Beyond the cookie: What’s next for attribution?

Identity resolution and more holistic approaches to measurement are the way forward, according to 11 experts.

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Now that third party cookies are on death watch, there are many questions arising about post-cookiepocalpyse marketing. Among them, what happens to attribution and what current or future methodologies will take their place?

To better understand the challenge of attribution going forward, we asked a range of marketing and martech executives to comment on replacement solutions and alternatives. Their reactions and responses cluster around three big themes: the importance of first-party data and customer engagement, identity resolution as a successor to cookies and developing a more sophisticated, holistic approach to measurement.

Nancy Smith, President and CEO, Analytic Partners

Considering the impending changes from Google, we believe it’s crucial for all brands to choose an approach to measurement that will allow them to gain the most accurate results when dealing with data loss. It’s vital to continuously experiment with, test and validate measurement strategies while incorporating an adaptive methodology. This is at the core of Mix Modeling and, when combined with continuous assessment of data quality, is key to ensuring robust results.

First-party data is going to continue to grow in importance and what is currently known as multi-touch attribution will morph into blended or more siloed solutions, used in a more limited way to better understand touchpoints. Analytic Partners has already been adapting and leveraging touchpoint analytics to glean tactical user-level insights.

Kristina Podnar, Digital Policy Consultant & Author

In the short term, we will see marketers grasping at the basic and mostly ineffective practice of last-click attribution, and an uptick in federated login systems (already in play in the EU). Longer term, marketers will have to look to mapping audience segments on the open marketplace (an industry standard and buy-in will be prerequisites), contextual targeting and federated learning. In the absence of conversion tracking, marketers can and should look to a unified ID solution, which opens up new opportunities beyond digital and addresses user touchpoints across all channels.

Jane Ostler, Global Head of Media, Insights Division, Kantar

Although cookies have started to crumble, they will not disappear completely for some time. In this new “mixed economy,” marketers will need to find new and creative ways to assess the impact of digital campaigns in a privacy-compliant way. As 2020 progresses, we may see some publishers using alternative measurement solutions based around deterministic IDs and panels, and we predict more direct integrations between publishers and measurement partners to enable the transfer of anonymized data. Other advertisers, publishers and agencies will turn to lab-based approaches to understand the effectiveness of digital media.

What is certain is that campaign measurement will become ever more complex. Marketers will need to future-proof their measurement frameworks and reduce their reliance on cookies for tracking. And many will turn to third-party data and analytics, which is the most trusted in the industry, to maintain accurate campaign measurement in the evolving media landscape.

Scott McDonald, CEO, Advertising Research Foundation

Even before cookies were slated for extinction, attribution always had its limitations. For the most part, it was mostly about digital – so it left out many important parts of the marketing mix. Over time, this encouraged marketers to over-value (easy to measure) short-term activation at the expense of (harder to measure) long-term brand building. A lot of evidence shows this was short-sighted and led many brands to lose market share, differentiation and pricing power. And even within the realm of activation, it proved hard to assign credit properly in complex environments without at least some experimental design component.

The loss of cookies is likely to make it harder still to sustain credible systems for linking ad exposures to ad outcomes across the media landscape – at least outside of the walled gardens. In the immediate future, I would expect marketers to pursue attribution analytics increasingly within walled gardens rather than across them. I would expect increasing numbers of media companies to attempt to build their own walled gardens by encouraging or requiring unified sign-in (policies that are very congenial to subscription services and to dual revenue-stream business models). And though I also expect that a number of players will attempt to resurrect cookies through other types of IDs linking websites, devices, and platforms, these will continue to run against the headwinds of public and policy pressures for data privacy.

Ian Trider, Director RTB Platform Operations, Centro

Despite removing third-party cookies, none of the major web browsers are trying to take away a website’s ability to track its own users. Marketers can expect continued click-through conversion to some extent indefinitely. However, they may have to rely more on their own website analytics for data instead of third parties.

Beyond that, marketers can apply the same measurement techniques used in the offline world to the measurement of their online campaigns. Marketers can use geo-based or time-based testing to determine the broader impacts of their campaigns beyond what can be measured directly. These approaches to measurement can also help estimate causal impact, as opposed to measuring only correlation, which is typical for online advertising measurement today.

Mike Herrick, SVP of Technology, Airship

The impact of data privacy regulations have consolidated power into the hands of platforms, who, to attain compliance, have nixed third-party data and measurement, instituting end-to-end reliance for marketers. Now cookies are crumbling, but the milk has already been spilled. To move forward, advertisers and marketers must shed a campaign-centric mentality and find ways to invite consumers into direct relationships, where resulting data is their own. Expect to see more ads prompting consumers to install and share mobile wallet coupons, opt in to SMS shortcodes, or engage in meaningful ways on brand-owned properties. Necessity may herald a renaissance, where brand marketers shift focus from interruptive tactics ported to the mobile era, to more authentic, contextual interactions that allow them to be there in consumers’ moments in helpful and handy ways.

