Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Cookies are finally entering their twilight years, now is the time to experiment with alternatives

By Nick Reid, Senior Vice President and Managing Director EMEA, DoubleVerify

Early 2022 was supposed to be when everything changed. These were the months in which the third-party cookie was to be finally laid to rest. Many in the online ad industry, now worth over $478 billion, were relieved with Google’s decision to delay the sunsetting of the third-party cookie on Chrome by almost two years.

Google’s decision to delay clearly illustrates a couple of points. First, the demise of the cookie and the need to transition, is a matter of when, not if. The second, is that there is no one-size-fits-all alternative currently available, and nor is there ever likely to be one.

Digital advertising must remain at the heart of a free internet. Nobody, from consumers to brands to the policy makers, wants our online world to become gated, or limited and cost prohibitive. And so, we need ways to monetise content through advertising and, in doing so, to re-engage and motivate the consumer through that experience. Meanwhile, having Valentine’s Day in the rear-view mirror and seeing Mother’s Day fast approaching reminds us that brands have ambition to deliver personalised, creative experiences to their targeted audiences, in an effort to drive their brand purpose and business outcomes

With this in mind, brands must accelerate their post-cookie planning. The businesses who do will feel the reward and return from engaging their audiences in a more privacy friendly, contextually relevant and suitable manner. So, as brands look to firm-up their post-cookie toolkits this year, what options are available?

Privacy-first solutions must become the default

According to a report by Kantar, ‘respect for privacy’ is now the biggest concern when it comes to building media strategies. Across the ecosystem, privacy-friendly approaches are a key priority for brands, and will be crucial to building and securing consumer trust.

However, as privacy regulations will continue to evolve at both global and localised levels, brands need to become proactive, not just reactive, in their privacy approach. When choosing which tools to experiment with in the third-party cookie’s twilight years, it’s important to remember privacy should be baked-in, rather than bolted-on, to ensure new ad-targeting approaches won’t rapidly become obsolete due to a changing regulatory environment.

Additionally, it’s time to set aside the ill-informed notion that privacy-first means accuracy-second. Privacy should be welcomed by all in the ecosystem and should drive relevance, not prevent it. Changes to how we approach and protect digital privacy are driving some of the greatest innovations in ad tech we’ve seen for decades. Which brings me to the second priority to keep in mind.  

Context is essential for resonant values-based advertising

Creating meaningful moments and memorable experiences for consumers is what makes advertising the vibrant sector it is. Consumer consensus that targeting had overstepped the mark was one of the root causesfor the depreciation of cookies. However, as the third-party cookie fades, consumers still want to see relevant ads.

Simultaneously, values-based advertising is a growing focus for brands, meaning brand-content alignment is of increasing importance. With a commitment to net-zero, for example, a brand wouldn’t want to be seen alongside content promoting climate-change deniers. We are now moving to a focus on brand integrity, where elements such as sustainability, DE&I, ethics and purpose are paramount to building trust with consumers.

With the deprecation of the cookie on one hand and the need to create meaningful, relevant brand experiences on the other, contextual solutions are carving out a key role in the future advertiser’s toolkit.

Contextual targeting, for example, can be built upon new semantics-based technology that understands what content means at scale. Using this understanding to build both broad and granular targeting categories, contextual solutions can enable advertisers to zero-in on relevant content for their campaigns, driving up engagement and performance.

What’s more, contextual categories can be built around not just topics, but events. So, as brands build those all-important calendar-centric campaigns around Mother’s Day, Easter, summer holidays and more, they can ensure tailor-made ads are only appearing in the right places, at the right time.

Yet as we know, cookies won’t have a single like-for-like replacement. As part of a holistic, privacy-friendly post-cookie strategy, context plays an important role, but the value of contextual solutions can be amplified by a simultaneous investment in measuring attention.

Attention metrics are vital to driving performance in a post-cookie landscape

Just as context offers a privacy-friendly approach to ad targeting, attention metrics can do the same for measurement and optimisation. Solutions which reveal attention offer metrics such as audibility, quartile completion, screen touches, screen real estate and more to create a powerful picture of consumer attention, without any need for personally identifiable information.

Using information on attention, combined with tools like contextual targeting, brands can optimise their campaigns for success. They can see one asset is scoring well for audibility, for example, while also comparing that ad’s performance across different inventory. With this information and a few tweaks, the campaign can be refocused to drive greater results in real-time.

If brands embrace attention metrics as the new digital-ad currency, the deprecation of the cookie can be an opportunity to revitalise campaigns. But it’s natural to dip a toe before diving in. That’s why now, before the sunsetting of cookies is complete, we should be encouraged to experiment and look to bring attention to the fore. We all have the opportunity to discover a better understanding of ad resonance, and greater connection between ads and business outcomes, as a result.

What comes after the cookie has been a question on every marketer’s lips for years now. It’s a question that is finally beginning to be answered. But the response isn’t simple. Every brand needs to think hard about building a post-cookie strategy designed just for them. With a few guiding principles though, including a baseline of privacy, a willingness to experiment with new approaches like contextual targeting and a move toward attention metrics as a driver of performance, a better ad industry is in reach.