Neustar is working within its own ecosystem, Infutor via a partnership, but their perspectives share much in common.

In the first part of this feature, we talked about how the blocking of third-party cookies by Chrome, following in the footsteps of Safari and Mozilla Firefox, could be disruptive to addressable media – that is, to the possibility of targeting and re-targeting users with relevant ads, responsive to intent signals generated by browsing behavior.

The broad coalition of affected parties, including advertising, agencies, tech vendors and publishers, have formed the Partnership for Responsible Addressable Media to establish standards that take account both of the need to be able to advertise to defined audiences and the consumer’s concern for privacy. In the mean-time, individual vendors are looking for ways to track identities in a cookieless world.

Related: The death of cookies and the threat to digital marketing

The companies discussed below represent two of the many vendors tackling this challenge. Neustar is working within its own ecosystem, Infutor via a partnership, but their perspectives share much in common.

The fabric of persistent identity

Last week, we reported on the launch by Neustar, a broad-based identity resolution and marketing management platform, of Fabrick—described by Neustar as a multi-faceted alternative to reliance on perishable identifiers like third-party cookies. We asked Devon DeBlasio, product marketing director, to talk about where Neustar is now, and where they’re headed.

“We already have a federated identity graph,” he said, “which takes both deterministic and probabilistic data, combines them together, and evaluates linkage strength. We look at the strength of the linkage to determine a quality score.” While deterministic— i.e. verified—data is important, it can mislead, he explained. Different members of the household could be using the same device, or a user could be logging into another user’s wifi. “With probabilistic, there’s a lot of it, so it gives us a good general evaluation as to whether [the deterministic data] is correct, based on time, day, and the distance between one engagement and another.”

This information from the identity graph can be used to support how  and when an advertiser is going to be engaging with a user, and what type of message should be sent. The approach is less precise, of course, than targeting based on tracked online behavior. “It’s not clear-cut, it never will be,” DeBlasio admitted. “But we don’t want it to be – the more complex the network of integrations that is required, the more privacy-safe and anonymized the data can be.” Neustar’s role is to integrate all this information, look at the environment in which the ad or experience is being served, and make sure the environment is all connected in the right way in a privacy-safe environment.

That may seem a viable alternative to online tracking, but it surely doesn’t mean third-party cookies won’t be missed? “When third-party cookies go away, the programmatic eco-system is going to completely change,” said DeBlasio. “We are betting on more interpersonal relationships between a brand and a consumer. The more you remove a lot of these secret players between a brand and a consumer, the better the experience is going to be—and also more transparent that handshake of value is going to be. There will be a definite decline in the amount of individuals to be targeted on a mass scale, but what will replace that is higher quality direct engagement with consumers who are actually opting in to be engaged with.”

DeBlasio also foresees a shift in advertising spend. “There’s going to be a change in the percentage of investment brands make in certain types of media—probably more investment in email, direct mail, call centers, even out-of-home and TV, because there you don’t rely on perishable identifiers, you rely on some sort of value exchange or some sort of direct, opt-in experience.”

The emphasis on the value of first-party data has been increasing in recent years, accelerated by regulations like GDPR and the CCPA. The loss of third-party cookies will only accelerate the trend further.

“We’ve seen the importance of first-party data become monumental over the past five years,” he said. “Brands come to us with the proprietary—their competitive advantage— and our goal is to enrich, maximize, and amplify the quality of their data; to control and secure the data, but make it so it’s still usable to grow business.” Pivoting towards the consumer that has raised his or her hand makes sense to DeBlasio. “Why would a brand start wasting their dollars on someone who doesn’t want to be advertised to?”

This doesn’t mean that Fabrick is intended to provide a single solution to the identity challenge, more a new way of approaching it. “We’re pushing for a new definition for identity, which is going to be unique to an individual brand and their close partners, and the consumer base they surround themselves with, based on the type of information they collect for individuals.”

Brands are still in the learning phase

The consumer data and identity resolution platform largely shares Neustar’s outlook, but it also exemplifies the approach of increasing its value to brands through partnership, in this case with first-party data-based CDP Amperity.

Infutor aggregates third-party data, but without reliance on cookies, as VP of marketing Michelle Tilton explained. “We have an internal identity graph which we compile from hundreds of different sources, but what we really focus on is first-party data enablement—helping brands makes the best use of their first-party data by supplementing it with our third-party data.”

Infutor collects data from publicly available sources and sources with consumer opt-in. “We do not collect information unbeknownst to consumers,” said VP of product Brian Burke. Infutor does not sell data or audiences—it ingests first-party data from its clients, or from a partner like Amperity, and enriches it with third-party data.

Burke recognizes the same tectonic shift described by DeBlasio. “We are starting to see a shift in the marketplace. Organizations are starting to see the light that they are going to need to invest in and nurture their first-party data. We are also seeing an increase in organizations that need to enrich, verify and maintain their first-party data sets. From our perspective that really is the key to surviving what is going to unfold in the digital landscape, with [the disappearance of] cookies, and future restrictions which may come about.”

Are we really about to see the end of tracking? “I think it is going to be a real challenge, and if you look at some moves Apple has made in particular, and the CCPA, there’s a move afoot—beyond cookies—to be very transparent about getting consent from the consumer for use of their data. This is going to force organizations to make sure they have an established good relationship with their consumers.”

The impact of the coming changes might not yet be fully recognized by brands, said Tilton. In a recent webinar, Infutor polled the audience on the deprecation of cookies. “42% of more than 200 participants said they had not yet shifted away from third-party cookies,” said Tilton, “and we had a mix of service providers, martech providers, and brands.” Tilton also underscored the growing importance of first-party, opted-in relationships between consumers and brands. “Exacerbated by COVID, a lot of consumers pulling back on spending,  and brands have definitely seen a need to be much more in tune with their current customers.”

The cookieless future

It sounds at times as if these alternatives to cookies will mean business as usual. But that really doesn’t seem to be the case. Users are so accustomed to personalized online experiences, driven by their own behavior, that they may not be prepared for the cookieless future. (One way to get a taste for it is to browse “incognito” and witness the irrelevant content and ads that get served to anonymous website visitors.)

Anudit Vikram, SVP Product at programmatic platform MediaMath, admitted that in the absence of first-party data, it will be hard to substitute for third-party cookies. In other words, if a user visits a web-site and doesn’t identify himself or herself, then it’s hard to see how they can be identified or tracked. “Not from a behavioral perspective, in a purely anonymous context,” said Vikram. He has seen some proposals for cohort tracking, where individuals would opt in to the cohort and remain anonymous.

This doesn’t stop the service contextual advertising. If an anonymous visitor is consuming content on football or recipes or books, it’s possible to infer very broadly which ads might be relevant to them. But there’s nothing new about that. Advertising soap in the commercial breaks on soap operas: that’s contextual advertising. Here’s what’s missing. If a user works as a technology purchaser, but also likes to read about football, IBM are no longer going to know to serve an ad to that user alongside the football content.

The online experience is going to change. “Our minds have been trained to get what we want,” said Vikram. “If you’re on Facebook and start seeing articles that actually don’t mean much to you, you have the reaction that there’s something wrong. When you get something different, it’s abrasive. You’d better be prepared, as the cookie goes away, you’re going to see a lot more of that.”