There’s been much written and said about a paradigm shift in the digital advertising industry.  But has there been any real change?  

With GDPR, CCPA, and other regulations aiming to ensure user control, the industry response has been to normalize opt-in experiences across the board, making sure that most users find it easiest to consent to the new rules.  The core use-case has been to make sure that money from advertisers will still flow, while providing the minimum level of choice for users.

Facing the death of cookies, a plethora of solutions are seeking to gain consent, and a stable identity, using techniques that introduce minimal friction.  Most are using a mixture of fingerprinting, authentication, and back-end matching to do so.  While potentially achieving a lower reach than the automatically issued third party cookies, these new solutions offer stable identities that are easy for buyers to transition existing business logic onto.  This again minimizes the impact on existing advertising practices.  

These moves make sense.  It is rational to minimize risk, and being aligned to the needs of buyers, especially in tumultuous times, does exactly that.  However, these approaches retread a familiar theme of treating the audience as a resource, and not as a partner.  

True change in the digital advertising industry is needed to permanently eliminate the risks to business coming from privacy technology and legislation.  The industry philosophy has to move away from pushing users into the desired state of acceptance, and towards understanding user goals and facilitating their success.  

What does this look like?  Here are a few basic tenets.  

  • Transparency and Control.  Put the user in control of their profile from the get-go.  Normalize a feedback loop with their profile, so they invest in ensuring that it’s what feels right for them, any given moment.  Be open about what is thought to be known about the user so that it’s a conversation, and be transparent about how decisions are made about what to show them.  
  • Disclosure.  Make it obvious when a value exchange is happening, and make sure it feels reasonable to the user. Opt-in should be treated as an ongoing conversation.  Take lessons from the disclosure of the value exchange in mobile games.
  • Signaling Contextual Decisions.  Advertising isn’t just about the user.  From glossy magazines to influencer marketing, having the right ad message served alongside appropriate content is a win, and signals that advertising isn’t just about following a specific person around.   Signal the use of geographic and temporal contexts to reinforce the message that advertising isn’t just about the user.  
  • Taking Ad Quality Seriously.  Don’t fill remnant inventory with any ad that will pay – if there’s nothing good to say, consider saying nothing at all.  Understand the point at which the net impact of ad experiences on the lifetime value of a user, viewed holistically, is negative.  Stay well above that point.  

Adopting radical transparency is risky for everyone.  It opens up campaigns for competitive analysis, provides a roadmap for fraudsters, and will take a lot of work.  But it really is time to give the user a seat at the table.  

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