With its appetite for cookies, advertising has dominated the digital privacy spotlight. As soon as the GDPR arrived, strong focus on how companies use consumer data to power marketing sent most compliance discussions straight to brand level — and it looks as though another year of regulation and anti-cookie initiatives will keep them there.
Not only is the long-awaited e-Privacy Regulation gearing up to enforce tighter rules across Europe, but there are also rumblings that Apple may extend its third-party tracking blockers to mobile apps. That’s not to mention fast-approaching implementation of the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) in the US, due to go live on the 1st of January.
For marketers and agencies, there will be no let up in the mission to maximise advertising relevance and effectiveness, while following increasingly tough data restrictions and laws, and balancing reputational risk.
Time’s up for regulatory rule-dodging
Every company understands the basics of the GDPR: expanding the rights of EU citizens and making it compulsory for any organisation processing their personal data to meet one of six legal bases. As a result, a number of businesses have also opted for unsustainable short cuts, particularly when it comes to digital advertising.
For instance, some are relying on legitimate interest — which allows them to use business or service critical data without consent — to power personalised ads. But while an obvious choice for marketers keen to avoid the difficulty of gaining permission to apply cookies, this approach doesn’t fly with the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). In a recent report, the body warned the large-scale data use of online advertising, and especially programmatic, makes it impossible to meet the requirements of legitimate interest.
And the window is also closing for other methods of side stepping GDPR stipulations. After assessing current consent requests, the ICO called time on notifications intended to boost the chances of a positive response by only giving vague details of how data would be used, as well as declaring misgivings about audience profiling. In short, the grace period is over.
Finding a new way forward
Marketers attempting to circumvent legislation now run the risk of receiving short shrift and sizeable fines from the ICO; making full compliance crucial and putting their brand reputation at risk which is potentially much worse than a fine. But the question is: where do they start?
Amid the rising demand for alternative solutions, tools are emerging that take a different targeting tack, such as shared IDs. The idea is that by plugging into an ID platform, publishers can match a standardised identity across multiple data sets that enables them to pinpoint individuals and offer custom advertising. The problem, however, is continued dependence on cookies: to collect and share first-party data, publishers need the green light from consumers. So, shared IDs have the potential to help buyers and sellers achieve compliant personalisation, and avoid issues with in-browser anti-tracking tools. But they still face the thorny issue of gaining consent en masse.
Overcoming these hurdles calls for a more significant shift of perspective and tactics. Companies must now focus on their first-party initiatives, transforming an overreliance on behavioural third-party providers into compliant and consent-friendly contextual offerings.
The evolution of context
Contextual advertising is enjoying renewed interest as the ideal choice for marketers eager to go cookie free. By aligning ads with their surroundings, instead of consumer history, it eliminates the need for personal data and, in turn, limits cookie-related risk while also providing the increased scale and effectiveness brands require.
But it's important to note that a return to classic targeting doesn't mean relinquishing modern precision. Context-based ads have come a long way over the last few years. Where messages were once broadly tied to their surroundings, advances in semantic, natural language processing and machine learning technology have made it possible to integrate with content at a deeper level.
The most sophisticated platforms leverage intelligent tools such as machine learning to go beyond generic keywords and uncover the meaning of each word on the page. Using a mix of natural language processing (NLP) and cognitive tech, these platforms read content as humans do; understanding the form of words, how they relate to each other, emotional response, and subtle differences in meaning. Running at speed and scale, this granular analysis enables marketers to match ad creative with the specific context of content and the emotions it's likely to elicit – all with no cookies.
Increasing privacy regulation poses ever-greater obstacles for marketing teams and agencies. To drive strong returns, digital ads must hit the right mark with audiences and inspire engagement. But there is uncertainty about how this can be achieved without the tracking tools and personal data they have come to rely on.
The good news, however, is that addressing this challenge doesn't require a complete overhaul of data frameworks or advertising. By harnessing these evolving contextual solutions with the capacity to efficiently and accurately link ads with content, companies will be well positioned to be compliant and also deliver the required performance and brand alignment.
Mario Diez, CEO, Peer39