Ranker One Step Ahead Of A Cookieless Future With First-Party Data

"The Sell Sider" is a column written by the sell side of the digital media community.

Google announced last week that it was delaying the phaseout of third-party cookies by nearly two years.

But instead of dragging their feet to prepare for the inevitable, there’s another reason why advertisers should move away from third-party cookies sooner than they have to: The data is unreliable.

“We all know that it’s kind of garbage,” said Dana OMalley, national VP of sales at entertainment website Ranker. Even at tech giants like Google, ad personalization tools based on user behaviors are often off base – a dog lover and parent may be mistakenly identified as someone interested in cats and without kids.

“Even the biggest companies in the world aren’t getting it right,” she said. “It’s something that’s been wrong for a long time.”

Ranker, which attracts 25 million unique visitors per month, has collected first-party data for 11 years through its online polls about movies, celebrities, sports and music. That voting information means Ranker was already well-prepared for the cookie apocalypse, according to CEO Clark Benson.

Ranker uses its first-party data to deliver targeted ads based on the 1 billion votes to date visitors have cast on Ranker.com – such as their picks for the best “Fast & Furious” movies, ranked from best to worst. Ranker also uses algorithms to find correlations with other categories visitors like, such as sports or food, to target more accurately.

Recently, Ranker looked at how fans voted on hit HBO Max series, such as “Westworld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” as the best shows to binge-watch and found that those visitors also voted for Five Guys in a poll of the best fast-food chains and "shooter games" as the most addictive video games.

And by identifying other shows HBO Max viewers watch, Ranker helped HBO target a larger pool of potential subscribers, expanding the streaming service’s audience reach and leading to a more efficient cost per subscription.

“We're really getting this data around preferences – people are actually telling us what they like or don't like, and that's super powerful,” OMalley said.

That decade-deep repository of data is the core of the Ranker Insights platform, an analytics tool used for correlative targeting to help advertisers, brands and studios gain deeper insights into consumer interests and psychographics.

Ranker is currently working on new products, including an offering that will dynamically serve ad creatives based on a user’s preferences.

AdExchanger recently spoke to Benson and OMalley.

How is Ranker using first-party data these days, and why is it important?

CLARK BENSON: There's always been a value in contextual targeting. It's not like it really went away, it just wasn’t the hot sexy thing for five or six years.

We're really good at the contextual targeting side and data collection, because Ranker consists of data elements that become lists, like the Best 2021 Netflix dramas – “The Queen’s Gambit” or “Bridgerton.” We know all the items down that list.

What differentiates us is that a lot of our content is votable. Five percent to 10% of the people landing on those pages are actually voting and participating.

Once a user starts voting, Ranker’s got a good kind of wormhole effect – you've got that one consumer who may have voted on 20 things in that user session, and maybe they voted on 50 things over the last 90 days. You start to develop a really robust taste graph of fans who like X but also like Y, especially when you aggregate this at scale.

We have about a million-and-a-half visitors a month who vote on things that have what we consider to be “graph value,” interesting from a marketing point of view. So, we can derive correlations from the core user base to all visitors on Ranker and say, “Here's a cohort that is more likely to respond to your targeted ad.”

How did you react to Google’s announcement that it would delay third-party cookie deprecation? Has that changed Ranker’s data strategy at all?

CLARK BENSON: We were relieved to see the news and a bit surprised that they kicked it that far down the road.

Operationally, we have already built out our first-party data offerings. We are adding more features in Q3, but given that it takes time to go to market and for the market to respond, it’s nice to have this new timeline.

When Google initially announced that it would phase out third-party cookies, did it trigger any discussions about how the company was positioned for those changes?

DANA OMALLEY: It triggered for us an awareness that this had become an even more valuable piece of what we're doing, because when you're working with some of the largest advertisers in the world, they tend to just default to third-party targeting. That's what they're using across an ad buy, across multiple properties.

We saw a shift in the conversations with clients. They wanted to know more about the first-party targeting that we had, and wanted to do more testing. A lot of our data lives in the entertainment sphere, but even with some of our CPG clients, we're seeing success.

We definitely recognize that there are other companies that are now kind of scrambling to put together their first-party data strategy, but that's always been intrinsic to what we do.

Did the shift to streaming over the past year create a greater demand for Ranker’s data and insights?

BENSON:  Streaming has made up more and more of our overall ad revenue percentage as a category in the last two years, and we see that only accelerating.

OMALLEY: We had a lot of advertisers who were interested in utilizing us from a contextual standpoint.

With all of the data that we have, now we were able to really start to use our internal tools to identify strong correlation.

It’s a way for us to not only extend reach, but also make sure we’re hitting the most valuable audiences that some of the streaming services aren’t aware of or thinking about.

That boom in consumer activity allowed us to really show our chops to the streaming services.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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