Be prepared for broader tracking prevention adoption to shake up adtech
Once Apple’s ITP model is adopted more broadly across the web’s leading browsers and publishers, it will change everything. We are going to need a good flashlight.
When you live in an earthquake state, you’re highly attuned to things that don’t matter elsewhere. You’re aware, for example, of the open shelving in your kitchen – is the stemware so attractively displayed there vulnerable to shattering in one fell swoop? Do you have a decent insurance policy? Does your flashlight even have batteries? You’re always, to some extent, prepping for “the big one,” the quake all of the natural scientists warn about: the one that will compromise the ground we stand on, that we’ve built our houses on. The one that will change everything.
Today, the digital advertising industry is facing a major shakeup, and Apple’s Intelligent Tracking Prevention rollouts, now officially at version 2.2, can be considered the first tremor. Cookie-based, cross-web user analytics has been, for a long time, the earth crust of this ecosystem – and it’s crumbling. Though perhaps not physically life threatening, marketers best not ignore the warning signs, because these rules and changes, once adopted more broadly across the web’s leading browsers and publishers, will indeed change everything.
So I’ll ask: does your flashlight even have batteries?
The implications of broadened ITP adoption
Suffice it to say, Apple’s ITP restrictions have made it more difficult for marketers to measure Safari traffic – who comprise 21% of mobile and 10% of desktop browser users worldwide (no insignificant chunk) – for remarketing, to accurately attribute conversions, and to run reliable A/B tests. By capping (even) first-party cookies to one day, your independent view of the behavior of your Safari base over time, across websites and devices, will be limited.
But what if you don’t live in an earthquake state? In other words, what if your Safari users are an even smaller than average portion of your specific audience? Consider that Google Chrome, where another 60% of mobile and 69% of desktop browser action takes place, is reportedly contemplating blocking third party cookies soon, as well. We still don’t know exactly when or to what degree Google will increase individual privacy protection by restricting cookies on Chrome, and we can expect it won’t be as extreme. Regardless, when it does, some of those limits will extend to the vast majority of your user base. In other words, the fault line is only expanding, and quick.
Attribution in shards
Since both your campaign optimizations and investment strategies are (hopefully!) based on this holistic, cross-channel understanding of your audience and their measured engagement with your brand, it’s easy to see how, without this very foundation, those wedding-registry champagne glasses you finally had a dinner party for are about to come tumbling off the shelf. Just when you started to feel good about your multi-touch attribution model and sophisticated retargeting strategy, ITP expansion will leave serious gaps in your ability to connect the dots between your customer touchpoints. Your marketing channels, long predicted to become more interconnected, are likely instead to appear more siloed than ever.
Audiences and optimization missing parts
With measurement askew and opaque, the advertising and marketing platforms you rely on for AI-based actions and automation will need to rethink the inputs to their algorithms for optimization, which are based on performance data that may no longer be independently vetted. Audience strategy that relies on third-party data for creation and segmentation will need to learn to rely far more heavily on personification than personalization.
Oh yeah. And that best-practice, test-and-learn culture you’ve worked so hard to instill? You’re going to need to revisit that, because in this post-apocalyptic digital universe, the A/B tests of yore (read: Q1) are going to be much less meaningful based on a seven- or even one-day window of intel, after which all users, regardless of their history with your brand or exposure to another side of the split, are rendered unique again.
What’s a marketer to do?
The good news is, as a customer, your privacy online will be safer; the data Wild West of the past few years has finally reached a reckoning. As a marketer, there’s a bright future ahead, too, albeit a different one. You’ll withstand the wobbles and see the other side of ITP if you’re thinking ahead and asking the right questions now.
But you are going to need a good flashlight.
Start by assessing your infrastructure: How strong are your in-house measurement and technical teams? If the garage is pretty well stocked with the expertise for building attribution and measurement models yourself, and you can absorb the significant R&D investment required, you may be able to set up an alternative to traditional cookie-based tracking, such as Custom Domain Tracking, which leverages server side capabilities, and won’t be affected by ITP2.2. Your third party ad tech platform may support such a solution, which registers its tracking servers in your domain via a CName record, allowing for durable cookie placement. It bears mentioning, though, that this is more of a short term fix; Safari or other browsers can still block it, if they choose to, and few advertisers will have the resources and infrastructure in place to implement it in the first place.
The counters and the calibrators
In a more broadly applicable approach, your technology provider can help fill in the conversion blanks left by Safari (and other tracking-prevented browsers) by modeling—AI-based estimations based on behavior across other browsers still unaffected by the restrictions. Sophisticated modeling can give you a more complete picture of the number of conversions that may have occurred on Safari but escaped attribution to paid media due to ITP. However, in order to be something you can really rely on for optimization, proper modeling should include a mix of data points from multiple publishers, and requires calibration from an external source like incrementality testing, a newer testing modality that, unlike A/B testing, can continue to be effective post-ITP. The approach measures the overall impact of added investment in any particular area on all conversions (rather than only those attributed) against a holdout group, and layers in secondary insights analyses such as overall incremental effect by mobile browser. This means you can not only capture lost conversions due to Safari ITP, but also those captured by other channels, like SEO, to understand the true value of your mobile investment.
Modeling comprises the two categories of tools integral to your measurement True North of tomorrow: counters and calibrators. Counters, such as analytics systems, third-party digital tracking, offline sales metrics, call tracking, and publisher data (think: reported conversions from Google, Facebook, Amazon and the like) record events and attribute them to specific entities, like keywords or ad campaigns. Increasingly fractured links between devices, media and websites mean that your once trusty counters will require further validation than they did until now. With Apple’s most recent update, and Google’s presumably on the horizon, it’s not only prudent to start leveraging promising new stats-based methods for calibration, like incrementality testing, or cross-device vendors with probabilistic models—it’s reckless not to. Combined, all of these measures can reveal the true holistic impact of your advertising investments, both across channels and within them.
A new era of audience management
In the long term, of course, you should be thinking about strategies for obtaining true first-party data from registered users. As from-the-horse’s-mouth becomes the holy grail, audience segmentation via any third party solution or data management platform (DMP) will be much more difficult, and having well developed first party audience management capabilities that much more critical. We’re likely to see new types of user subscriptions emerge, with reengineered expectations, such as heavily discounted subscriptions and more “freemium” models where the value exchanged isn’t monetary, but permissions-based.
The digital advertising industry is definitely an earthquake state, and it’s time to do a serious preparedness check-in, to assess what’s already happened, and to raise some what ifs within your marketing organization before the big one hits. How we got here is a layered and complicated tale of power, responsibility, and capability—but it both starts and ends with good intentions. For an industry that may have gone too far, ITP’s tough-love measures can offer a restart. Because as advertisers, media and technology platforms, we can do better. We actually can deliver highly relevant messages to our audiences, measure our efforts, and even respect privacy while we’re at it. We just need to change our approach.