Are cookies even fit for purpose?
Is there a more pertinent, yet overlooked, question we should be asking: are cookies even fit for purpose?
What is wrong with the cookie?
The cookie’s fundamental flaw is that it doesn’t identify the individual completing the action – whether it’s browsing a website or searching for a specific item – but rather the device that is used to complete the action.
For personal devices like mobiles, cookies offer a fairly accurate and close representation of individual user’s behaviour and interests. Since mobiles tend to be used by only one person, cookies enable advertisers to serve relevant and timely messages. However, the accuracy and value of cookies falls down dramatically when it comes to devices that are shared amongst different people.
The family computer/laptop was once the prime example of this, however tablets are now arguably fast becoming the more ‘social’ device, routinely being shared and passed around between friends and family. The obvious problem with this is that the browsing data will reflect a broad range of interests, and although the content may indicate there are different people, with cookie tracking there is no way of differentiating between the multiple users. Therefore the subsequent ads that are served could be targeted at a completely different audience to the one actually using the device at that point in time. The classic example of this is using a shared device to research your partner’s surprise Valentines/birthday gift, only for your partner to use the device and be retargeted with the same ads!
Conversely, the other key reason why the cookie is not fit for purpose is its inability to track a single person across multiple devices. With the proliferation of channels this is arguably one of advertisers’ biggest challenges. Most consumers now own and use a multitude of devices – smartphones, tablets, laptops and workplace computers. But when you consider how someone in the consideration phase will typically research a new product/service prior to purchasing they will very rarely use just one of these. Yet cookie data is unable to join up all these interactions, consequentially each device is seen as a separate person who’s interested in the same product. Needless to say you can only purchase/convert on one device, therefore according to the cookie data on the other devices you’re still in market for that product and the media campaign will continue to serve you targeted ads. This ultimately leads to a lack of insight and wasted media spend. Not only this, but from a consumer perspective it can be extremely annoying and can create a poor brand experience. In effect, due to breaks in the data across multiple devices, advertisers never really see the true customer journey.
Cookies only allow advertisers to optimise media investment to the device, not to the person. Despite the abundance of online data generated, when you compare it to offline direct marketing data, in some respects the latter is much more accurate, robust and fit for purpose. Bar the obvious exceptions like the ubiquitous fast-food door drops, DM isn’t targeted at the house [i.e. the device] rather specific individuals within that household. Unlike with offline data where you will know the individual’s name, address, demographic, who they live with, possibly salary, assets, etc., with cookies there is no personal data associated to it, it’s purely a code that is tied to a behaviour or action.
So what are the alternatives?
To overcome the challenge of transferring cookies from one device to another, a profile based approach could potentially provide the answers. For example, as long as you’re logged in on the same profile account (e.g. Facebook, Google+, IOS5), in theory it’s possible to tie online browsing and search behaviour on each device back to the individual to give a much more rounded and accurate picture. This would make for a much more user-centric experience and a lot more like offline.
The question this raises is which profile would you use and if consumers have already raised concerns about the privacy of cookies why would people consent to being tracked across multiple devices? There would have to be some kind of incentive or pay-back. Consumers would need to clearly understand how it’s beneficial to them. Whilst improved targeting and relevancy might sway some, on its own it’s probably not enough. The convenience that applications such as Google Wallet could potentially bring might be enough in itself to change behaviour and encourage consumers to be continuously logged in.
Cookies’ days are numbered. In an ever more personalised online and offline world, it is simply not fit for purpose. Brands want to target and engage with people, not the various devices audiences use. By moving towards to a more personal approach it will surely improve the experience for the consumer and ROI for advertisers.
Sam Fenton-Elstone, Head of Paid Media at iCrossing.