Steps Publishers Must Take to Survive in the Cookieless Era

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By Debra Fleenor, President of Adapex.

For publishers, 2022 may be the last year of easy access to scalable audience data. Google has said it will nix third-party cookies on Chrome, the world’s leading browser, in 2023 and privacy regulations from California to China are forcing publishers to ask more explicitly for user consent to collect and share data.

These changes will diminish the amount of audience data available to publishers, making it harder for them to identify users and more expensive for advertisers to generate a return on ad spend.

For open web advertising, the results of this shift could be calamitous — because if publishers are unable to authenticate audiences to maximize ROAS, advertisers will turn to more powerful partners who do have access to first-party data at a massive scale: the walled gardens of Google, Meta, and Amazon.

Privacy reforms are poised to cement Big Tech’s digital ad dominance — if publishers are unable to collect audience data through privacy-safe means and enable effective targeting via new methods.

But that dystopian future in which the triopoly gets even more powerful while other publishers, especially mid- and long-tail sites, suffering is not inevitable. Publishers can take concrete steps to survive and thrive in the cookieless era. Here are a few.

Collect and Magnify Audience Data

A successful privacy-conscious supply-side advertising strategy begins with setting up the infrastructure required to collect as much relevant first-party data as possible. Publishers should communicate with users about why they are collecting this information, precisely what information they are collecting and with whom they will share it.

Asking users for their data is an opportunity for publishers to clarify that they are not collecting information for stealthy, untrustworthy purposes but rather to finance the great content readers enjoy.

If executed properly — that is, not in the illegible and lengthy privacy policies of days past — this request for data can set up long-term relationships between publisher and end-user premised on an exchange of value.

In turn, that exchange will allow publishers to offer granular, rich, privacy-safe audience data to advertisers at a time when that information is disappearing from the market.

In addition to collecting first-party data, advertisers should partner with privacy-conscious identity providers to enrich it. These solutions, such as The Trade Desk’s Unified ID 2.0, address the main problem presented by an identity strategy based on first-party data: scale.

With the maximum amount of their own first-party data and privacy-safe, anonymized third-party data, publishers can offer advertisers robust audiences, even beyond the death of cookies.

Develop Addressable and AI-Enhanced Audiences

In and beyond advertising, the primary business challenge of our era is not collecting data but rather maximizing its value. Businesses are inundated with all sorts of information; the challenge is safely storing and sorting it so that it can then generate actionable and monetizable insights.

The version of this challenge publishers face is transforming first – and third-party user data into addressable audiences that advertisers can target at scale and against which they can measure the performance of their campaigns. Publishers can partner with data companies to sort audience information into addressable segments, allowing advertisers to reach ideal customer profiles.

Crafting addressable audiences is an opportunity for differentiation in the programmatic market. The winners of the next era of open web advertising will be those who offer not only rich audience data but also greater transparency into how to reach those audiences and measure exposure to them.

Finally, publishers can leverage artificial intelligence to maximize the value of their addressable audiences. With AI, publishers can do more with fewer data, recognizing patterns in user activity and developing more sophisticated profiles — and therefore targeting options. This then allows publishers to maximize their advertisers’ return on investment, driving retention and revenue.

Enable contextual targeting

Most discussion of data-driven advertising focuses on behavioral targeting. But contextual targeting, too, is increasingly becoming more sophisticated — and it offers advertisers the promise of reaching relevant audiences without needing to amass privacy-sensitive audience data.

Contextual advertising once rested on matching ads to content based on keywords. Now, contextual advertisers can leverage natural language processing to develop a sophisticated and nearly instantaneous understanding of content’s meaning.

Advertisers can then leverage that understanding to target audiences based on the relevance of ad campaigns to audiences’ online experiences. This enables brand-safe ad placement, as the advertiser can avoid contexts with which they would rather not be associated and it also enables nuanced targeting without stoking privacy concerns.

Publishers, too, can use advances in contextual ad technology to differentiate themselves and maximize the value of their inventory. Publishers can use NLP to generate IAB-recognized categories for their content and pass it into the bidstream, enabling easy access to content-based targeting for advertisers.

In fact, publishers can even pair contextual and behavioral intelligence, allowing advertising that caters to the user based on interests, demographics and in-the-moment experiences.

Put together, these offerings allow publishers to differentiate themselves in a market where competition for ad dollars will be fiercer due to rising costs and hotter competition from the walled gardens.

A Concrete Path Forward For Publishers

Publishers are facing headwinds in a privacy-first advertising ecosystem where Big Tech stands ready to capitalize on regulatory changes to eat up even more of the digital advertising market. But the steps publishers need to take to position themselves for the future are not shrouded in mystery.

Maximizing the value of first-party data, building addressable audiences and enabling both behavioral and contextual targeting will give all publishers, even long-tail sites, the best possible opportunity to beat the odds.

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