Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Why signal loss doesn’t need to mean stumbling in the dark 

By Vanessa O’Connell, Head of Marketing Communications, Nano Interactive

When cookies finally die next year, we will all be stumbling in the dark. Or so you’d think given all we’ve read so far. 

I’m by no means a blind optimist. Nor am I foolish enough to believe myself – or anyone else – can replace the standard tool for ID, targeting and measurement overnight.  

But while we’re all feeling the pangs of cookie withdrawal right now, I’m still positive this whole process will leave us better off. In the following lines, I explain why. 

Bathed in Light? 

First, a step back: cookie loss is part of something much wider. It’s just one example of signal loss. Signal loss is nothing new. Apple’s Safari browser had its own cookie deprecation moment all the way back in 2020. Then we had the big impact of iOS 14.5 on mobile ad IDs and in-app targeting and measurement the year after. The tech giants have since spoken out against user fingerprinting and taken steps to limit the use of IP addresses

All of which is just to say, we’ve not been operating with a full deck for quite some time now. Even if we weren’t aware at the time.  

Consider for a second the bidders over-indexing to Chrome for the past four years, all to compensate for the absence of cookies on Safari. It’s enough to make you question the entire people- and profiling-based focus for the last ten years. 

And that is in fact what some have been doing: beginning to question, even without signal loss, whether building profiles based on long-past – or even post-purchase – signals of intent was the best possible approach. 

In short, while we thought we were bathed in light, we may have been stumbling in the dark all along.  

Tactics and tech we thought were foolproof turn out retrospectively to have been anything but. And when you consider public opinion around profiling and tracking – even leading us to a dark place.   

Brighter Path Ahead 

Now for the positive. What this process has done, among certain brands, agencies and pockets of ad tech, is to encourage experimentation, and the emergence of new tactics, plus the re-evaluation and re-emergence of older, trusted ones.  

For example, if signal loss means almost no people-based ID will be 100% safe from disruption down the road, it must follow that probabilistic methods play a greater role. Even if in combination with deterministic ones, like IDs which lack scale, and may never reach cookie-level adoption. 

In the measurement sphere, we’ve seen the return of media mix modelling (MMM) and lift testing or incrementality measurement. With the tech giants all jumping into this space, the direction of travel for larger brands seems clear, even if questions linger around bias and inaccuracy based on measuring their own homework

Night Vision  

If we believe the numbers, around half of advertisers are still ill-prepared for what’s next: a YouGov survey after Google’s Chrome deadline delay found that the majority were still unfamiliar with targeting methods outside of the third-party cookie. Arguably, it is on companies like us to do a better job explaining the basics of what we do – including advanced contextual or ID-free intent-driven targeting, honing in on signals in real-time – live and in the moment. All in direct contrast with profiling and people-based methods, which rely on past actions that may be a month old. 

Given that Chrome covers more than half of the browser market worldwide, its own cookie replacement, Privacy Sandbox, will doubtless play a role. There again, the IAB’s State of Data report suggests that only 60% of buyers intend to engage with Sandbox this year. 

Twilight for Signal Loss 

From GDPR to ATT, there’s a history of advertisers picking up the pieces only after major change actually hits. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t already solutions emerging, that ease the transition, while upholding consumer expectations.  

In Nano’s own case, its Intent Personas product is helping buyers to reach specific audiences – with intent, past performance and advanced contextual targeting all playing a role. AI enables targeted scale, but with human guardrails in place – dedicated research panels verifying those targeting choices.  

And for measurement, partnerships like Nano’s with Circana may play a role. In a campaign for Heineken, point of sale data was used as an alternative to tracking individual users. And this allowed performance and direct sales impact to be effectively measured – often mentioned as a particular challenge post-cookie. 

To summarise, in the face of cookie phase-out, you’d be forgiven for feeling that you are stumbling in the dark. On further inspection, cookie deprecation is just one symptom of a long-running, ongoing process. And on even further inspection, for the past several years, those tactics you’ve been using haven’t exactly been bathed in light. Some of us have been whispering this for years. 

The time for short-term fixes and workarounds that land us back where we started is over.  

With apologies to Oscar Wilde, we’re all of us stumbling in the dark, but some of us are looking at the stars.