Illuma Technology co-founder Peter Mason explains how cookie data is being replaced by real-time, bottom-up technologies which scale using a single audience characteristic: high probability to being open to your brand.

Despite many celebrated advances in technology in recent decades, it’s fair to say that audience targeting methods haven’t moved on much at all – the advertising industry is still relying on third-party tracking cookies to profile and segment users based on historic browsing behaviour.

The method has served us well, but it’s often rooted in the assumption that people will notice ads because of who they appear to be rather than where they are - which demographic box they might sit in, based on previous behaviour, as opposed to the browsing journey they’re on at the moment the ad is served.

Regulators and consumers are now telling us that profiling individuals in this way is neither palatable nor compliant and, with the ICO warning that punitive measures can be enforced from early 2020 and the CCPA just around the corner, it’s no surprise that the industry is standing at a crossroads, uncertain about the way forward.

Changing direction will be difficult, but there are multiple reasons why I believe it should be done decisively; why simply mirroring the cookie process with other identifiers for targeting and segmentation, and carrying on down the same path could stifle innovation and fail to address some core issues around relevance.

First of all, the cookie-based system has been useful but it is flawed in several areas. Profiling an individual based on age or past behaviour, with or without an identifier, takes no account of the fleeting human attention span nor the fact we each have multiple interests so defy static segmentation. And in such a crowded marketplace it can seem faintly ridiculous to assume that a user’s age and the content they were looking at yesterday, last week, last month, should define which brands they want to hear from in perpetuity and in any online environment.

Secondly, context matters - a lot. There is increasing awareness that as we move from one page impression to the next, the content we consume triggers minute adjustments to our mindset which appear to affect our readiness to receive messages from a brand. In fact, our own research shows that 40%-60% of user engagements are assisted by the live venue: where the person is online at the moment the ad is served. This powerful influencer cannot be fully utilised in a system which is predominantly informed by historical browsing data.

Thanks to advances in AI, brands and publishers with consented audience data, however small, can now build broad-reach campaigns by expanding ‘bottom-up’, using live engagements to seek more of the right contextual places, and therefore a whole new set of the right people, without needing to know anything else about them. It’s a different take on lookalike modelling and it works without using cookies or personal data to overcome another current stumbling block - that the more granular your lists, the more limited the reach of your campaigns.

Establishing the category a user sits in is becoming less important – after all, if they’re interested in your product does it really matter if they appear to be a woman aged 25-40 or a man aged 50?

As the cookie declines it may leave unresolved issues in its wake, not least frequency capping and measurement. But in audience qualification and targeting, if we are to really future-proof the online ecosystem then we need to entertain new approaches that use real-time insights

Otherwise, to draw a parallel with changes in the motor industry, my fear is we’ll invest time and money in cleaning up diesel engines when what people really want is electric. One day soon, burning fossil fuels to drive around – and targeting ads based on historical browsing profiles - are going to seem very old fashioned indeed.


Written by Peter Mason, Co-Founder, Illuma Technology. 

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