Will Publisher-Created First-Party Data Platforms Save Ad Tech?
Disclosure: I’m not a fortune-teller nor do I have a crystal ball. What I’ll offer is my 22 years’ experience on the publisher side, as well as on the martech and ad tech side. Here goes.
If you haven’t been following recent news, there’s a new marketing push in big media to unite audience data from different digital properties and sell advertising against the unified audience through proprietary ad-targeting platforms. This push, which comes in response to third-party cookie policies and privacy regulations, is a good thing and a smart move for a number of reasons.
Publishers like Vox Media have jumped on the bandwagon with proprietary platforms that they say can help brands accurately target valuable audiences across all their properties. This is possible, they assert, thanks to first-party data collected and analyzed from their family of digital properties.
However, none of these companies is addressing how their in-house technology actually works or how they will provide a panoramic view of the consumer that marketers want. Given the price tag attached to this data and the results being promised, it’s worth considering the potential issues.
Who’s Invited to This Party Anyway?
One red flag that I saw when reading about the launch of Vox Media data platform Forte is the continued confusion between third-party cookies and third-party data. While they’re two very different things, third-party cookies and third-party data are often confused by marketers and the media.
For clarity, a third-party cookie is a cookie placed on a website and accessible by a domain other than the one a user is visiting. By contrast, a first-party cookie is a cookie placed on a website by the domain the user is visiting. Third-party cookies are typically used to store IDs for the purposes of collecting, activating, or measuring data across multiple domains — even multiple domains belonging to the same entity.
Third-party data, on the other hand, typically refers to data that doesn’t originate with the buyer or seller in a media transaction. It comes from — you guessed it — a third-party. It can be data that originates from an offline data provider, a publisher who is directly sourcing the data, or even data aggregated from various sources on such things as purchase behavior, affinities, demographic information, etc. Reputable sellers of third-party data include companies such as Experian, Dun & Bradstreet, and Bombora.
Publishers have long relied on first-party data to get to know their audiences better and, of course, to sell ads. And because they collect first-party data themselves, publishers — and their paying advertisers — can count on that data to be accurate and relevant. However, unifying first-party data from across a set of digital properties presents a unique challenge. If third-party cookies are blocked or not available, the publisher’s first-party data will be associated with domain-locked first-party cookies, with users having a unique identifier in those first-party cookies on each property. If you have first-party cookies for 13 different digital properties, then you potentially have 13 different identifiers — for a single user. How do you resolve a problem like Maria, Maria123, Maria456, Maria789?
Since publishers are advertising their new first-party data platforms as future-proof, what is the magic technology being used to stitch together and resolve myriad identifiers if it isn’t third-party cookies? Without robust identity connectivity, Vox and other media companies must rely on a hodge-podge of different identity types and inefficient connection techniques that threaten the accuracy and relevancy of the data.
You Should See the View from Here
First-party data is important and valuable. There’s no mistake there. However, most brands and publishers with first-party data have a slim view of their consumers because they only see what they’re able to see within the confines of their properties.
As a result of merging its data, Vox Media will undoubtedly have a broader picture of the consumer within its universe. But what about outside it? What about what its audience searches for, watches, or buys in the real world, or anywhere other than Vox? If we truly want to know customers, then we must aspire to a panoramic view of the consumer. But this requires information about customer demographics, affinities, viewing behavior, purchasing history, and more via high-quality second- and third-party data providers.
So the question remains, will these platforms use any supplemental data to round out their view of customers? And if so, what’s the technology to connect second and third-party data with the publications’ first-party data to achieve that panoramic view?
Without external data, Vox’s picture of the consumer will be just one slice of a much larger customer journey that could take any number of twists and turns — unbeknown to advertisers.
Respect My Privacy, Please
Finally, there’s the topic on the tip of everyone’s tongue: consumer consent and privacy. Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) are in full swing, and other state privacy regulations are sure to follow.
One of the unintended consequences of privacy legislation and some of what we’re seeing in the browser space is that publishers could be required to ask users every single time they visit a site whether it’s okay to track their usage and sell their data. Publishers that can store customer privacy preferences will find it easier to stay compliant with the likes of the CCPA. However, it’s unclear how the platforms are handling customer privacy preferences across properties since the identity infrastructure is also in question.
Ensuring privacy compliance is one of the toughest business challenges we’ll face as an industry. And no company is immune. Let’s face it, consumer consent should work the way consumers think it already works. Opt out once, and you’re opted out everywhere, including cross-device. To deliver on that promise, however, requires collaboration and connection across multiple partners and providers.
It absolutely makes sense that publishers are trying to create a more complete picture of their audience in an effort to improve ad targeting and data pipelines — and create a valuable alternative to walled gardens. However, they’ll need to offer more transparency and insight into how their technology and data partners intend to tackle these complicated challenges to assure advertisers and the public that they are doing right by everyone.
As Chief Marketing Officer, Adam leads Lotame's global marketing and product teams in helping publishers, marketers and agencies solve complex business challenges with unstacked data solutions. His diverse experience balances art and science, and includes stints as an aerospace engineer and patent attorney, plus 21 years in consumer media and marketing technology in leadership roles at Viacom Media Networks, Time Inc., Hearst, and PebblePost. Adam is co-inventor on four issued U.S. patents related to interactive video advertising technology.