Publishers are rethinking user data to replace vanishing cookies

By Projjol Banerjea, founder and CPO at zeotap

Despite all the change that has marked 2020, marketers’ underlying goals haven’t fundamentally shifted — delivering the best brand experience to customers will continue to be a priority. The question is: What is the best way to achieve this goal?

According to industry analysts at Winterberry Group, almost 50 percent of brands say better identity recognition capabilities will do the most to advance their omnichannel marketing efforts. In tandem, 60 percent of digital marketers cite connecting the dots across different channels as the activity that consumes the maximum time and resources. These statistics are underpinned by the 30 percent CAGR of marketer spend on identity solutions in the U.S. over the last few years, more than three times the growth rate of overall digital ad spend.

In short, the majority of marketers are still grappling with the onerous task of linking customer identities to unify siloed assets. This is a crucial prerequisite for everything that follows — deeper customer understanding leading to better brand experiences. These marketers need the ecosystem to step up and provide a better toolbox.

Enter the “universal ID” –– a game-changer not only for marketers but also for consumers.

Universal IDs are poised to unlock the best of both worlds

Universal IDs provide a shared, persistent identifier to trace the user across the supply chain without the clunkiness of cookie syncing or the platform risk of operating system IDs. Simultaneously, from a marketer’s perspective, they share some of the best characteristics of existing methods: the democratic nature of third-party cookies (where every cookie is essentially equal) and the simplicity of Mobile Ad IDs.

According to the IAB, “the habits or search queries for a user on YouTube may be significantly different from their interaction on Instagram, Amazon or even when engaging with editorial content. A digital ID on one does not automatically translate to another. And that’s why implementing a universal digital ID could be beneficial.”

Moreover, while smaller or independent technology players need to contend with the multitude of challenges presented by different types of user identifiers, the walled gardens maintain a major advantage. This leads to an disproportionate concentration of power in the ecosystem. Marketers, too, are increasingly wary of ceding control and compromising clarity. Universal IDs help level the playing field.

Forging a path from unification to universality

The concept of universal IDs has been growing in popularity since 2019, but Google Chrome’s announcement at the start of this year regarding the deprecation of third-party cookies has dramatically accelerated their adoption. Rumors of the impending demise of mobile identifiers  — still not officially announced — have also contributed to these efforts gathering steam.  

In some respects, the mechanism of universal IDs does not deviate dramatically from those of cookies. Their implementation is quite simple, at least conceptually. When a new user visits a publisher’s or brand’s property, their key identifiers –– email address and/or phone number –– are collected, typically in hashed form. These are collected along with the source domain, which is then appended to the central identity graph — in effect a master match table maintained by the universal ID provider. The publisher then receives a tokenized version of the user identifier that can be utilized to identify that user for first-party data management.

The publisher-specific universal ID serves two purposes: 

Unification: The universal ID enables the publisher to unify siloed first-party data under a single user/customer view, essentially the fabrication of a private identity graph. In this regard, it functions as a master first-party “cookie” but one that is persistent and valid across all data collection channels. The same ID can also be used for relevant second- or third-party data enrichment and serves as the backbone for better segmentation or analytics. 

Universality: The second application of the universal ID is in the context of activation, i.e., its use as a currency in the ecosystem. Since all tokenized versions of the ID are derived from the same key user identifiers, they’re all intrinsically connected and therefore effectively interchangeable for the purposes of marketing transactions, including the most prominent use cases of ad buying and measurement. Specifically, and simplistically, the tokenized version of an ID passed by the sell-side can be linked with the tokenized version of the same ID that resides with the buy-side; they both point to the same user record in the master match table.

Universal IDs are not without their challenges 

The very design of universal ID frameworks requires users to identify —  to log in using an email address or phone number. This naturally has an impact on scale. In order to maximize identification coverage, publishers will need to be more aggressive in deploying authentication (login) walls across their properties and think about these three areas:  

Experimenting with consent collection: It’s crucial to start testing different methods to collect emails from login walls and incentivize users towards logins. Consent collection has shown that those who start to experiment early on — with differentiated messages and user experiences — have been a lot more successful in this space than those who are hesitant.  

Wider adoption: The success of a universal ID network will be contingent on its adoption as a currency by the marketing ecosystem. While it’s unlikely there will be one network to rule them all, it would also be counterproductive for scores of them to mushroom across the industry.

Increased interoperability: It’s likely that a handful of large global players and potentially a couple of relevant regional ones — such as publisher alliances — will emerge. Increased interoperability will contribute to their effectiveness and ease of use outside of the dominant walled gardens. In order for these to foster the buoyant health of the industry, the emerging players should be democratic rather than engender a new concentration of power. Nobody wants to see one duopoly give way to another. 

A sustainable solution to linking customer identities to unified assets demands a multilateral governance model based on collaboration. Universal IDs can be that door to the long-awaited change that can ultimately bring satisfactory results to a whole industry in a transparent and compliant manner. Publishers should feel empowered to embrace the road ahead.

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