Chrome’s cookie delay has been a welcome respite for an industry under pressure. But with no viable replacements on the horizon, publishers wasted no time doubling down on their first-party data plans. Esther Kezia Thorpe rounds up 2021 in data and privacy as part of our Media Moments 2021 report.

It’s almost certain that we’ll look back over the past few years as some of the most transformative in the advertising industry. Between increasingly tough privacy regulations and action from seemingly concerned platforms, it feels like the end is finally in sight for invasive tracking methods. Advertisers are being forced to seriously reassess how they use data; publishers claim to be building that better world.

Platforms flex their muscles

Firstly, let’s touch on a somewhat polarising move from Apple. The tech giant, apparently concerned for the privacy of its users, introduced a handful of features to give users greater control over how their data is used in its September iOS 15 rollout. One policy in particular, launched in April 2021, made each app on an iPhone ask a user if they were okay with being tracked across apps for ad-targeting purposes. 

Just 4% of users are agreeing. The move tripled the market share of Apple’s advertising business in the six months since its launch, and cost Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Snap nearly $10 billion in ad revenue. The company is projected to have made $5 billion from digital advertising in 2021, and $20 billion a year within three years, propelling Apple to the fourth biggest ad business in the world. Whoever said privacy couldn’t be profitable…

Apple isn’t the only platform shaking things up. Google’s third-party cookie phasing out had originally been planned for early 2022, meaning that last year would have been spent undergoing frantic preparations. However, given the lack of agreement over alternatives, the tech giant announced in June that it was delaying its plans to block third-party cookies until 2023.

“It’s become clear that time is needed across the ecosystem in order to get this right,” Privacy Engineering Director Vinay Goel wrote. This respite has been welcomed by advertisers, but has somewhat dampened the urgency for publishers seeking to convince agencies of the value of spending with them instead.

Google’s current alternative to third-party cookies is called FLoC – Federated Learning of Cohorts. It’s a more privacy-centric approach which groups users together in cohorts based on similar interests and behaviours, without needing to use personally identifiable information. 

Google argues that FLoC will provide greater individual-level privacy without sacrificing much of the effectiveness of third-party cookies. In early tests, it saw 95% of the conversions per dollar spent on cookie-based advertising. But in May, DuckDuckGo, Firefox and GitHub vowed to block Google’s FLoC API. Google is continuing to develop alternative technologies via its Privacy Sandbox, but getting industry consensus on any alternative seems like an impossible task.

Build it yourself

Caught between warring tech giants, publishers wasted no time shoring up their own efforts. An ever-growing list of first-party data plays were announced last year. News UK’s Nucleus, Vox Media’s Forte, Forbes’ ForbesOne, Penske Media’s Atlas Data Studio, Livingly’s IRIS, BuzzFeed’s Lighthouse…these are just a few of the first-party data platforms launched by publishers over the past twelve months. 

Future PLC launched its own Audience Data Platform Aperture in the autumn. The ‘transparent, privacy-compliant and future-proof’ platform brings together 300 million monthly users across Future’s 180 brands to allow advertisers to target across interests, behaviours and geographies without the need for third-party cookies. Aperture also works together with the publisher’s HAWK ecommerce technology to give the publisher an edge on intent-based purchases, especially around critical advertising milestones like Black Friday.

Ad tech may not be able to agree on Google’s FLoC model, but that hasn’t stopped publishers developing cohort models of their own as part of their first-party data strategies. In late 2020, Insider Inc. launched SÁGA, an audience-data platform which uses behavioural data of readers on their sites to build audience segments, without the need for personally identifiable information. As a result, they have been able to grow their revenue on first-party data by 200%, with 19 out of their top 20 advertisers renewing. “It works, it really does.” commented Jana Meron, Senior VP of Programmatic and Data Strategy. “It just takes a lot of education and patience.”

Education on the agenda

Publishers will need patience in buckets, come the eventual demise of third-party cookies. As with other changes like GDPR, many in the ad world are leaving it until the last minute to find alternatives, and publishers are having to do a lot of educating about the value of their own environments.

Vox Media has been offering Forte, its own first-party data solution, as a trial. “There were some clients who were resistant,” said CRO Ryan Pauley. “For those clients, we said, ‘Let’s run a side-by-side comparison at no cost’”. 

But it’s not just agencies in need of education. Collecting first-party data means that internal teams will also be able to understand audiences, if they are given the tools to do so effectively.

Forbes hopes its first-party data solution ForbesOne will help not just shield it from potential revenue losses, but will also help the organisation understand how audiences interact across the brand. A product manager might use interactions with a virtual event to improve future experiences, or editors might use content consumption patterns to inform future coverage. “This is not to replace our existing products, but to build something better,” said CRO Jessica Sibley.

Similarly, BuzzFeed is making use of insights from Lighthouse, its first-party data ‘studio’. The majority of the publisher’s ad deals now use its first-party data, collected across both BuzzFeed and HuffPost content. “Where we see a lot of success is with the ad ops team and social distribution team taking the insights… and making them activate-able,” said Dave Pond, Head of Media Strategy and Operations. 

The benefits of first-party data, the effectiveness of contextual advertising and the loyalty of publisher audiences are nothing new. It’s still staggering that executives are shocked when a company selling bikes sees results from advertising in a cycling publication with an audience passionate about…wait for it…cycling. But if these huge industry shifts are going to knock some common sense back into us, this can only be a good thing for publishers in the long run.

This article is an extract from our annual report, Media Moments 2021. For more on this chapter including case studies and key statistics, download it now for free.

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