By now, we’ve all heard Google’s latest announcement confirming they will not support email-based identifiers as an alternative ad tracking solution. Their latest policy update raised concerns for some, calling into question the viability of alternative identifiers based on email hashing and Universal IDs, which have enjoyed industry-wide collaboration. However, it seems Google’s policy update was pertaining to their own walled ecosystem rather than alternative solutions intended for the open internet.
At the same time, others (ourselves included) weren’t taken by surprise, since it was well understood from the beginning that their solution would lie in Google’s Privacy Sandbox. Curt Larson, Chief Product Officer at Sharethrough, stated the announcement was “simply a clear statement of the policy the industry already assumed they would pursue. Google has been clear all along that their answer lies in Privacy Sandbox, not in an email or other universal identifier. This does not mean they will actively disable or undermine other identifier initiatives, assuming they respect Google’s policies. We do not believe this announcement changes anything about the future of identity for Chrome users.”
Looking Ahead to the Addressable Future
For the last decade, we’ve relied on third-party cookies or mobile IDs to provide audience identifiers. Cookies were far from perfect in the first place and have only become less effective as each consumer uses more and more devices. Particularly, we’ve experienced challenges from a lack of transparency and unreliable data—an individual could be mistaken for several users, given they’d be using multiple devices.
Moreover, a lack of consumer privacy protection at its core has been the fundamental driving force towards the fast approaching demise of third-party cookies, as well as calls for frameworks and solutions that offer greater protection for consumers in its place. Somewhere, Ron Swanson is extremely pleased with this direction. The demise of third-party cookies didn’t begin with Google’s announcements - device proliferation, regulatory changes, and more dramatically the policies of other browsers like Safari have been moving us in this direction for several years. Given the urgency to be proactive and well prepared as the 3rd-party cookie era draws to a close in 2022, it can be challenging for players in the industry to know exactly how to effectively prepare themselves. An even greater challenge lies in the fact that many solutions are still in their early development stages; currently in the process of being deliberated upon and tested.
The Path to Building a Cookieless Future
As we navigate the path to an addressable future, we’re committed to working with all solutions that receive market momentum, and collaborating with partners to facilitate the transition away from third-party cookies. We’ve tailored our focus on the path forward to addressability down to 3 main buckets.
1. Driven by Device Makers & Browsers
Device makers and browsers including Chrome & Apple have put consumer privacy front and centre by proposing privacy conscious solutions to replace soon obsolete identifiers. Instead of leveraging an individual’s data and information to target a specific user on the open web, advertisers would access audience information in batches or cohorts.
Chrome’s Privacy Sandbox
One solution lies in Chrome’s Privacy Sandbox, as mentioned above. Following a number of avian themed-proposals aimed at replacing third-party cookies, Chrome has launched tests of FLoC clusters for large groups of people with similar interests. At this time, the testing is still in its early stages and it’s not been made clear if it will be adopted. In the case of its adoption, advertisers and DSPs would have to make significant changes moving forward.
The greatest worry is whether they will adapt in time, or simply re-allocate their ad dollars to walled gardens. A greater reliance on platforms, such as Facebook & Google, leveraging first-party data will increase their control and power of user data, providing them with data not available to other advertisers. As Larson states, “it behooves not just the ad industry but the overall journalism and internet industries to make sure we are prepared for this future.”
Apple’s SkAdNetwork & IDFV
In addition, Apple announced upcoming changes in IOS 14, in particular that they will no longer be using IDFA moving forward, and have since introduced SkAdNetwork and the IDFV as replacements.
IDFA has been the main device-level identifier built to target and track users across mobile apps. In the past, when you clicked an ad inside an app and you were taken to the AppStore to download the application, your IDFA would be used to track the conversion and tie it back to your user data; the campaign; and the original app to determine which campaign was most effective. In its place, Apple’s SkAdNetwork would exclusively solve for conversions on app installs. There are a few limitations like the maximum of 100 campaigns shared across many companies and unclear aggregation.
Instead of an IDFA being used across all apps on your device, Apple has also introduced an IDFV or Identifier for Vendors. This is a code assigned to all apps by one developer and is shared across all apps by that developer on your device. For example, Inlogic—the developer who brought you hits like Tomb Runner and Chess—would be able to use the same identifier for you across all apps by them, but Candy Crush by developer King would have a different IDFV identifier.
Given its privacy-based design, an overall reduction in ad targeting and measurement capabilities is expected to impact advertisers and app developer monetization. Moreover, IOS 14 will also require every app to ask users explicitly whether or not they want to opt-out of tracking. With privacy concerns top of mind, it seems likely few consumers will agree to be tracked and will choose to opt out, thereby limiting the ability to track activity across various apps. As it stands, “currently, about 70% of IOS users share their IDFA with app publishers, after this change it’s estimated that this number will drop to 10% to 15%.”
Amidst government regulations calling for greater consumer privacy measures in Big Tech, privacy-centric frameworks proposed by Chrome & Apple are forcing the entire ad tech industry to change. Following suit, Sharethrough is actively monitoring these frameworks and beginning to prototype Privacy Sandbox solutions as well as supporting SKAdNetwork. We plan to be ready to meet buyers and publishers where they are as the landscape evolves.
2. Using Identity Solutions to Replace Cookies Entirely
With many in the ad tech community taking a proactive approach to find and release alternatives to cookies for user ID, another plan in the works are identity solutions. The work to incorporate Universal IDs has been a main focus in that regard, receiving industry-wide level collaboration among SSPs, DSPs, publishers and advertisers alike.
Universal IDS are being supported as a sustainable and viable alternative to tracking and targeting consumers on the open web. As a company that wishes to preserve the integrity of the open web while also putting user privacy-protections in place, we support Universal IDs as a way to partially replace cookies.
Sharethrough has already launched a collection of existing universal identifiers, including LiveRamp’s IDL & TTD UID (1.0, 2.0) and are continuing to monitor and launch additional ones.
3. Bid Stream Enrichment
Regardless of the solutions outlined above, user identity won’t always be available or always be the best way to target an ad. Context has long been an important, and perhaps recently underappreciated, targeting tactic—we believe contextual targeting will grow and Sharethrough has invested in providing a variety of contextual targeting options to buyers via PMPs.
Going a step further is enriching the bid request to transmit first-party data to buyers. This would include advanced contextual targeting, first-party audience and second-party audience. Larson mentions that up until now, “it is the DSP that is expected to enrich a bid request from an identity to include audience data. That is likely to be the default mode going forward as well, and it’s unclear what role exchanges will play in providing audience signals. At this stage in the game though, it’s wise to continue testing and monitoring these solutions as they could be part of the future given the challenges of identity moving forward.”
In the end, it’s about meeting publishers and advertisers where they’re at, doing everything we can to be prepared for whichever solution they wish to move forward with, and provide support as we navigate into a post-cookie era in advertising.