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March 22, 2021

Digital Ad Experts Nishant Desai & Stu Richards: How Brands Can Navigate a Cookie-Less World

Written by: Satta Sarmah Hightower
“What it boils down to is that digital advertising, in general, is not about cookies, even though over time attribution models that are reliant on cookies have become the lowest-hanging fruit and the easiest form of implementation for a measurement solution of digital ads.”        — Stu Richards, Lead Programmatic Strategist, Catalyst

In the advertising world, it appears the cookie has started to crumble. For the last 25 years, brands have relied on cookies to better understand and target consumers, but privacy and cookie regulations are becoming more stringent. 

Browsers — including Firefox and Google — are either putting tracking prevention mechanisms in place or plan to stop supporting third-party cookies altogether in the near future. 

Brands will soon need to figure out how to navigate a cookie-less world, according to digital advertising experts Nishant Desai and Stu Richards. Desai, senior director of tech and ad operations at Xaxis, and Richards, lead programmatic strategist at Catalyst, shared their thoughts on how brands can adapt during “As The Cookie Crumbles,” a recent episode of the Unpacking the Digital Shelf podcast

Here’s their blueprint for how companies can thrive in the midst of this evolving advertising landscape.

The Death of the Cookie

Desai says privacy regulations, namely the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), and subsequent data breaches have propelled the shift to cookie-less digital ads. 

“This raised a lot of awareness about what vendors were doing with data that was stored. An ad tech vendor has a number of profiles across all the users they interact with, so they started sitting on these massive troves of data. And the question became, ‘What is this data really being used for?’” Desai says. 

Desai adds that as a result, privacy has become top of mind for consumers and browsers have started to take notice. Apple, for example, has started to limit third-party cookies within Safari. Google has announced plans to end support for these cookies in 2022, though the pandemic may push back its timeline.

The Impact on Programmatic

Richards says browsers effectively abandoning cookies may push advertisers to transform their approach to data.

“What it boils down to is that digital advertising, in general, is not about cookies, even though over time attribution models that are reliant on cookies have become the lowest hanging fruit and the easiest form of implementation for a measurement solution of digital ads,” Richards says. 

“We've become hyper-focused on this crunching of numbers and race to the bottom in terms of ‘cost pers’ across our digital media and measuring that on a last-touch basis primarily,” Richards adds. 

“But what digital advertising really is about is understanding the data you have available, analyzing it, getting insight from those analyses, actioning those insights with your investment strategy, and testing and learning over time.”                              — Stu Richards, Lead Programmatic Strategist, Catalyst                        

So, what can brands do to better harness their data without cookies? Richards says brands can take five actionable steps to prepare for the coming changes in advertising.

5 Steps for Navigating a Cookie-Less World

1. Understand What Works — and What Doesn’t

“This is something that seems obvious, but at least in my experience has been so underutilized or under-explored in the past, and that's gathering information about what has worked and what hasn't worked,” Richards says.

Brands tend to look at things from a very siloed perspective and pay close attention to channel-specific insights. They often don’t tie all these insights together to create a holistic, omnichannel view of their customers. Effective measurement is the best way to build actionable insights, Richards says, explaining that there will be a shift away from last-touch attribution since it hasn’t been as effective for omnichannel measurement strategies. 

“Measurement is definitely going to need to be redefined and adjusted into more of an omni-channel model. What we're expecting to see, because of the issues with attribution as it pertains to the changes of cookies, is a return, a heavier shift and an investment in analytics toward media-mix modeling and multi-touch attribution that is not cookie-based,” Richards says.

Richards says brands have a lot of first-party data they can tap into, including data from previous marketing campaigns. They also can use data from second- and third-party sources, such as the census, and sites like Statista. Subscription-based market research tools and data science platforms like Kaggle can be used to develop smarter audience insights. All these sources will become even more valuable without cookies.

2. Embrace Geo-Targeting Strategies

Brands also can look at geographic data to create more defined audience segments and better target these groups.

“Look at the pockets of success in the dimensions you have available in your marketing platforms. Maybe it's geo [targeted data], maybe it's device or maybe it's time of day [data]. Understand the performance there and take those learnings into the future with you,” Richards says.

3. Context Is Critical

With third-party cookies potentially obsolete, brands will need to lean on contextual strategies. 

Richards says this means understanding the types of keyword data sets you can use with real-time contextual bidding. It’s also important to know the different types of publishers or topics that lead to better performance because you can use your first-party data in combination with them to test how audiences work on a publisher-by-publisher basis. Essentially, brands need to develop digital ads based on user behavior and not just their profile or demographics.

4. Clean Up Your Supply Path

Brands also need to revisit their relationship with publishers and resellers.

“Start looking at cleaning up your supply path if you’re buying from sellers that are reselling,” Richards says, adding that it’s important to “Find the most optimal way to buy from the publishers that you are buying from. If you can provide value through more efficient buying and utilize that to your advantage, why not?”

5. Ramp Up Your First-Party Data

Richards says first-party data provides rich insights brands can use in a cookie-less environment.

“Across various business units within your organization, look at the data you have — be it in Google Analytics ... Mixpanel or ... Salesforce. The amount of small chunks of insights that have led to really effective strategies in media buying from these data sets is really remarkable and one of the greatest signals to use for planning,” Richards says. 

This is also one area where brands can invest in artificial-intelligence-driven technologies. They can use them to pull the signal from the noise and unearth more behavioral insights about their customers, whether it’s to remarket to consumers on other channels or to build their own direct-to-consumer channel.

Preparing for a Cookie-Less World

As cookies become the exception rather than the rule, Desai and Richards both say brands can level up their measurement game in several ways.

Richards says most companies have no idea how much high-quality data they already have across their organization.

“So many people I’ve spoken to historically had no idea they had access to this set of data or that set of data in another platform that can be really, really valuable in understanding what consumers behaviors are, which can then be utilized in your media investment and planning strategy,” Richards says.

Once companies assemble their data, they then can link the pieces together to understand customer patterns and trends

Desai says brands can test-run a cookie-less environment by running media on browsers that have already shifted in this direction, like Safari.

“When we talk about third-party cookies, Safari is a really good indicator of where the landscape is going to be 12 to 18 months from now. It's a really good test bed to see what the overall impact on your media will be when third-party cookies no longer exist as a whole.”          — Stu Richards, Lead Programmatic Strategist, Catalyst

While brands are stepping into the great unknown when it comes to operating in a cookie-less environment, it may give them the chance to fine-tune their data, audience and attribution strategies and make these strategies more cost-effective and impactful.

Though cookies are crumbling, it isn’t necessarily all bad news for advertisers. It’s a prime opportunity because, as Richards says, “Digital media isn’t just about cookies.”

Listen to the full podcast to learn how your company can adapt to advertising changes and thrive in a cookie-less world.

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