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The Identity Crisis

This entry was originally posted on The Drum as an Open Mic Article.

The exact date upon which the 3rd party cookie vanishes is tough to pin down. What we are reasonably certain of is that sometime in the second half of 2024 the Google team will release a version of Chrome that will have them turned off by default.

One of the foundational underpinnings of online advertising will cease to exist. Falling away will be the common key used to value and target ad opportunities, contextual signals used to build audience segments, attribution functionality used to gauge performance, not to mention the collateral impact that losing all these things will bring.

It’s important to explore both the direct and indirect impact of cookie deprecation to have as much of a complete picture as possible. If one becomes too focused on the direct impact, they will lose sight of the long-term and peripheral damage from the wake of this change.

The Open Web

The most obvious and directly impacted media will be the open web. While contextual advertising is back on the rise, prying cookie-based buying out of the hands of advertisers and agencies is impossible to do without the market forcing the transition.

Relying solely on cookied users up until the last minute is a game of chicken that will end careers. Those marketers unwilling or unable to adapt ahead of time may find themselves playing catch-up while their counterparts are thriving.

Cookies gave marketers a level of certainty that they were targeting the exact person or device that was appropriate for the campaign. Retargeting benefited greatly from this functionality once it was combined with the ubiquity of header bidding, RTB and programmatic stacks. Reaching the person who left the store after “just looking” frequently brought them back to buy the thing they were looking at.

Several agencies went so far as to acquire data companies. These acquisitions could easily turn to write-offs without intelligent, targeted investment in wholly new paradigms of finding and building audiences.

Walled Gardens

Many see the walled gardens as fairly insulated from the loss of cookies. It’s not true. The immediate impact that Apple’s ATT had on Facebook should be proof of that. Without an ability to read an ID in a 3rd party context, walled gardens lose much of their ability to extend their media buys across other properties or even show attribution metrics.

In these murky times, it’s unclear as to whether or not the open web will benefit by receiving more direct buys from advertisers, or if the advertisers will just double-down on the O&O of the walled gardens. It’s the same audience they were reaching before, but the deterministic signals are mostly stuck inside the walls now.


Without a cookie, data companies cannot pin behaviors to a user. They cannot build a deterministic profile. Everything online, absent something like hashed emails, which are scarce, becomes probabilistic, and temporally unstable. 

It’s not as though other IDs or designators don’t exist in different contexts, that’s a given. The problem is that the open web offers a richness of context unmatched by any other segment of media. Without that context and a reasonably stable identifier, audience segment diversity dwindles. With the web: auto enthusiast, charitable, camping, and a hundred other interests can be derived from browsing activity. Without the web: a dozen well-used apps, a few regularly watched TV shows, sports.

Bleeding Over

When the audience signals fade, the impact spreads far beyond the web. CTV, mobile, even Digital Out of Home targeting leverages the contextual segmentation from online, web activity. Identity graphs may do well to continue linking devices together, and create household profiles. That doesn’t help fill in the audience signal gap that sits behind the graph in the segment targeting of a campaign.

It’s not just the targeting, but the post campaign analysis that may suffer. With fewer signals, the audience becomes more difficult to discern. Understanding which group converts, where to target the follow-up, finding opportunities, all these things become, if not more difficult, less reliable.

Light in the Darkness

Some believe there’s yet one more reprieve from the 3rd party cookie’s impending demise. The chance of it living beyond 2024 is shrinking, not growing. All recent indications coming out of the Chrome camp suggest that they’re going to stick to their commitment to deprecation in 2024

The industry has been preparing for the loss of signal for several years now, thanks in part to Google moving the deadline. It was a good wake-up call. Solving the online advertising problems that arise from a lack of cookies, however, takes time. Thankfully, we’ve had just that, even if we aren’t likely to get any more.

Several tools are out there. Most are currently in a foundational stage, alpha and beta testing, and being applied in practice to browsers that are already cookie-cripled. Hashed emails (HEMs), 3rd party IDs, 1st party IDs, browser fingerprints, and IP addresses are just a few identifiers in play. Not all are as privacy friendly as some of the platforms and privacy advocates would like, and others might not be as popular (yet) with all industry players.

Even with these alternatives, buyers and sellers must still fundamentally shift the way they do business. None of these solutions offer the same level of coverage on user activity as the cookie does, even with only the one, mostly-dominant browser still supporting them. And some of these solutions will be threatened by the same forces that are pushing the cookie out.

