There is riveting news within the complex digital media sector, especially for those online users who place a premium on personal privacy. Google has announced that it will cease the use of third-party cookies by the year 2022 which means that media companies and advertisers won’t get the kind of access to user data that they’ve had until now. The details are sketchy, but they have indicated that they intend to establish privacy as the default position, rather than the other way around — where tech companies have full and unrestricted access to user data.
The gigantic valve of human advancement obstructs our return to simpler days when BBC, still referred to as British Broadcasting Corporation, was the distinct and unequivocal voice of the Great Empire. At that time, in a smoke-filled boardroom, a well-paid media executive declared in between puffs of an overpriced Cuban Churchill that ‘media research was unnecessary’. He and his colleagues were convinced that they knew exactly what their viewers wanted to watch, and that asking for their opinion was an utter waste of time.
The turn of events since the swinging 60’s took a dramatic twist and slapped out the taste of that cigar, as well as the ivory-tower tinged perspectives that went along with it. Not only did audience research thrive and expand into a global multibillion dollar industry, but it was also deeply embedded into the DNA of digital media. And in what appeared to be a media researcher’s sweet dream, every single thing that the user did online was tracked in real-time and relayed back to servers that spit out incalculable bytes of behavioral analysis for advertisers.
However, they soon woke up to the reality that people hate being tracked. Users might have initially thought it quaint that a microwave brand ad followed their browsing footprint after they’d Googled a cooking recipe earlier on. Later, they thought it creepy when their neigbourhood supermarket seemed to know more about them than their mother did. Now they just think it’s criminal, and that the internet companies should cease and desist tracking activity or face the full force of the mob.
Users are threatening to boycott social media platforms and websites en masse, and take their data, family and even their pets elsewhere. It doesn’t help when modern day witch-doctors like Cambridge Analytica make absurd claims that at the click of a button, they can use data to turn fully paid up card carrying members of Hillary Clinton for President into frothing-at-the-mouth Make America Great Again supporters. When delusions like these are declared, the world wants to see these manipulators burnt at the stake, twice, before being sent down to hell to burn for eternity.
In an act of jumping from the fire into the frying pan Google has side-stepped the wrath of a billion users and taken the fight to the advertising and media companies — smart. When preparing for pitched battle, engage the army with smaller numbers. However, half a trillion dollars hang in the balance and a considerable amount is controlled by the advertising and media companies — not so smart.
Only time will tell if this is the valiant and honorable strategy needed to save innocent users from the corporate expansionists; or if it is just a fool’s gambit with the aim of staying relevant as civilization evolves. But one thing known for certain is that there is nothing new under the sun (Eccles.1:9) and that the industry is about to see another round of media fragmentation. This time, attention will be scattered across the digital media frontier.
The first cracks are expected to appear around major media companies that have the capacity to define cohorts or target groups based on single sign on (SSO) systems. The creation of silos within ecosystems such as Google, Apple, Amazon and others is undesirable but a possibility, as this requires very sophisticated planning for successful cross domain targeting.
Previous experience with media fragmentation has shown that reach and frequency goals will require a comprehensive review and the priorities will need to be redefined. Audience duplication and grave inefficiency becomes a major factor that can burn dollars fast and diminish returns. Therefore, with fragmentation comes the need for additional audience data that the ad servers do not gather, putting research services in higher demand.
There is a great deal of anxiety around these developments though a clearer view of the prospects is expected as the Privacy Sandbox proposals unfold. The Privacy Sandbox is a Google initiative that proposes a set of privacy-preserving software that eliminates user tracking. With this in mind ad agencies need to be flexible around technology because the new normal is volatility.