Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Learnings from the transport industry about consumer targeting in a cookie-less world

By Alex Froom, CEO of Zipabout

Digital advertising campaigns have historically been centred around the belief that tracking consumers’ browsing behaviour is the optimal mechanism for delivering sales and generating revenue for businesses. Fuelled by the advent of third-party cookies, marketers were empowered to build a profile of a user’s behaviour – based on the sites they visited, the links they clicked, the videos they watched – and ensure highly targeted adverts could be directed towards them.

However, the over-reliance on third party data and intrusive location tracking has hampered this model’s long-term viability. GDPR regulations around the use of cookies brought an end to the era of unregulated ‘behavioural advertising’, and many herald Google’s phasing out of third-party cookies on Chrome next year as the final nail in the coffin. As the collection of behavioural data becomes increasingly difficult and expensive to acquire, the time has come for businesses to consider new methods of delivering equally successful targeted campaigns without infringing data privacy.

Post-pandemic, public transport operators, agencies working for FMCG brands and retailers operating in or around transport hubs have been especially interested in devising digital advertising campaigns to incentivise the return to public transport and increase commercial footfall. However, they are finding that this transition to a more ethical, non-intrusive method of reaching customers is far harder to achieve than previously thought.

Keeping things in context

Contextual advertising, and in particular contextual native, is undoubtedly a good way forward. This approach encourages businesses placing adverts to take due regard of the environment in which the audience is browsing to ensure the advert complements the site’s content and format. It is believed that this model has better potential to fall in line with the regulatory frameworks and broader consumer attitudes towards data collection and privacy, largely because it relies on where the consumer currently is, rather than where they’ve been historically.

Sounds simple, but in reality it is incredibly difficult to achieve in a truly ethical way or indeed without demanding anything of the consumer. We have seen several examples in the transport industry recently; one campaign offered rail passengers access to exclusive offers when commuting, such as a free snack from a popular food retailer. Abroad, we have seen a similar pilot scheme where a passenger whose train is delayed when using a targeted route have discounted coupons for various stores distributed to them.

While both campaigns target context (i.e., a passenger waiting for a train) over consumer behaviour, the latter campaign requires passengers to download a separate app which tracks phone location and other health data from the phone. The former requires passengers to sign up and hand over information such as name and contact information to a third party to

redeem the benefits. Moreover, the vouchers are then sent by email separately and may or may not arrive while still relevant to the passenger.

Delivering truly non-intrusive and contextual campaigns

The sacrifice of personal information or location data by consumers should not be necessary to execute these campaigns effectively, and neither is the need to download yet another app. Despite technically falling under the contextual advertising banner, they entirely negate the consumer benefits the approach should offer.

So, is it even possible to contextually advertise to a travelling audience without any tracking or demands on the consumer? Absolutely but it requires sophisticated technology and an in-depth understanding of consumer intent to do so. With a business model built entirely on ethics and personalised communications, Zipabout has demonstrated how tailored advertising campaigns can still reach the public when on the move in real-time using first-party data, avoiding intrusive geo-location tracking and without any need for an app.

By using patent-pending Prescience technology which reliably and ethically predicts where consumers will be through their interaction with transport information, Zipabout has been able to provide our retail partners with a targeting solution which offers effective targeted advertising without tracking. Context here is vital. The advertising – such as a discounted coffee – sits unobtrusively alongside the information about their journey that the passenger has already actively chosen to receive. Moreover, the voucher itself is sent in real-time via WhatsApp or Messenger, redeemable at the nearby station café or shop. Thanks to that understanding of passenger intent, there is no intrusive location tracking or sharing of any data at any point with third parties. There isn’t even any need to provide a name or other personal information.

This vast travelling audience – millions each day across the UK – has been previously inaccessible to marketers until now, and certainly not within the ethical boundaries that consumers now expect and GDPR regulations require. The door has now been opened to sophisticated loyalty programmes and targeted advertising campaigns by brand and transport operators alike. Passengers however would be wise to keep one eye on the privacy policy.