Could Moments Be the Answer for Cookies?

By Raman Sidhu

Google delayed its third-party cookie deprecation — again. If you're breathing a sigh of relief, please don't. There's still a gaping hole in today's marketing plans. It's getting deeper, and as companies look to shore up their financials against a tidal wave of economic uncertainty, the need for a plan to fill that hole has never been more urgent.

Ever since Google announced (the first time) that it would phase out the use of third-party cookies in Chrome, coming on the heels of Apple's deprecation of IDFA, the advertising and technology communities have been working feverishly to create a new set of identifiers, tools and tactics to find ways to best connect advertising with those who consume content. Despite many trials and tribulations, there is no real solution to be found.

Or is there?

The reality is that the search feels futile because the industry is looking to spur innovation in all the wrong places. Media and marketing plans that rely on cookies have been losing their ability to target audiences for years now. The degradation has been gradual enough to not spur the level of alarm that Google's planned deprecation ignites. But the impact is already severe — and current efforts to "solve" for cookies via the creation of new identifiers are misdirected.

That brings us to contextual advertising — a long-established but fast-evolving approach to targeting with high relevance. Contextual advertising's ability to target ads based on linguistic elements, keywords and tone enable brands to align their ad experiences with content in the moments when consumers are feeling most connected — and without the use of tracking technology.

Relevant moments can take many shapes — be it sports fans reading the backstories behind their team's championship season, fashion fans flocking to their favorite publications to see which designers are outfitting celebrities at the Met Gala, or new parents trying to gauge how their insurance needs have changed following the birth of their child. These moments matter to people — and that's why they matter for marketers.

A moments-based approach to marketing isn't a replacement for cookies. It's something better. That's because it circumvents the challenges that come with a cookie-based approach to audience targeting. Allow me to explain.

A natural solution to frequency capping


"Going cookieless" has led to heightened concerns around the ability to frequency cap ad exposures to a given individual. Overexposure, after all, creates both a bad user experience and significant waste in ad spend.

But let us not forget: Frequency capping is a byproduct of cookie-based retargeting. It wasn't until this approach was employed that the repeated intrusion of ads into a person's digital world, regardless of context, became highly objectionable. That's because, so often, cookie-targeted ads crop up next to content and experiences that are entirely irrelevant to what's being advertised. Thus, advertisers sought to minimize, or "cap," such occurrences.

With contextual advertising, this concern vanishes. That's because users are being targeted according to moments that matter to each user rather than identifiers like cookies. And when the moments are relevant to the product or service being advertised, repetition becomes less obtrusive and more impactful. We see this in both upper-funnel and lower-funnel efforts, where repeated exposure to contextually relevant ads delivers greater performance than standard cookie-based audience-targeting tactics.

Avoiding cannibalization within brand portfolios


Beyond eliminating common frequency-capping concerns, contextual advertising also helps companies better manage advertising experiences across their brand portfolios. We see this most commonly among CPG companies, many of which offer multiple SKUs within a category (e.g., alcohol brands, coffee brands, soft drink brands, household products and other consumer goods).

With cookie-based targeting, these companies are in constant danger of cannibalizing their own efforts by having their own brands bid against each other to reach the same consumers. But it's not just CPG brands that run into such challenges. Pretty much any company with a multi-tiered brand or product selection is in danger of usurping its own efforts with a cookie-based approach.

Contextual advertising provides a natural way to alleviate these concerns by allowing companies to target ads according to brand-relevant moments versus a boilerplate audience set. For example, the type or brand of drink a company would recommend to a person would change according to whether that person was sitting down to read the newspaper in the morning, versus whether they were settling down to unwind after a long day of work. Contextual advertising can deliver on those moment-based nuances and thereby eliminate competitive concerns within a company's brand portfolio.

A more-appropriate proxy for audience


Finally, let's talk about both cookies and context as a proxy for brand audiences. On the one hand, with cookies, the strength of that proxy has been declining for years and will soon drop off altogether. On the other hand, with context, the strength of the proxy becomes stronger every day — and that's because the contextual advertising realm continues to innovate.

With context, there are a number of levers that can be pulled to increase the relevance and intent of the audience a brand is seeking. One of them is recency of content. In recent years, technology enhancements have enabled content to be classified in near real-time, allowing advertisers to message against the freshest articles and videos. And indeed, we find that the higher-quality audiences are also the ones who tend to be consuming content around their interests in the timeliest fashion, which translates to higher-intent audiences for advertisers.

The same can be applied to other contextual levers, such as the images that appear within news and feature articles. Content featuring high-quality imagery tends to be consumed by more-avid fans of the content category, translating into higher-quality prospects for brands. And increasingly, advertisers are able to target their ad spends through such lenses. This is yet another way that contextual continues to increase its value to advertisers at the same time that the value of audience identifiers is on the decline.

As the industry obsesses over the creation of new identifiers and bespoke means of recognizing people across digital environments, many marketers have been looking to contextual advertising as means of taking a step back and finding stability in tried-and-true tactics. But in reality, contextual shouldn't be seen as a stopgap or a retreat to the familiar. It should be the area in which our industry pushes the boundaries hardest.


The views and opinions expressed are solely those of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the ANA or imply endorsement from the ANA.


Raman Sidhu is SVP of EMEA sales and global partnerships at Verve Group.