my turn


It's A Wonderful, Trackable Life

Every time a bell rings, an advertiser gets his wings…

Okay, so that’s not exactly how the line goes but I’m sure it’s something like that. Audience targeting and the tracking technologies behind it have been getting a lot of ink lately, and a fair amount of it has been negative. Concerns come from both ends of the spectrum – consumers and governments worried about privacy and marketers who aren’t always seeing the results they expect from their current tracking efforts.

To make sense of all of this – and in the spirit of the holidays – I’ve decided to take the “It’s a Wonderful Life” approach and imagine: what would the Internet be like if there was no tracking at all? In my mind, the Internet without tracking is much like the film’s hypothetical town that would have existed if Jimmy Stewart’s character had never been born, Pottersville – crass, sleazy and utterly unappealing. Not a pretty picture for anyone involved: publishers, advertisers or consumers.



To begin with, the Web would be cluttered with many more ads. Why? Because without the ability to target ads to specific audiences, brands will have to compensate by running more ads in the hopes of reaching customers, effectively substituting quantity for quality. On the flip side, consumers will experience a wild decline in relevance. The ads they see will have nothing to do with who they are, what they are interested in or what matters to them.

The next impact to consider is that removing tracking capabilities will mean significantly reducing a publisher’s revenue. Without the ability to assure advertisers that they can reach the specific audiences they want, the value of inventory will drastically decrease. And while the cost of advertising inventory units may go down – potentially a boon for advertisers – the ROI on these units will plummet even faster if advertisers can’t be confident that they are reaching their target consumers.

So far things aren’t looking too pleasant in “Tracklessville” – everywhere they go, consumers are bombarded with ads that have nothing to do with them, advertisers are forced to resort to broad plastering techniques instead of precision targeting and publishers’ inventory loses its value – which is derived from the audiences that inventory can reach.

And the problems don’t stop there. With less advertising revenue coming in, publishers will need to find new sources of revenue which would likely mean more and taller pay walls, subscription models, etc. – more paid content. Consumers have come to expect a wealth of free content, but without the support of advertising revenues, publishers simply won’t be able to sustain the current model.

 “Strange isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around, he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”

The bottom line is that without the ability to track and target audiences, the digital experience will be radically different. But that doesn’t mean that we have to be satisfied with the status quo, because there are plenty of reasons why tracking isn’t on everyone’s wish list. Performance, privacy and technical limits all make effective targeting quite a challenge – especially with the current cookie-based system.

It’s time to leave the cookies for Santa. They raise concerns for multiple audiences – for consumers and government regulators, cookies are problematic from a privacy perspective; and for marketers, cookies just don’t function well enough for audience targeting, due to a short shelf-life, “deletability,” lack of mobile reach, and increasing regulatory pressure. So if cookies go – or get left behind – is it back to Pottersville?

Of course not. Recently, the industry has begun to develop novel cookie-free approaches. One of these is device identification – technology that provides intelligence to marketers without collecting any personally identifiable information (PII) of any kind whatsoever. And perhaps more importantly, players within the industry – marketers, advertisers, and tracking technology companies alike – need to adopt a pro-privacy stance.

To keep the grim future described above from becoming the marketing industry’s shared reality, we need a smart, viable and sensible approach, that preserves the value of marketing dollars – and that’s something we’d all like to see under the tree. 

Geoff Gieron is the Business Development Strategist at AdTruth.

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