Commentary

The Universal Cookie

The battles between consumer privacy advocates and those of us who desire to target Interactive media users boil down to two conflicting desires. The first desire is being able to browse the Internet without unknown agents collecting personal information. The second desire is the need to target Interactive advertising so as to increase effectiveness of advertising campaigns. Really it is quite simple.

One way those of us in the Interactive advertising business target folks is by the use of cookies. We use cookies in two primary ways; one, via third-party ad servers as a tracking tool to gauge the effectiveness of buys and enable optimization of campaigns, and two, when we buy on sites or networks that offer targeting by information stored on cookies. In order for one and two to be effective, each ad server and each site need to issue their own cookies, or use cookies of partner entities. The result is conceptually ludicrous if one examines the collection of cookies one has after only a week of surfing; there can be hundreds after moderate Internet activity.

What is wrong with this? Many of us might say "nothing." Sure, we are bombarding users with these files, but they are small and take up very little space on one's computer. If they were the size of MP3s, roughly 5 MBs, there would be severe drivespace issues, but at a mere KB or two, what is not to love? And cookies do not report any personally identifiable information, or so we say. As I recall from a certain Newsweek article some months ago, one mathematician has figured that if you have someone's zip code, birthday, and one other piece of seemingly innocent piece of information, you are 80% likely to be personally identifiable. That scares me. That scares me because in order for many sites to properly function I have to leave cookies turned on. There are many types of cookies, and you can accept session cookies but not persistent ones. Sure, most folks know about that.

I don't mind if someone knows how old I am to the year, but do they have to know to the day? When I register for online services, I supply fake DOB when someone has the audacity to require it. That said, I leave the year, but only chance the day and month, and sometimes not even the latter. Is this sheer laziness? Perhaps. But the reason I let that information be given is that I don't care if someone knows my age. I don't care if someone knows what zip code I live in. I don't care that someone knows I play basketball. Furthermore, I don't care if every interactive entity knows this about me. There are plenty of folks my age that live in my zip code that play basketball, so I don't feel personally identified. In short, I have a privacy threshold. The privacy threshold is different for every person, and that's why the current state of targeting is not appropriate; it does not respect an individual's threshold.

As a user, I am not against all advertising. There is the potential that I might receive some advertising pertinent to me, and I know the chance of this increases the more that the sites I visit know about me. For example, a new sports league might be starting in my city and it would want to reach basketball players in the area. Imagine if it could target all people in appropriate zip codes who like basketball. It could use personal information I don't mind sharing to reach me very effectively. I might be very receptive to such advertising. I like to think that I would be even more receptive to it since I had some control over the advertising I was receiving. Maybe I really like streaming ads since they look great over my DSL, and would respond better to video of some games being played. Maybe I wouldn't since my DSL company just went out of business and I was stuck with 56K. How did I have control over my information? The universal cookie.

Imagine a future, not so far off, with the universal cookie. In this future, when you first start up your browser, you are given the option to fill in your universal cookie. You can populate as many fields as you'd like with information. As a result of accurate cookie information, you will not only see targeted ads, but you will see more targeted content. Or maybe you won't. One box you can check would be "serve me targeted ads" and another might be "serve me targeted content." Widespread acceptance of the concept will encourage at least some major content players to target their content not only by volunteered demographic and sociographic data points, but also by preferred media and formats. That's right; simply check a box in the universal cookie to indicate that you don't like Flash, and sites that know what is good for them will serve you neither Flash content nor Flash advertising. The possibilities are almost endless.

But how do we count using a universal cookie? Easy. What do we need to count? Sites traffic can be monitored not by dropping cookies, but by reading the randomly generated monthly number that is generated by the browser and assigned to the unique cookie for a particular site. This number can uniquely identify the person to the site for a month to enable accurate traffic counts, but will change the next... unless the person indicates that they don't mind persistent numbers.

How do we assess effectiveness of advertising campaigns? Each universal cookie will also be assigned a monthly unique number for every ad-tracking tool. The number will remain for a month from the first exposure to that company's ad server. Once again, the user can voluntarily extend the window if they'd like.

There may be other bridges to cross, but a bit of intelligent thinking can get the universal cookie across them. It can ultimately succeed because the universal cookie will not only put control back in command of the user, but it will create value for the user by allowing one's Internet experience to respond to one's preferences, and for the advertiser by providing a legal, 100% opt-in way to target as granularly as users want to be targeted.

No other medium has the opportunity to collect so much information about its users. If we rethink how we gather such information, not only could we eliminate the risk of losing it, but also we could possibly gain even more.

- Eliot Kent-Uritam is a Media Planner at Mediasmith, Inc., a San Francisco and New York based Integrated Interactive Media Agency and Consultant.

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