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  • Writer's pictureRon Jaworski

Third-party cookies are about to be history. Now what?

Ever since the announcement was made more than two years ago, the publishing and advertising ecosystem has been keenly following how the third-party cookie phase-out and Google's rejection of ad-tracking will change the way business is done online.

As with any major shift involving data, the discussion flourished in different directions, attracting concerns and scrutiny.

Sure, browsers like Firefox, Brave, and Safari have already implemented these actions by default. However, Chrome is the most-used desktop browser so it’s clear that what Google says and does has the most weight and consequence in the online media industry.

The decision to push back the so-called cookiepocalypse for 2023 meant having an extra 12 or so months to prepare. For publishers, this is a big deal as they don’t have to hurry and implement half-assed solutions.

The reality, though, is that a fair bit of publishers are still unsure about the right approach to this issue.

Late 2021 data from Digiday showed that despite almost a year of testing, development, and dealmaking, publishers remain prepared about the same as they were at the beginning of 2021. What’s more troubling is the fact that they are as worried as they were when the phase-out was first announced.

So, something is not right.

The move to a cookieless world has brought about plenty of talk around the identity solutions that are designed to help bridge the cookie gap for marketers and advertisers.

But I find there is something largely lacking in these discussions, the source of the fuel for these solutions:

authenticated audiences on which everything is planned to be built.

First off - let’s acknowledge that publishers hold the winning hand

For most publishers, the plan is clear:

primarily lean into first-party data, then possibly complement that data with a combination of own and adtech solutions. If an opportunity for non-ad revenue streams like subscriptions arises, they’ll take it.

There is no question that fortifying the value of first-party data will help publishers drive revenue as the reality of a permission-based, privacy-first online world unravels.

After all, they have direct consumer relationships, which means they also have the upper hand here.

The question is: how to pull it off?

The fact that the legacy digital advertising landscape has long devalued the individual publisher’s role in the larger media ecosystem doesn’t help. It has typically aggregated audiences into heavily cookie-dependent targeting schema, with very little consideration for the value of the content, context, and publisher dynamics around which ads appear.

The way I see it, the removal of cookies represents a significant, but ultimately short-term monetization hurdle for publishers.

If anything, this is a massive opportunity to reinvent the system in which publishers were not able to realize the full value of their deep audience connections. In other words - turn things around for the long haul.

Exploring new ways of collecting more first-party data

The truth is that publishers can help advertisers achieve this with first-party data that is first and foremost, rich.

So, the key will be to find novel ways of collecting first-party data that is crucial to the effort.

As many publishers lay the groundwork to transition from third-party to first-party data and relieve the pressure on ad revenue, it’s no secret that they are turning to direct revenue models such as paywalls and registration walls to quickly identify the most loyal and engaged visitors.

Users need to be willing to log in, especially if it’s a freemium account and they’re not paying for content. That means creating an engaging, fun experience for them as an incentive.

One of the underused solutions is adding another channel to the overall content strategy: audio.

The idea here is that by getting a more holistic view of the user’s behavior and visits based on the first-party data gathered, you can create more engaging experiences. These can then be used to better engage users that drive the majority of traffic and who are far more likely to convert to long-term subscribers.

Engaging experiences is what audio is all about. Listeners are among the most loyal audiences there are.

I’m not saying this as is - data backs this up.

When it comes to audio AI content such as audio articles generated from the textual content, almost half of the total listeners listened through the entire content as the completion rate clocked at an impressive 48.87%.

Audio content is engaging: almost half of the total listeners listened through the entire content. Whatsmore, audio ads had a whopping LTR of 96% with people listening to entire ads during their audio experience.

Clearly, there is a market need here as audio represents an escape from all the ocular bombardment. More importantly, it’s experienced as something that completely occupies everyday life, having a steady time slot in daily affairs.

The immediacy, emotional connection, convenience - it’s all there. And it seems that the publishing industry is starting to recognize it en masse.

A report from Reuters shows that 80% of publishers aim to put more resources into podcasts and digital audio, which have proved effective in increasing loyalty and attracting new subscribers.

It’s important to understand that I’m not saying adding audio content to your content strategy is the solution, just that it’s one of the understated ways first-party data can be solidified.

Having an audio option across different browsers, devices, and platforms means there’s an option to merge all user data. People are generally open to sharing their data in return for a personalized experience so audio can be that linchpin in collecting and enriching first-party data.

A neat solution for the cookieless world

An option I very much like is a private data network or PDN. This scalable version of a shared, clean-room environment means there will be a critical junction where a brand and a media owner can link up and create individual data deals from the pooled cookieless data.

Coming from the adtech side of things, I firmly believe there is a great upside for the parties involved here.

Some companies are already getting ahead of the curve and creating their own walled gardens by collecting and sharing first-party data in a privacy-compliant way. For instance, Future recently launched its own audience data platform Aperture to have aggregated data easily available to all parties so they can gain actionable insights and target audiences in a more intelligent manner.

It’s likely that publisher data in a walled garden will replace third-party data, but publishers must prove their efficacy and ability to fulfill these new objectives.

As there is still time left on the clock before the deprecation of third-party data, I expect many publishers to prioritize short-term solutions in order to maximize revenue. For example, focusing on regional identity solutions like Google Topics API that replaced FLoC, ATS, and similar, before they settle on a scalable, sustainable, long-term approach.

The thing is - that’s likely going to be a temporary solution. The publishing industry needs something that is flexible and future-proof so that it can better reach and monetize target audiences.

A PDN just might be the thing that solves the majority of the existing problem. However, I have to point out that there is still a lot of uncertainty even when the changes in 2023 happen.

We don’t really know what else Google has in store. We may get a new update on the cookieless era and a new way of how the company sees it. There might even be a new version of the cookie, only this time it will be called a wafer, biscuit, or whatever.

There’s a decent amount of guessing involved but covering all the bases for what we know so far makes you fairly immune to potential surprises.

Final thoughts

As the industry races to find a replacement to the cookie amidst rising privacy concerns, publishers’ access to first-party data and a brand’s direct consumer relationship will be crucial.

Publishers that are able to manage and monetize their audiences while safeguarding consumer privacy will emerge as winners. They will be able to support their businesses with better advertising and consumer experiences, creating a win-win-win that also benefits brands and consumers.

It’s important to get the ball rolling in 2022 so that everything is ready and cookie-free by 2023.

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