Are we heading towards a world without retargeting?

Rubicon Project country manager ANZ Rohan Creasey
By Rubicon Project country manager ANZ Rohan Creasey | 1 October 2019

We’ve all been there…you’re in the middle of shopping online for a present for a loved one’s birthday, and suddenly, you realise ads for the products you’ve been considering are following you around the web. If you made the mistake of searching on a home computer shared by said loved one, the surprise will be well and truly spoiled.

Welcome to the world of retargeting. Although it might be deemed annoying by some, this technique plays into one of the oldest concepts of marketing - the Rule of Seven which states that your prospects need to come across your offer at least seven times before they really notice and start to take action. At its heyday, retargeting was driving up to ten times higher click through rate (CTR) in comparison to standard display ads, so it’s easy to see why so many marketers, advertisers and publishers are fond of retargeting.

But retargeting has a significant Achilles heel: cookies. Retargeting requires cookies, yet cookies weren't designed for retargeting. Like much of adtech, we used a hack to repurpose a technology meant for something else, and cookies aren't wholly reliable pieces of data. And now we are paying the price. Users can manually delete cookies whenever they want, and many spam filters delete them automatically. Additionally, when a user moves to another device, say from their desktop to their phone, the cookie is unable to follow their journey. Considering the majority of web traffic is now mobile, even this simple deficiency is a major stumbling block for cookie-based targeting.

Traditionally, the majority of cookies had a shelf life of about 30 days, meaning marketers were challenged to effectively map a customer journey beyond a month. Likewise, most mobile devices do not accept cookies and more recently browsers including Safari, Firefox and Chrome started to block certain cookies by default - making retargeting significantly more challenging.

The message is clear: advertisers and publishers alike need to start planning for a cookie-less world. The display world should draw inspiration from formats including digital out-of-home, audio, and app that generally operate successfully without cookies.

One of the obvious ways to adapt to the cookie-less future is contextual advertising. This relatively old school technique remains an efficient way to capture customers who are interested in your product or service, simply through targeting the pages that those customers are more likely to visit. If you sell car parts, you might choose to advertise on a web page detailing how to fix a car. It’s a simple technique, but it’s (still) incredibly effective.

It’s just that as an industry we were totally sucked into the bubble of focusing on super-fine targeting at the expense of the broader contextual considerations. Perhaps this is because our industry has so many tech parties vying for business or because agencies have been so captivated by algorithms and shifted their attention away from the simpler contextual approach.

Another benefit of contextual advertising, and methods like it, are that they comply with data privacy rules laid out in legislation, including the GDPR. As more countries begin to implement similar legislation, cookies will only face increasing scrutiny.

Google and Facebook have a lot to gain from a world without retargeting. The tech giants have a wealth of first-party data at their fingertips, making them perfectly positioned for a new wave of people-based targeting. Instead of tracking the user through individual site visits and sessions, each user is assigned an ID, which is then tracked wherever that user is signed in.

This is an increasingly popular alternative to retargeting, because the technique overcomes many of the issues, including not being able to follow a user across devices. However, as users become more aware and concerned with data privacy, advertisers need to proceed with caution. If customers are wary of retargeting, people-based marketing takes those concerns to a whole new level.

In order to survive in a world without retargeting, publishers must start to realise the power of their own platforms, their own content and their own audiences (and don’t forget that relying on a third-party log-in - like walled gardens- gives those third-parties a window into your audience).

Contextual advertising and forms of advertising that don’t rely on user data have always been valuable and viable, and maybe now especially so in our data-conscious world. And while retargeting will live on for quite a while, in the end we have to stop putting all our cookies in one jar.

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