Mobile Cookies Aren't Entirely Stale

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CookiesThe belief that cookies don't work on handhelds or tablets, requiring an alternative tracking mechanism, oversimplifies the complex problem of mobile tracking.

While advertisers cannot use third-party cookies to track mobile users the same way they would a desktop user, cookies can indeed be applied to an extent in a mobile environment.

And while many vendors tout their cookie-replacement technologies, the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s (IAB) senior director of mobile, Jon Laszlo, points out that cookie-replacement technologies are generally better suited to the mobile app space than they are making connections with the mobile Web. “I can’t point to any one solution that works equally well across both yet,” he said.

Device-recognition technology, for instance, is gaining popularity as a cookie alternative, yet it provides only an estimated match between devices and is not yet effective in matching users across mobile Web browsers and mobile apps.

This is why the IAB argued in a recent report that marketers should explore existing tracking options, even as they come up with cookie alternatives. “Marketers coming into the mobile world from the PC world were hearing contradictory statements about cookies,” Laszlo said. “Some mobile-native vendors have said that cookies don’t work in mobile, which doesn’t quite represent reality.

But because different mobile browsers have different rules for managing cookies, and because those rules are subject to change (Firefox producer Mozilla is still hemming and hawing over its cookie policy), the point that third-party cookies are severely limited on mobile devices is valid. For instance, they cannot be shared between mobile apps and, as the IAB points out in its report, “Cookies on Mobile 101,” mobile cookies “do not persist when a consumer turns off or restarts the mobile device. When the browser application is shut down/terminated from running in the background, this also clears all cookies.”

One possible solution is to use a hybrid between cookies and user login, such as what Twitter is attempting with its recently unveiled Tailored Audiences retargeting tool, which connects first-party cookies to a Twitter ID, allowing the brand to make cross-channel connections and send targeting messages.

Ultimately, while both cookies and their alternatives have limitations, marketers are doing themselves a disservice by not considering all their options.

“Marketers don’t care about the specific technology as long as they can verify their campaigns and see some accountability from the back end,” Laszlo said, “but they need to look at the whole picture.”

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4 Responses to “Mobile Cookies Aren't Entirely Stale”


  1. Eric Brown says:

    "While advertisers cannot use third-party cookies to track mobile users the same way they would a desktop user..." this isn't really true. The acceptance rate may vary by browser and device but a cookie is a cookie is a cookie.

  2. Great to see this comprehensive write-up produced by an independent body (thanks, IAB!)

    But this is inaccurate: "In addition, mobile cookies do not persist when a consumer turns off, restarts, ... the mobile device. When the browser application is shutdown/terminated from running in the background, this also clears all cookies."

    Try it yourself: On any mobile device, login to a website that persists your login (or user identity) across sessions. Close the browser. Kill the browser. Restart the phone. Open browser. Navigate to same website. You'll still be recognized/logged in. The site isn't using anything fancy -- with the exception of session cookies, cookies do last across opens/closes & restarts.

  3. sabotosh says:

    Since most Mobile traffic is App traffic, and Apps don't use Cookies, it follows Mobile Cookies are indeed Stale / Mobile Cookies don't actually support running a successful Mobile advertising campaign.

    The internet moves fast, but people's ability to understand doesn't.

    What value is parsing the 15% of Mobile traffic (85% is App) that is browser based... you are just confusing most everyone who does not understand the nuances of 1st party vs. 3rd party cookie policies on IOS vs. Android Mobile browsers.

    Here is the simple - if your Mobile Advertising depends on Cookies in any way, it's probably not going to work. Cookies don't work in Mobile, your ad server that relies on Cookies does not work in Mobile, your conversion pixel that relies on Cookies does not work either.

    Not to worry - there are different strategies and work-arounds for every challenge here. But first we need to understand that Mobile is different... and Cookies don't work here.

    • Eric Brown says:

      With respect to traffic, advertising volume is less important than reach. However you slice and dice web vs. app traffic, what matters is reach. Affecting the hearts and minds of consumers is what a CMO cares about, not about how quickly and extensively we can spend their budget. Solve their problems and prove that they are better off with you than without you and you have a client for life.

      "Here is the simple - if your Mobile Advertising depends on Cookies in any way, it's probably not going to work false. Cookies don't work in Mobilefalse, your ad server that relies on Cookies does not work in Mobilefalse, your conversion pixel that relies on Cookies does not work eitherfalse."

      Sabotosh, can you qualify your statements? It's disappointing to see the continual spread of misinformation within our industry as it relates to advertising on smartphones and tablets. While form factors may have changed from their desktop counterparts, we're talking about web browsers and the basic technology has not changed.

      It is true that cookie acceptance rates vary by operating system, browser, user settings and many other variables, but to say that an entire web technology component does not work is bogus. Is it any wonder that advertisers are skeptical about investing significant dollars in new mediums when those who are providing it can't get their stories right and in sync?

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