“Just make this little tweak to your page.”
With the clock ticking on third-party cookies, publishers will soon be the only part of the ad ecosystem with direct relationships with their readers.
Naturally, everyone else wants in on that relationship.
Buy-side ad tech has been more aggressive asking publishers to share user data, even as the legal risk for doing so grows every day, said Jeremy Hlavacek, head of revenue for Watson Advertising.
“This tension must be solved,” he said.
The identity-preserving workarounds pitched by agencies and buy-side ad tech often involve using a publisher’s first-party cookie to store information, and allowing outside partners to call up these first-party cookie records (often via API) and stitch them together to understand identity.
Other solutions use local storage or have a publisher create a new subdomain (a CNAME record) for the ad tech company that allows them to set first-party cookies. Then, buyers can essentially recreate the identity that powers the open web.
Unfortunately, most – though not all – of these solutions fail to meet publishers’ privacy compliance criteria, and many feel these are temporary workarounds vs. true innovations.
“Everyone is trying to solve for things that worked in the past, which weren’t all that successful for the publisher,” said Dave Pond, head of media strategy and operations at BuzzFeed.
Stephanie Layser, VP of advertising technology and operations at News Corp, echoed that sentiment: "The industry wants to keep doing exactly what they are doing, but we need to stop and rethink how we look at privacy and rearchitect solutions that respect that.”
Here’s how publishers are looking at the risks – and what the rise of these solutions means for the future of media funded by programmatic advertising.
Many of these buy-side solutions require publishers do engineering work, and ensure added code doesn’t impact latency or the site experience.
Dotdash needs articles to load quickly, so adding code to its page is a nonstarter.
“There is no way we would ever put you on page,” said Sara Badler, SVP of revenue and programmatic. “Because 80% of our traffic comes from search, if the article takes more than a millisecond to load, we lose that user.”
Publishers also need to safeguard their readers’ trust when they allow a partner access to their site.
“Because as soon as you put someone else’s code on your page, you open yourself up to potential risk,” said Stephen Mummey, VP of programmatic sales and operations at AccuWeather.
Outside code also means publishers lose control over their data, the page experience and end-to-end privacy – another deal breaker.
“We have a very privacy-first approach,” said Insider Inc. SVP of programmatic and data strategy Jana Meron. “If we can’t control it, it’s unlikely we would do it.”
Additionally, many of these buy-side solutions fail the business test. They lack scale, and require publishers and buyers to sign on and create a marketplace – so why do integration work for no quick reward?
Ad tech companies and agencies will often dangle revenue potential to spur publisher adoption, or they’ll claim to have a buyer exclusively transacting through the integration, which makes the appeal feel like a veiled threat: integrate or lose access to a big client’s dollars.
But large publishers wield enough power to rebuff these ultimatums. With greater sales resources and powerful media brands behind him, it’s less likely that a brand or agency will stop buying with them if they don’t do an integration.
Is the solution sustainable?
Publishers also don’t want to invest time in integrations that won’t bring in sustainable revenue.
Some of the solutions are just one Safari ITP update from getting blocked. Or they go against the spirit of disallowing cross-site tracking. Why integrate something that will get blocked soon – and could get the publisher caught in the crossfire of the browser cookie wars?
Insider Inc.’s Meron doesn’t want to sign a deal that will evaporate when third-party cookies go away
“A short-term win from a revenue perspective could be a long-term loss from a revenue perspective,” Meron said. A solution that winds up blocked could lead to a huge dip in revenue the publisher will have to scramble to make up.
Dotdash similarly doesn’t want to spend time in solutions that are short-term workarounds or could be blocked by a browser.
“We don’t want to do anything that’s temporary,” Badler said. “To grow, we want to do something long-term and strategic.”
AccuWeather’s Mummey believes these solutions are simply stopgaps until the industry figures out what the next few years will look like.
And even if they were sustainable, first-party cookie space is limited, Mummey added. It’s unlike the current environment, where hundreds of third-party trackers appear with every page load.
“The more stuff you put in there, the greater the impact on the site’s performance and server costs,” he said. “It cannot scale.”
How to evaluate
These buy-side solutions are also difficult to evaluate and integrate. The details generally go over the head of even the smartest programmatic publishers, and require the input of multiple publisher teams.
“It’s not just one person’s decision,” said Sara Badler, SVP of programmatic revenue and strategy at Dotdash. “It’s a revenue, ad product, analytics and even a CMP [consent management platform] decision.”
Publishers often consult their chief data officer, chief technology officer and legal team in order to vet these solutions and understand the impact.
Publishers also consult with each other.
“Right away, I’d try to find a group of publishers that have either already tested the tech or I can brainstorm with,” said Emry Downinghall, advertising VP at Chegg.
The future of “plug-the-hole” solutions
These solutions put publishers at a strategic crossroads.
While they preserve the CPMs associated with using audience data, they also may prevent publishers from truly owning their own data.
“It’s a temporary Band-Aid that’s very easily technically broken,” said Zach Edwards, founder of analytics and optimization firm Victory Medium. “And it’s creating a situation where publishers control none of their own audience data.”