At the beginning of 2020, the Google Chrome team announced an earth-shattering change for digital advertising:
By 2022, Chrome will cease supporting third-party cookies — the technology that underpins online advertising as we know it today.
While first-party cookies restrict tracking to the domain that drops the cookie, third-party cookies allow user tracking across multiple websites. Most of modern digital marketing is based on these third-party cookies, allowing advertisers and advertising technology companies to understand more about users and deliver ads based on that information.
Today’s ad-funded content model is centered on the value of this information exchange. Users “pay” for free content on publishers’ websites with information that allows advertisers to serve them targeted ads.
But privacy concerns about ways that companies can track users without their knowledge have become the driving force behind Safari, Firefox, and now Chrome removing this functionality entirely.
Unfortunately, small independent publishers feel the biggest impact of these changes
The removal of third-party cookies has a limited impact on advertising within large platforms like Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Pinterest — walled gardens where users log in to accounts and accept detailed terms and conditions around data usage.
Large publishers with paid subscriptions and many logged-in users (for example, The New York Times) also have less to lose when third-party cookies go away.
Smaller independent publishers face the largest obstacles in figuring out how to sustain content creation once the foundation of online advertising crumbles.
And that’s where we have been focusing heavily.
We’re focused on a number of initiatives to support the open web and make sure that publishers can continue to run their dream businesses in the future.
We’ve joined the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), and we’re partnering with industry-leading email identity providers, and other initiatives we’ll be able to share more about in the future. We’re not putting all our eggs in one basket — we’re parallel-pathing multiple solutions for publishers.
Initiative 1: The Privacy Sandbox & the W3C
When Firefox and Safari removed third-party cookies, they didn’t provide an alternative for advertisers. As a result, CPMs and RPMs plummeted on those browsers — one reason publishers see so much variation in the value of individual posts based on where the traffic is coming from.
And because these other browsers have taken this stance, Google has essentially been forced to remove third-party cookies as well.
Thankfully, the Chrome team is at least working to offer a replacement for third-party cookies. They’ve created a raft of proposals called the Privacy Sandbox, intended to give advertisers the same capabilities as today but in a privacy-preserving way.
While this sounds promising in principle, we’re not in the clear yet.
The W3C attempts to consolidate industry feedback — but is dominated by browsers, not publishers
The team working on Google Chrome and the Privacy Sandbox is intentionally kept very separate from the Google Ads team. They don’t directly talk to advertisers or publishers, so they represent a huge company’s perspective and don’t necessarily understand how smaller companies or the rest of the ecosystem operates.
To help bring in additional perspectives and feedback, Google is using the W3C as a neutral forum. The W3C was founded by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, best known as the inventor of the World Wide Web, and is the standards organization that continues to govern everything to do with the web. Web standards like HTML and HTTPS come directly from this organization.
Today, the organization is made up of dozens of subgroups — and it’s largely dominated by browser teams with a bone to pick with advertising. A huge trade group dominated by people who don’t understand or like advertising results in a steep hill to climb for a Privacy Sandbox solution that actually benefits publishers.
That’s where we come in.
We’re representing the voice of independent publishers in the W3C
In 2020, we became the first and only ad management company to join the W3C.
AdThrive/CafeMedia team members are participating in a number of the subgroups, contributing feedback to the proposals, and putting forth some of our own proposals as well — and Don Marti joined the team in October 2020 to focus all his energies on representing publishers in the W3C.
We’re not just waiting to adopt what Chrome decides with the Privacy Sandbox. We’re actively engaging with them on creating standards to help independent publishers.
It’s been a grueling process so far, but we’re committed to representing your interests and making sure you have a strong voice in these critical decisions that determine the future of your business.
Initiative 2: Email identity solutions
We’re not content to leave solutions in the hands of other industry groups — we’re also pursuing a path that keeps much more control in YOUR hands.
In a world without third-party cookies, email addresses can form the basis for a unique and privacy-conscious identifier that advertisers can use to target users.
What is an “email identity” solution?
When a user types an email address into a website using this type of identity solution, the system hashes their email address, using an algorithm that converts it into a unique identifier.
The identifier can’t be reverse-engineered back into an email address — the ID is now a completely anonymous way to associate a user who types an email address on one site to a user who types the same email address on another site.
If the hashed email addresses match, the system knows it’s the same user.
For example, if a user buys a pair of shoes on ExampleShoeStore.com, they input their email address as part of the purchase experience.
If a fictional AdThrive publisher, ExampleShoeBlog.com, has the same user signed up for a newsletter, the system finds matching identifiers — and ExampleShoeStore.com can buy an ad targeting that user via AdThrive.
We’ve partnered with major technology companies to build the foundation for these hashed email systems for AdThrive publishers
We’re working with ID5 on a number of fronts to get more advertisers and publishers to use their platform (AdWeek covered our partnership with ID5 here).
We’re also working closely with industry-leader LiveRamp on their Authenticated Traffic Solution product (here’s a panel our team recently did with LiveRamp, USA Today, and Digiday), and we have a number of other in-the-works partnerships that we’ll announce in the coming months.
We’re starting early
For email matching to become a viable solution in the long run, we’ll need publishers with growing email subscription lists — and we’ll need advertisers who want to buy ad inventory based on this form of user identity.
Both need to happen at the same time, which always creates a bit of a “which comes first, the chicken or the egg?” problem since this technology is very new and not widely adopted by advertisers or publishers yet. If buyers don’t see any inventory available with associated email IDs, they won’t bother setting up ad campaigns.
We’re excited for AdThrive publishers to be among the first using these new systems so we can lead the charge into the future.
How can AdThrive publishers participate?
AdThrive Email Identity is available today to all AdThrive publishers. We’re working with each AdThrive publisher on an opt-in basis, to convert email addresses you’re already gathering on your sites into these hashed identifiers.
Wherever you already capture emails (e.g., for newsletter signup, commenting, forum login, etc.), we can hash and securely share them with our partners to use to match with advertisers. The email addresses themselves are never exposed to anyone or used for anything except creating this unique identifier for advertising purposes, so your subscribers will never receive an email from anyone but you.
You always own your email subscriber list and can continue to use it exactly the same way you do now — to build that direct connection with your readers.
Email identity is simply a way to create more value from these email subscriptions, without sending anything new to users or revealing them to anyone else.
We don’t expect to see any incremental revenue from adopting this for the time being, but early participation will help us test and implement the best long-term solution for a future where this type of identifier is exponentially more valuable.
If you’d like to participate, fill out this form to opt in, and we’ll turn on email identity for your site. As easy as that!
If you have questions, you can head to the AdThrive Email Identity FAQs for more information.
There’s more coming down the pipeline as well
These are just two of the major initiatives in the works, with plenty more happening behind the scenes over here.
We’re coordinating with major publishers, advertisers, and advertising technology firms to make sure that AdThrive publishers are best prepared for the “post-cookie world”. Expect more announcements in the future as our team pioneers new technologies and approaches.
There’s a lot to be done, but we’re in a strong position that allows us to invest heavily in the future of independent publishing — so AdThrive publishers continue to reap best-in-class revenue, regardless of the ups and downs of the advertising world.