Ad tech has been–and still is–in the process of hedging their bets, partnering with multiple solution providers, augmenting systems to recognize and leverage some of these alternative methods of identity, and talking about new ways of doing business that are more privacy friendly. Don’t be caught flat-footed. There’s work still to be done by everyone. But that’s why we all got into this business, right? There’s always another challenge around the corner.

Small business advertising

Rather than Small Business Advertising, I was going to title this post, “Eating your own dog food,” but I decided that a more descriptive title would get the benefit of SEO.  I recently took on the task of advertising for my wife’s small business, here’s our story.

Small Business Advertising for Leslie Smith MD

Leslie Smith MD

My wife’s acupuncture practice recently moved into a larger space; her patient capacity almost doubled overnight from one to two treatment rooms.  I say “almost” because she’s still just one practitioner.  With acupuncture, once the patient has been needled, they simply rest comfortably in pin-cushion mode.  The practitioner doesn’t need to be in the room.  That’s where my wife takes the opportunity to start treatment on a patient in room number two.

I took it upon myself to do some online advertising for her practice to fill up that second room as frequently as possible.  Now, my wife is not your typical acupuncturist.  She’s an herbalist, a holistic medicine practitioner and, most uniquely, an MD.  One would think that her résumé would do the marketing for her.  That’s not the case, obviously.  We have to let people know just how fabulous she is.  So, here’s the long story of how I used my background in advertising, my wits in video production and my fabulous wife’s personae to kick off her marketing push for the new office. Read more

Elements of the Web moving to Facebook

FacebookIn my last post I mentioned how some people with a narrow view of the Internet couldn’t verbally distinguish it from an email message.  Obviously that’s a very small subset of folks, but it brings up an interesting phenomena.  The Internet has a few primary use cases for a majority of the man-hours that are spent online and, while the percentage of time in each use case has changed, the cases themselves have largely remained the same since the 90s, maybe even the 80s!  Of these cases, many of them are coalescing at Facebook’s doorstep.

The Social Web

Socializing on the Internet has taken many forms over the years.  Email can be traced back to 1971 and gained popularity as a way of social interaction at universities in the late 80s and early 90s.  With the rise of residential Internet Service Providers (ISPs) such as AOL, EarthLink and MindSpring email reached out to the general public throughout the rest of the 90s.  Then the dedicated email services like Hotmail (now Windows Live Mail), Yahoo! Mail and Gmail began to take over.  AOL eventually opened up email service to the general public in an attempt to maintain a foothold in the marketplace.  Of these, Yahoo! Mail is the most popular, but the demands on email as a social tool have waned.  Email is full of spam; over 90% of all messages sent are junk.  Email addresses are in constant flux as people change jobs or move to different ISPs.  Facebook Messaging is on the rise and for many people it has replaced email as the primary messaging tool between friends.  It’s a closed system, which tends to protect it from spam and people don’t change or abandon their Facebook accounts so address books don’t need frequent updates. Read more

In defense of closed systems

Apple is on the receiving end of a lot of grief over the defensive wall around the iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad. Many developers are vocally critical of the rules governing how apps are approved and which technologies are selectively excluded. Most notably, Adobe‘s Flash technology has been very publicly rejected by Steve Jobs. Some contend that this is a calculated business move by Apple that ensures control over applications that run on the iDevices. Others tow the party line by sighting the battery drain or buggy nature that sometimes accompanies Flash. However people would like to split the minutia, the overarching theme is that Apple wants to maintain control over the user experience.

Facebook on the iPhoneClosed systems like this have several benefits. Software can be vetted by experts before it gets into the market: blocking confusing functionality, managing the user’s exposure to risk, protecting the devices from viruses and ensuring a high quality application pool. No one really complained too loudly about Apple’s closed systems when it comes to hardware accessories. But there you see other benefits more clearly like device compatibility, quality control and even price in some cases.

Ignoring the consumer benefits of closed system, many developers see them as a way for companies like Apple to make more money. Selling a program in the iTunes App Store requires that application programmers to pay Apple a portion of their revenue and if an application duplicates functionality of a built-in app it’s likely to be rejected by Apple outright. Not every closed system draws ire from the programming community.

Another high-profile closed system is found in Facebook‘s messaging system. While they’ve opened up their chat to programs like Trillian, but their system that most closely resembles email remains closed. Users of regular email cannot get messages in, but Facebook’s system does send a copy of messages sent out to recipient’s email accounts. This has the clear benefit of reducing spam, but you don’t hear email marketers making too much noise about it. They are not well loved and their complaints about how they can’t send messages into everyone’s favorite social network will likely fall on deaf ears. Read more