By Zach Brundage

Anyone working in the digital advertising space knows about cookies. For years they have been the foundation of audience targeting; cookies keep track of user habits and interests based on their browsing history, they help with attributing conversions to media, and are responsible for maintaining frequency caps which keep users from being inundated with the same messaging. But over the last couple of years, changes have been coming in from both legal and tech, and cookie-based advertising may be seeing its final days. What are advertisers doing in the face of a cookie-less future, and how will this impact small advertisers compared to the large established and wall gardened companies?

Before we get into what advertisers are doing as a solution, it’s important to understand the challenges cookie-based targeting is facing and why.

The single driving force has been the shift in user acceptance and the legislation that followed. Too many examples of personal data being stolen or used inappropriately has made users highly aware of their personal data and are they demanding stricter regulation. Laws around the world such as the GDPR and CCPA have been written restricting the gathering, usage and transference of personal data. Many states and governing bodies are continuing to draft their own laws leading to a quagmire of varying compliance putting pressure on audience data.

Large tech firms have also taken their userbase’s privacy into their own hands. Apple was the first major player to make a significant change, implementing ITP (Intelligent Tracking Prevention) 2.0 which blocks 3rd party cookies from serving in their Safari browser. The latest blow to cookie-based targeting came with Google’s announcement that they plan to remove all 3rd party cookies from their Chrome browser, which currently boasts an approximate 65% of all browser usage across mobile and desktop devices. Between the two browsers, over 80% of web browsing will soon not support any 3rd party cookies.

So, what options do advertisers have for keeping their targeting precise? One answer you may find surprising is contextual targeting. Contextual is one of the oldest and simplest forms of intent-based targeting, but advances in AI is making this process more sophisticated and precise. Leveraging new technology such as machine learning, companies are now able to quickly and accurately assign smarter labels to websites.  This removes much of the previous waste and allows for a larger volume of inventory that speaks to specific needs and is ready for advertisers to find their users and publishers to cash in.

Another solution is opt-in audience data pools. By incentivizing users to provide their data, marketers are gaining valuable information while remaining in compliance with data privacy laws. A current hurdle is the scale of these data sets, but as user awareness of these programs grows, so too does the size of the data set and applicable inventory.

But what about frequency capping? Users don’t want to see the same ad hundreds of times in a day, and advertisers don’t want to waste media dollars on redundant ad placements. One solution being presented is probabilistic modeling. While far from a perfect solution, probabilistic modeling allows advertisers to estimate how often a user or user group have been served an ad and can implement a form of indirect frequency capping. Other solutions being discussed are a Universal ID detached from cookies, or a ‘Consumer Taxonomy’ that defines audience profiles while respecting individual user privacy.

What ultimately comes out of the dissolution of the 3rd party cookie is yet to be known, but don’t let changing times stop you from getting your message out. At NSA we pride ourselves on our adaptability. No matter what changes happen to the digital landscape, we assess all campaigns with our client’s KPIs in mind. NSA’s media agnostic approach means we will choose the channels and platforms that are the right fit for both compliance and performance. If you have any questions about the future of digital advertising, reach out to