Brian Czarny, CMO, Factual

Over time, we expect to see more brands look to mobile device IDs as a means to craft a more complete picture of their customers and measure the results of digital campaigns. Brands are already using location data-driven products to better understand their audiences, personalize the messages delivered to them based on their interests, and measure in-store visitation results, and we expect to see more marketers turn to location as part of a holistic strategy.

Kyle Henderick, Senior Director of Client Services, Yes Marketing 

Major browsers are building, or have already built, anonymized ways for digital ad attribution to be captured via APIs. Building out a robust architecture to interact with each browser’s unique requirements will be a significant undertaking for marketers. Ultimately, all of this still points to a greater need [for] investment [in] identity resolution and building a better direct relationship with the customer to take advantage of first-party data and reporting.

The best way forward for marketers is to stop relying on the easy wins in digital. Marketers must create their own future by building relationships with customers so they are more willing to share their data and by investing in identifying customers across devices. 

Todd Parsons, Chief Product Officer, OpenX

With user privacy now top of mind and the clock winding down on the third-party cookies, attribution is going to become both more complicated and more expensive for marketers to measure. To reach the same levels of accuracy in attribution that we see today, without relying on third-party cookies, marketers will need the ability to stitch identity together across addressable channels using first-party data. On top of that, any new solutions will need to comply with standards for collecting and resolving first-part data in our emerging opt-in (not opt-out) consumer marketing economy.

This problem isn’t new, however. Our ability to assign precise value to marketing channels that address the same person or household — everything from direct mail to cookie-targeted display — has always been difficult. And, it’s been harder in places where addressability is nearly nonexistent, like CPG products being sold to customers of Walgreens, for instance. Now that cookies can no longer serve as a reliable identifier for marketers, our industry is finally being forced to create new, privacy-first ways of leveraging first-party data to plan, track and measure the performance of campaigns across channels.

Michael Schoen, SVP of Marketing Solutions, Neustar

Identity resolution – and, specifically, a provider’s approach to it – will determine the relative impact marketers will face in a world beyond the cookie. Leveraging offline identity (PII), which is rooted in more stable identifiers like name, address, and phone number — as well as direct integrations with platforms and publishers, inclusive of walled gardens — gives marketers a clear path forward to doing attribution in a post-cookie world. Effective and reliable attribution measurement has always required looking beyond the cookie to capture the whole customer journey. This is the only way to accurately quantify marketing’s incremental impact to power both tactical and strategic planning, and investment decisions.

Erik Archer Smith, VP of Marketing, Scale Venture Partners  

Third-party cookies are an “easy button” for retargeting across popular networks like Facebook, but they don’t provide insight across platforms (Facebook vs. Amazon, for example) or granular data on behavior (who, what, when, where, and why). Without that important context, a third-party cookie can only really tell you that a “visitor” came back, and, even then, usually can’t tell you who came back unless that person converts by filling out a form, making a purchase, etc. So the cookie changes might affect some marketing vanity metrics (e.g., retargeting CTR) and make certain multi-touch attribution models less accurate, but I don’t see it having an impact on the most important metric: sales conversions.

At a high level, focus on creating great experiences and people will still trade their data. People will still opt in for valuable tools or resources. Which is great news for everyone since the quality of marketing goes up across the board. From a technical standpoint, consider taking control of your own data and embrace first-party cookies; there are several data platforms today that let you do this. This allows you to do your own retargeting through DSPs and provide personalized audiences into platforms like Facebook that are based on your own actual product or website activity. Even better, these technologies can let you resolve identity across different media “walled gardens” so you can better understand the “who, what, when, where” and maybe even “why: of user behavior, which is where real attribution comes in.

Marketing attribution and predictive analytics: A snapshot

What it is. Marketing attribution and predictive analytics platforms are software that employ sophisticated statistical modeling and machine learning to evaluate the impact of each marketing touch a buyer encounters along a purchase journey across all channels, with the goal of helping marketers allocate future spending. Platforms with predictive analytics capabilities also use data, statistical algorithms and machine learning to predict future outcomes based on historical data and scenario building.

Why it’s hot today. Many marketers know roughly half their media spend is wasted, but few are aware of which half that is. And with tight budgets due to the economic uncertainty brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, companies are seeking to rid themselves of waste.

Attribution challenges. Buyers are using more channels and devices in their purchase journeys than ever before. The lack of attributive modeling and analytics makes it even more difficult to help them along the way.

Marketers continuing to use traditional channels find this challenge magnified. The advent of digital privacy regulations has also led to the disappearance of third-party cookies, one of marketers’ most useful data sources.

Marketing attribution and predictive analytics platforms can help marketers tackle these challenges. They give professionals more information about their buyers and help them get a better handle on the issue of budget waste.

Read Next: What do marketing attribution and predictive analytics tools do?

Contributing authors are invited to create content for MarTech and are chosen for their expertise and contribution to the martech community. Our contributors work under the oversight of the editorial staff and contributions are checked for quality and relevance to our readers. The opinions they express are their own.

About the author

Greg Sterling
Greg Sterling is a Contributing Editor to Search Engine Land, a member of the programming team for SMX events and the VP, Market Insights at Uberall.

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