Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Protecting the open web – why identity is only part of the puzzle

By Peter Mason, co-founder, Illuma Technology

Idle smartphone scrolling – we all do it; all of the time, not really looking for anything and often with our attention elsewhere – distracted by the football highlights on TV; the passing view from the train window or a conversation going on in the background.

A report by OpenX and the Harris Poll last year confirmed something I’ve long suspected – that we are more likely to absent-mindedly scroll in this way when viewing social media content than when we’re navigating the open web.

According to ‘The Open Web vs the Walled Gardens’, 25 percent of people using Facebook or Instagram say they are “zoning out and not paying attention,” more than three-times the people that say this about the open web, where the report finds the majority are “curious and in a mood to learn”.

What is more, the report finds consumers spend more time on the open web than on social media, better trust what they see there and find the advertising more effective and impactful. And when asked where they were likely to see content which would inspire them to purchase, after Amazon, most said the open web (23%) with Facebook at 11% and YouTube at just 5%.

The conclusion for advertisers seems clear – the open web is the natural habitat for the engaged consumer looking to inform themselves, find inspiration or to make purchases. So why is some 60% of ad spend still being funnelled into platforms where users appear to be less engaged?

Diminishing data

Out in the open web, it’s thought that around 55% of users are visible to advertisers through cookies and other identifiers, according to data recently presented by Permutive. They suggest that 5% of users are authenticated via log-ins such as publisher platforms – leaving a huge 40% of open web users completely anonymous to the buy-side.

For many observers, the identity replacements now being developed, such as hashed email addresses or fingerprinting, simply don’t seem to be in the spirit of privacy – and I wonder whether they will prove viable in the privacy-first world. Even if cookies are successfully replaced, brands may still be left with 40% of the jigsaw pieces missing – the anonymous users.

But if ID alternatives go the same way as the cookie, due to browsers, regulators or users themselves, it’s fair to assume we can expect numbers of visible users to decrease even further. It’s less than a year before the world’s most popular browser, Chrome, shuts the door, and Permutive’s David Reischer makes the point that it’s worth planning for a scenario in which we know nothing about 95% of open web users.

Duopoly drift

As identifiers are gradually removed from the open web, there is a very real danger that social media platforms may look even more attractive to advertisers who rely on personalisation for planning, targeting and reporting – despite the user behaviour noted by the OpenX report.

Whichever way you look at it, securing the future of the open web is incredibly important for users, publishers and brands who wish to communicate to an engaged audience – and fixing identity is clearly only part of the puzzle. What we seem to need is a privacy-friendly approach which expands across the whole of the open web and finds relevant audiences without relying on identifiers or profiling.

Contextual targeting is one solution gaining more attention, particularly newer methods which can scale using AI, considering multiple contexts which are simultaneously selected in real time by audience interaction.

I also expect to see publishers gain considerably more influence as owners of at-scale first-party data, and there is huge potential for them to strike up beneficial partnerships to maximise on their authenticated user base.

What is more, our own research conducted in Q4 2020 shows that across four sectors of online advertising – motor, insurance, SaaS and homeware, ads placed in long-form editorial content were considerably more likely to convert to sales compared to ads placed in short content or ‘click-bait’. For one home storage brand, for example, those pages driving conversions in November had an average 1,790 editorial words, with 71% of those pages carrying more than 900 words. This is exciting news for publishers funding expensive journalism operations who are looking to understand the value of their content.

Whatever happens this year, all the major players in the open web need to piece the puzzle together, each bringing the best of what they do to the table, so that we can stop the money drifting into social media platforms and the resulting diminishing quality of our open web ecosystem. After all, quality brands deserve quality environments and engaged users – and no one should have to compete with Match of the Day.