Consumer Tracking With Respect: Device Recognition and the Next Leap Forward for Digital Media

Cookies are passed their sell-by date.

For digital media to work, advertisers need to reach and positively engage consumers. There are billions of Internet-connected devices connecting every corner of the world so reach certainly isn’t the issue.

The challenge is this: how do we as an industry parlay that massive reach into positive impact? Without the current advertising-based model, there will be less free content, fewer free services and an increase in the number of paywalls between people and the experiences and information they want. 

The Balance of Value

Consumers have always understood the advertising for free content and entertainment value exchange. Television ushered in that reality in the late 50s and it continues today with web content and streaming video, social media, and mobile apps. Who wants to pay $10 (or more) every month for Google search, Twitter, ESPN scores updates or Facebook? Unfortunately (from the consumer perspective) there are two trends that are jeopardizing this balance of value in favor of advertisers. 

First, there is the explosion in consumer digital media, which is creating massive amounts of ad inventory. Second, pure performance ad models incent low-quality advertising and high-frequency techniques that are often intended to dupe consumers to taking some sort of action. The result is the value for consumers is diminishing with poor experiences all too often becoming the norm.

Turning the Tide

Between cache cleaning, private browsing, ad blockers – and increased regulatory scrutiny – people may be regaining more control over how their information is used and shared, and the amount of access granted to advertisers. The industry needs to do a realistic assessment of how consumers are exercising this control and support/encourage those that are the most ad-friendly. 

Self Regulation Is a Global Necessity

Everyone in the advertising ecosystem needs to (and in most cases already do) pay close attention to what is happening on the privacy front. But attention can’t be limited to one set of regulators in a single geography.

Digital media – particularly mobile – is inherently global. What happens in one market will often migrate to – or, at the very least, influence the thinking of – another. Failing to watch what’s happening around the world can result in nasty surprises down the road. If we as an industry don’t take material steps to self regulate in all countries, we will find ourselves operating in a sub-optimal business environment with regulations designed around antiquated technology hindering our progress.  

Sorry for the Cliché, But the Cookie Really Is Crumbling

Today, the web has expanded far beyond the boundaries of the familiar desktop browser. Today it’s smartphones, tablets, apps, mobile browsers and a growing list of nontraditional yet targetable devices. Unfortunately, the tools for recognizing and reaching consumers have not kept pace.

In a digital world exploding with device complexity, advertisers need to have workable ways to deliver impressions to the audiences for whom they will matter most. Much of the industry still depends on the same technique – cookies – for identifying audiences. This technology has remained largely unchanged.

Unfortunately, the world has changed and cookies are far beyond their sell-by date. Consumers are wary of them, regulators are fighting them and new technologies have passed them by.

When the desktop browser was the center of an individual’s digital life, cookies may have been effective. Today though, the singular desktop has taken a back seat in a multiple-device world. And even the idea of the device is misleading since a device is really defined by how it is being used. An app platform one minute becomes a mobile browser the next – and cookies fail to recognize either one, much less that both are being used by the same user.

Technology Is the Answer – Again

Technology always brings about unexpected change. Less than five years ago there was no mobile market as we understand it today, programmatic trading was nascent and big data was unheard of. Players and markets have risen and fallen on the backs of technology and that will only continue to accelerate. 

The issues outlined in this article should be enough to send advertisers scrambling for alternatives. We live in a system that is poised to fail. Moving from a cookie-centric view of the world to a device-based one is something advertisers are going to need to get used to. While different, recognizing a device – which can be done within the scope of increasingly stringent privacy rules – is not only possible, it’s even more effective than the crumbling cookie technology.

Change Is Good

Yes, this represents a change; but advertising has undergone tremendous changes in the past and still continues to thrive. This change, while possibly jarring at the outset, is one that maps to the concerns of consumers, the requirements of regulators and the capabilities of an emerging technology.

It’s time to move forward. Doing so will usher in the next leap forward for digital media. A leap defined by the best tracking and targeting ever experienced in media and accomplished with respect for consumer privacy and quality user experience simultaneously.