalised interests and habits. Interestingly, one YouGov survey found that although one in three people want more personalised advertising online, just 6% are willing to share more data to receive highly personalised ads.
In getting rid of third-party tracking cookies, the digital advertising ecosystem is therefore keen not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. All the great things about personalisation in terms of delivering “Advertising as a Service” that consumers value and feel adds to their online experience is worth maintaining. There needs to be a better, more consumer- and privacy-focused way of doing it.
So, is cookieless personalisation possible? Well, yes and no. “Yes”, in that it will be possible to get rid of third-party tracking cookies – that change has already been set in motion, but “no” insofar as some ID-based approach will be required.
Tracking cookies give cookies a bad name. The fact is that cookies are nothing more than a text file with a small bit of data to enable publishers to deliver a service for their users. Cookies do not need to be used for tracking. First-party cookies, for instance, can be used to identify users, providing of course that users give consent for this to happen. Used in this way, first-party cookies are a basis for delivering personalised content at scale.
Here’s how. A publisher or a brand uses first-party, cookie-based identifiers to build a 360-degree profile of visitors to their site or app. With consent, this ID, which is numeric and contains no personal data, is then shared with a telco partner who verifies that the individual user is the same user for each site visit. Without tracking people or being able to identify individuals, publishers and brands can therefore understand their likes and habits of visitors. Then, using a transaction ID based on telco intelligence and activated in the ad request, advertisers can programmatically reach the right audience, at the right time, with the right message. Personalised advertising is restored, while simultaneously respecting consumer demand for privacy protection.
The end of tracking cookies is a positive step towards meeting privacy regulations and consumer demand for a privacy-first web. The good news for consumers is that innovation in the adtech space means that losing tracking cookies will not lead to the demise of personalised experiences. Instead, we can look forward to a digital marketing model based on powerful, privacy-by-design first-party IDs that are fit for the internet of tomorrow. Tailored online experiences are going nowhere. In fact, the story of digital personalisation is only just getting started.