Mobile, audio and DOOH have survived without cookies - but can adtech follow suit?

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

As pretty much anyone in the adtech industry would agree, cookies aren’t good for us. They don’t work well (if at all) on mobile, the consumer can delete them whenever they feel like it, and many browsers now offer the option to block them entirely. Plus, tracking consumers across multiple devices using cookies is difficult and potentially intrusive, leading to over-served ads, wasted dollars and frustrated consumers.

Apple recently added yet another obstacle, announcing an update to its Safari browser, blocking third-party cookies by default and placing many limits on first-party cookies, for both mobile and desktop browsers. 

On top of all that, the rise of programmatic has resulted in a crowded ecosystem filled with a deluge of companies who are often unable to talk to each other in a single, coherent language, meaning any given web page might be handling more than 100 third-party requests. This slows down the web experience for the end user, and is often needlessly costly.

So why are third-party cookies still the primary method of tracking across the ad tech landscape? That’s not an easy question to answer, but the most honest response is probably along the lines of: ‘It’s what we’ve always done.’ 

It’s not like we haven’t had enough time to come up with a better solution. In 2013, Digiday and Forbes were among several publishers to pen articles on the problem with cookies. Six years later, here I am writing another piece on this same issue. 

In 2016, mobile browsing took over desktop for the first time, and has been steadily increasing ever since; and by 2017 mobile users spent 87% of their time in mobile apps versus just 13% on the web. Yet this move to mobile apps still hasn’t been enough to kick our cookie addiction for good. We know the issue’s there, but it’s all too easy to ignore.

And while other industries have managed to survive without the humble cookie, they too have their own measurement issues to contend with. Digital out of home is showing some signs of progress, but it’s not quite there yet. 

The podcast industry, while technically a digital product, has seen no formal consensus on how to quantify metrics as simple as listens or time spent listening. While Apple’s podcast analytics update has made some headway, it’s still not a universal solution.

The mobile in-app environment provides a whole world of opportunities for location-based tracking within the apps themselves, but this isn’t especially helpful for third-party advertisers, who desire to understand the entire customer journey. The idea of tracking a consumer as they jump around different apps is still a pipe dream (unless they’re logged into each app using the same Facebook or Google account) of course.

Every one of these industries is coping in their own way and finding unique solutions to their own problems. In order to survive, the adtech industry must do the same. If we can learn to work together for the good of the industry, we will undoubtedly find better solutions to the cookie conundrum. But if we continue to play down the issue for much longer, I can think of a few companies who would be ready and willing to take our place.

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