This is my first attempt to write an opinion article. I had it in my mind for some time, but the sparkle was a question during my talk at the London Analytics Labs. One attendee asked me about the future of on-line advertising if 3rd party cookies and/or ads were blocked from all browsers. So, this is my point of view.
I must admit that I endorse the activities of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. When I read the articles in their blog, I truly believe that most of the causes that they support are good for all of us. However, there is one area, which I do not agree with the EFF: tracking cookies. We are all aware of the impact of Safari browsers on on-line advertising: 3rd party cookies are blocked by default, virtually nobody changes this setting and, as a consequence, it is impossible to create targeted ads for this browser. In the last few years, another actor has emerged, which is causing a great impact on on-line advertising: ad blockers.
Many, like the EFF, will contend that ad blockers or, at least, blocking 3rd party cookies are good for users, as it preserves the privacy. In theory, this sounds like a good idea. But, I do not agree for a number of reasons.
We all want a free Internet. In fact, a big percentage of the population believes that everything in the Internet is (or should be) free. It has been proven that very few people are willing to pay for contents. Most newspapers are struggling to cover the costs; on-line music services find it very hard, if not impossible, to survive; adult entertainment actresses even actively shout against free videos. So far, only few companies have been able to make a living from subscriptions. Without on-line advertising, how are most content producers going to earn their well deserved revenue
It is true that by blocking 3rd party cookies, banners can still be shown. But we also know that generic, non-targeted ads make very little impact on the visitors. In fact, many people are blind to ads. As a consequence, unless we allow for good quality, targeted ads to be shown on publisher websites, many content producers will not make enough money to live and will have to look for a different job.
Finally, if we keep on following this trail of blocking ads or 3rd party cookies, we will have a smaller free Internet, precisely the opposite of what we want to achieve. Some publishers have decided to take a different approach: they include ad-blockers detectors in the websites and do not allow the visitor into the content until they remove the ad-blocker. It might be too extreme but, what would you do if your clients stopped paying you?
I cannot speak for other DMPs, but I can assure you that Adobe takes very seriously the concept of privacy. We are not allowed to ingest any PII in Audience Manager. Any piece of information that could be loosely related to a person must be removed or anonymised. If I had all the DMP data in front of me, there is no way I could identify a visitor using just that data. Only the NSA and its illegal methods can deanonymise a visitor.
Even if I could, somehow, analyse the data and be able to identify a user, it would be too expensive for any practical purposes, other than for illegal activities like harassing, stalking or blackmailing. The whole purpose of using a DMP, in fact, is to have a machine, not a person, compute which is the best ad for a particular visitor.
Another typical argument is that companies do not care about privacy and want to squeeze the visitor no matter how. I can safely say that this is not true. All the clients I have worked with, have never shown an interest in circumventing the law. In fact, some of my customers are even more concerned about privacy than Adobe.
As I have mentioned, 3rd party cookies are at the core of on-line advertising. By blocking them, we could be promoting other mechanisms to identify visitors, mechanisms that are clearly more evil than simple cookies. I am not going to explain in detail this mechanisms: super-cookies, device fingerprinting, canvas fingerprinting…
I believe that it is better to rely on cookies, which is something we know how to deal with and how they work. Cookies can be easily controlled and browsers provide tools to create, edit and delete cookies selectively. I would not want these other mechanism, which cannot always be controlled by the browsers, to rule in the on-line ad landscape. We would be more exposed without any protection.
All my previous comments should not be taken as an endorsement to current ad strategies. I am sure many of you (as I do) get very annoyed with some aggressive techniques, like pop-ups, pop-unders, screen hijacking, loud noises… In this circumstances, I understand that someone would want to install an ad-blocker.
Advertisers and ad networks also should not fall into the temptation of aggressive advertising. If they want to survive in the long term, ad designers will have to become more imaginative and research for more intelligent ways of sending the message and reaching the right audience. Those of you who, like me, have been surfing the Net for a very long time (I started 20 years ago), will remember banners from 15 years ago that could make your eyes bleed. Fortunately, those ads are not to be seen any more.
I have also noticed, in most of the instances, that the advertisers are more and more cautious, keeping away of aggressive techniques. In fact, although I might be wrong, I tend to have a feeling that these offending ads tend to come from scammers, not from high profile companies.
Whatever happens in the next few years, I recommend that you keep your eyes wide open. I am sure that there are going to be changes in the technology, one way or another, which will also modify how ads are produced, sold, shown… Obviously, these changes will have a great impact on our jobs and we all have to be ready to adapt to the changes.