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When the curtain finally falls on the cookie in the second half of 2023, marketers will have had nearly four years to prepare for the challenges of a cookieless world. As of today, however, it still remains unclear whether the majority of brands will be ready to meet those challenges.

While there has been no shortage of urgency or writings on the topic, one could sense a collective shrug of relief across the digital advertising industry when Google announced in June that it would delay the deprecation of third-party cookies on its market-leading Chrome browser for about two additional years beyond the originally planned date at the end of 2021. Most marketers are excited to see the development of  an alternative, privacy-safe approach to identity-based behavioral targeting and are well aware of the measurement gaps that the loss of cookies will create. As an industry, however, we don’t necessarily know what those solutions will look like or who should be responsible for developing and implementing them. Many are waiting for someone else to solve the problem.

Just because Google kicked the can down the road doesn’t mean that marketers should too. A variety of identity-less options are currently being used and tested for targeting, and many players inside the ad tech industry and beyond are scrambling to develop alternative programmatic solutions. It is an altogether different question, however, to figure out if those techniques actually work and deliver the right ads to the right people. To this point, not enough attention has been paid to the measurement side of the equation.

Cookieless measurement presents its own unique challenges—and opportunities. Marketers often assume they need census-level data to determine whether the ads reached their intended target audience and to what extent those ads were effective in driving their KPIs. In fact, test and control groups for many audience measurement and effectiveness studies can be done on a much smaller scale, depending on the sample quality and viability of the methods employed. Brands generally take a “measure everything now and figure out what it means later” approach to measurement, which is understandable given how much they continue to spend on digital ads.

 

All roads lead to first-party data

In the cookie era, marketers were led to believe they needed to know at a census level about their customers’ digital footprint in order to track delivery and measure ad effectiveness. They’re now discovering that measurement companies who have developed a trusted and direct first-party relationship with their panelists at scale have the greatest potential to succeed without cookies and to expand advertising effectiveness measurement coverage in innovative, privacy-centric ways.

At Dynata, we deploy our industry-leading global panel of 62 million people (individual consumers, business partners and hard-to-reach audiences) to determine if an ad had its intended impact by surveying panelists who were exposed to the ad, and then creating lookalike unexposed audiences from the data with which to evaluate audience delivery and campaign lift. Unlike ads that use measurement tags to write third-party cookies to the device when they load, our panelists receive first-party cookies when they interact with us directly to take surveys or cash out rewards and those first party cookies can be read without the use of third-party cookies.

Here’s how it works: Let’s say a panelist clicks on The New York Times and an ad renders on-screen with a Dynata tag. That tag then looks for the presence of our first-party cookie and, if found, it sends a signal back to us with specific information about when the ad was viewed and by which panelist. All of our audience data (age, household information, etc.) are gathered with explicit permission from the individual panelist. Elsewhere in the industry, a vast array of cookie data is stitched together anonymously with other sources in an attempt resolve identity, a process rife with guesswork and error. We start with known identity and measure a smaller number of people, but we do so in a more concrete and deterministic way.

A variety of measurement approaches can be created from this basic framework. As an example, Dynata recently introduced a solution called Social Measure that relies on a panelist cohort approach to measure campaign performance on the walled gardens of Facebook and Instagram. With this approach, we can selectively expose or suppress ads to our panelists in their normal interaction on those social platforms to intentionally create our test and control cells. Dynata was named a finalist for a 2021 Ogilvy Award for our contribution of this Facebook measurement to the NBA All-Stars Campaign entry. We can also measure ad effectiveness on YouTube without cookies through our partnership with Google’s Ads Data Hub.

 

Sorting through the alternatives

The above solutions are merely the tip of the measurement spear, and marketers will need to be able to sort through all of the alternatives to find the approach that best suits their needs. Much of the effort to measure digital advertising is currently focused on direct integrations with publishers through hashed email matches. For outlets with substantial reach that have done a good job getting their users to sign up with their email address, it is possible to obtain accurate measurement results for that single publisher although this method reduces the number of ad impressions that can be seen, partly as a function of how many site visitors have provided an email address. In addition, this approach requires hundreds of integrations to obtain complete results which will put single source cross-publisher studies out of reach to brands and make clean control (i.e., non-exposed groups) much more challenging to produce, if not impossible.

To be sure, cookieless measurement is a work in progress. Marketers would do well to closely track all of the developments as they emerge and adopt an aggressive test-and-learn position. Perhaps it is also time to advocate a glass-half-full perspective. There is no question that the loss of cookies will diminish the average marketer’s ability to target and measure digital advertising in the short term, but the sky is not falling. Over the long haul, weaning marketers off of third-party cookies now will lead them to discover better methods for engaging and learning about their customers. That alone is reason to cheer when the cookie crumbles.