The Internet Cookie Is Dead, and Marketers Should Plan for a Content-First World
Editor's Note: While this piece was written for marketers, changes in ad buying will have a direct impact on publisher revenue. It's important for publishers to consider the mentality of marketers as they look to drive media sales in a cookie-less digital landscape.
In an age of increased privacy regulation, data breaches, and brand safety concerns, it doesn’t take much to scare advertisers. Yet the recent news that Google is making changes to how it treats third-party cookies in its Chrome browser had many a marketer shaking in their boots. While Google didn’t take the scorched-earth path many feared, the company’s soft approach seemed like a slow step toward a world without cookies.
You’d be hard pressed to find anyone in the digital ad business who didn’t understand that the cookie’s days were numbered. But the Google news showed that there are very few people willing to admit that the cookie is already dead; it just hasn’t been buried yet. A world where consumers spend the majority of their digital time on mobile, and an overwhelming majority of that time within apps, only proves that cookies are inessential.
Moving Past the Internet Cookie and Returning to Content
In many ways, a cookie-less, in-app landscape is a regression back to the days of buying on ad networks or exchanges — or, if you want to go further back, it’s similar to the days of print advertising. By eliminating the ability to hit the supposedly “right” individual based on behavioral characteristics, advertisers need to match their ads to the right place. Content becomes much more important, and that goes for the desktop Internet as well.
But in mobile, there’s an important distinction: Every app is a single use case. Consumers often use apps for one specific thing, and that’s it. I must have 10 different sports apps on my phone, but I use each one for something different. The trick for the advertiser is understanding what value that app provides to the user, and then aligning their ad message with the right apps so that it reaches a receptive audience and matches the context. This is very different from many websites, which can offer content across a variety of different topics.
Focusing on Audiences Instead of Individuals
Mention a return to the days of print, and advertisers might start fretting that the future of digital is a return to direct-buys. That’s hardly the case. In fact, the way that advertisers are buying now, via programmatic platforms and pipes, doesn’t have to change in a cookie-less world.
Where change will occur is within the engines that make ad buying, serving, and targeting happen. These platforms need to be adjusted to allow advertisers to target on criteria beyond a cookie. Instead, they need to be adjusted to be based primarily around content targeting.
Not many will admit it, but some of the behavioral “insights” currently being collected by cookies and packaged for user targeting are silly. Advertisers may think they’re targeting a member of their best prospective customer audience, but they’re really only targeting a behavior that person exhibited. Consumers do millions of things online, and cookies often lump them into irrelevant categories, all because an algorithm places them there.
Targeting around content is still audience targeting, on many levels. These audiences are just based on the content they consume, rather than a host of behavioral components — some of which may not even be relevant.
Looking Toward a Content-Funded Future
Programmatic took rise amid the promise of the long tail, and the idea that advertisers could efficiently reach their target consumers across the web on smaller sites, often at a lower price point than they’d pay via a direct buy. Amid falling CPMs and publisher revenue anxiety, it’s clear that this promise benefited advertisers, but not publishers or consumers.
The app landscape is clearly more rewarding for consumers, as they spend most of their mobile and tablet time in apps, and not the long-tail of the web. There are good apps and bad apps, and bad user experiences, of course. But the apps that attract more time spent are premium in nature. The ad-supported content providers or publishers that can draw large audiences and engagement will see their CPMs rise. As they make more money, they can turn around and invest in better product and content.
This cycle moves the online content landscape away from click-bait and low-quality traffic farms and finally rewards the players with the best material or offer. Advertisers can rest assured that they are reaching real people who consume content, rather than reaching an AdID or targeting a single characteristic a person once displayed.
It may be difficult for some marketers to admit that chasing people around based on cookies was always a flawed idea, but in the very near future they’ll have to come to terms with the fact that they can’t chase any longer.
Content has always been important; it’s just been forgotten by a large swath of the advertising industry as it became hooked on behavioral data and retargeting tactics. Those addictions simply won’t play well in the app landscape. The future of digital media is mobile, and while targeting is not going anywhere, cookies clearly are. Smart marketers should begin planning for a content-first world now.