How Will We Find Consumers Without The Cookie?

colettedillernerddtData-Driven Thinking” is written by members of the media community and contains fresh ideas on the digital revolution in media.

Today’s column is written by Colette Dill-Lerner, executive vice president at the DuMont Project.

While observing the debate on whether the third-party ad server is dead or very much alive, I realized that though a few players are working on cross-device tracking and measurement, the industry as a whole seems to be dancing around the core issue of cookies as a tracking device.

The standard cookie, upon which we have built much of the work we collectively do, is crumbling. And it’s crumbling quickly, thanks to the very folks for whom we are trying to leverage tracking: our target consumers and how they behave not just across devices, but on the web as a whole.

The linchpin of programmatic media is tracking consumer behavior beyond the single session in a single ecosystem. The power of programmatic is its ability to formulate a fundamental understanding of a user so we can market the right product to the right person at the right time for the right price. In order to do this we need to understand the user in relativistic terms and not in absolutes. This means we need to gain a complete picture of them across the web.

In more practical terms, this means logging thousands of actions across hundreds of websites and, more importantly, content categories each month and then bucketing them accordingly.

In my opinion, we have leveraged the cookie well to accomplish this goal. But in doing so, we have pushed that tiny technology to the brink on the desktop, and have lost access to it almost entirely on mobile. As a result, we are having inside-baseball conversations about cookies and ad serving when, really, what we should be doing is looking at our specific assumptions on how we find consumers and, of course, how we are going to do so at scale into this not-so-new cross-device US advertising world.

Yes, there are issues of billing and reconciliation that are important, but really, the bigger issue at hand is whether we can understand consumers’ behavior anymore and, in turn, use that information to create relevant ad experiences. In a world where consumers jump from mobile content to desktop, how do we know what ads have effectively driven this behavior? I imagine that the rise of TV over radio saw similar conversations about shifting user attention; we certainly saw those shifts during the early days of the web. Now, we are looking not only at mobile relative to desktop, but also the web relative to itself. Each one is posing more questions than answers to folks who believe in measuring their ad performance.

As Rob Griffin pointed out, assuming Google and Facebook will play in the sandbox with other folks any better than Amazon does seems highly unlikely. This means that due to customer self-segmenting – meaning customers identify themselves in various ways in various environments and, as a result, behave very differently in Facebook than they do in an ecommerce environment – the first-party cookie will lose its functionover time and, in turn, leave programmatic media without any centralized understanding of consumers and their commensurate behavior.

Fundamentally, the reliance on cookies as a long-tail tracking mechanism is dying out and it doesn’t matter if it’s a first or third party because consumer behavior has, once again, left the marketers to imagine a new paradigm. Now, we just need a massive technology leap to do it.

Follow DuMont Project (@dumontproject) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

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  1. I agree with you 100%… this is why direct publisher sites will be the ones to gain from 1st party data that they collect on the users. Advertisers will always align with best in breed content providers over technology tracking cookie players… does that make sense?

  2. This article sums up a massive challenge facing almost all publishers and advertisers in 2014 – not being able to track or profile devices without third-party cookie support can account for 25-50% of users. But cookies are just one of many techniques that can be used to track user behavior online (whether they are using a desktop, tablet or mobile). I’m happy to share that the “massive technology leap” you mention to track user behavior across any device has already happened! We at Cxense saw this opportunity years ago and have developed a robust and scalable method for tracking users on all devices across sites and apps, based on open Internet standards. Using an advanced analytics system and data management platform, businesses can target users in real-time, based on interests, intent, context, location, device and more – all taken from anonymous user profiles (respecting privacy standards of course, including user opt-out). So, the power of programmatic and “its ability to formulate a fundamental understanding of a user so we can market the right product to the right person at the right time for the right price” has never been in better shape.