Back in olden days — when a publication was digital only in that its paper pages required dexterous digits to turn them — publishers, advertisers, and marketers relied on simple basics to make their decisions.
Subscription rates and newsstand sales, surveys and focus groups … even the guesstimated pass-along rate was at least an accepted standard in industry circles.
With so much more capable of being calculated digitally, the opportunity to segment groups, track and accommodate visitor and reader habits, and be hyper-focused in outreach efforts is a boon for many businesses.
Tracking the Trackers
That opportunity brought along digital tools and techniques now considered essential for many to conduct business, but renewed privacy concerns are inviting not only deeper, scrutinizing looks at those techniques, but sweeping changes by tech companies who essentially hold the keys to the toolbox.
In this blog, we’ll look at some of the modern, more common tracking practices, the takeaway if these techniques are ultimately taken away, and what those working in the publishing industry can do to craft and execute even more effective outreach plans in their wake.
If you like visiting a beloved site and seeing the items you previously left in your cart still there, or seeing your delivery address autocomplete in the contact information fields, then you have cookies to thank.
Technically just tiny bits of code that work behind the scenes of your web browser, these data-collectors pick up the crumbs you may or may not have even known you were leaving behind and use them to customize your experience.
In the hands of advertisers and marketers, these cookies help pinpoint the ideal audiences so their targeted content is delivered most effectively. They may not know your personal information, but with cookies in their arsenal, they might know your general demographic, interests, and online behavior.
And with that, web browsers began prioritizing privacy. A number of web browsers had already blocked tracking cookies, but it was in 2021, when Google announced that its Chrome browser wouldn’t be creating or utilizing any alternative substitutes either — putting priority on first-party data that users provide directly, of which Google has plenty — that the marketing, advertising, and publishing industries really took pause.
Not that cookies didn’t have their faults. Again, some browsers were already blocking ads in ways that were weakening cookies as a tool. Also, unifying data from one site or platform to another isn’t a given; according to numbers from Invoca, cookie match rates range somewhere between 40 to 60%.
“Bad targeting from fragmented cookies is a big waste of money and annoys people with irrelevant ads,” says Invoca. “In addition to this, cookies are device-based, so they can’t help you when someone goes from desktop to mobile or switches computers or browsers, further fracturing the customer journey.”
The Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) is Apple’s annual event where presentations about products such as the iPhone, introductions to features such as the App Store, and announcements about processor transitions have all been made. But not since Apple held an actual funeral for its OS 9 almost two decades ago has the normally celebratory WWDC brought such somber news to some.
But first, a tutorial.
When marketers or advertisers send out an email, one of the metrics used to gauge its success is the open rate. Once an email is opened, invisible pixels within the message automatically load, informing the sender and potentially sending information such as IP address and other browser information. (Some call these tags “web beacons.”)
The percentage of those who open the email (out of those who were sent the email) is known as the open rate, and its usefulness in measuring a message’s engagement, maintaining an active database, and knowing who to re-engage with is quite valuable in any industry.
So when Apple announced at its WWDC 2021 that its new Mail Privacy Protection option would prevent senders from knowing when an email was opened within their Mail app, marketers and advertisers could be forgiven for feeling as if the sky was falling. And they weren’t the only ones.
Publishers also felt like this would be a threat to their new business models. “There are very legitimate concerns about some distant server being notified whenever you open their email,” writes Joshua Benton of Nieman Lab. “But on the other hand, it’s kind of the bedrock of the newsletter industry.”
Benton points to Litmus numbers showing that 93.5% of all email opens that take place on mobile come in the Apple Mail platform, while 58.4% of desktop opens happen on Apple Mail on Mac.
As a tracking technique, fingerprinting comes down to building a profile around a user’s device, operating system, and other bits of browser information that wouldn’t appear to be valuable on their own, but, when put together, could be used for segmenting purposes or even to accurately identify a user.
And again, it’s Apple’s safeguards casting a shadow over the practice.
For now, as Digiday reports, Apple has told advertising executives that fingerprinting is off-limits, but, from all indications, have yet to enforce the policy … perhaps because their new Private Relay feature would nip the issue in the bud. Specifically, it would redirect web traffic through different servers, which “renders a person’s IP address useless for fingerprinting.”
Cookies and digital fingerprints can both be used to identify users visiting a website, but more and more regulations are being implemented to give visitors a better handle on — if not an explicit say in — what is tracked.
In Europe, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) requires that a site gets permission from the user before using any personal-data tracking techniques. Similarly, California’s CCPA (short for California Consumer Privacy Act) stipulates that sites must inform users of the types of data that’s collected and why.
Are there better means and solutions? Absolutely.
Now that the concerns have been addressed and your fears have been triggered, it’s time to look at a landscape without these tracking techniques. To many, the outlook isn’t entirely bad.
And to those willing to put in the work, the outlook may actually be better.
Story Views and Accountable Numbers
In noting that email-based publishing has been one of the few “bright spots for journalism in recent years,” The Verge’s Casey Newton seemed optimistic after speaking with both publishing and advertising insiders. “Writers can triangulate reader engagement by plenty of metrics that are still available to them, including the views their stories get on the web, the overall growth of their mailing list, and — most meaningful of all — the growth of their revenue.”
Newton quotes Alex Kantrowitz, author of the ad-supported newsletter Big Technology, as saying, “The advertising industry has addicted itself to tracking, prioritizing bottom of the funnel metrics at the expense of great content and creative. It’s tragic … and it’s why people hate advertising and ad companies.”
Instead of pixel-based tracking, Kantrowitz used reader surveys to identify his premium audience. “Pixel blocking makes placements like this more valuable and gives quality email newsletters a leg up on the junk clogging most people’s inboxes,” he told Newton.
In their postmortem of third-party cookies, Hubspot recommends that marketers and advertisers also look at older strategies.
“While third-party data allowed you to place ads directly in front of people who matched certain user profiles, contextual advertising allows you to circulate PPC ads on websites that rank for similar keywords as your ad. This way, if you’re selling sports apparel, your PPC ad could show up on sports-oriented websites.”
More of a proposed approach than a practice at this point, the Federated Learning of Cohorts’ idea of targeting groups with shared interests rather than individuals could be one that takes off. Technically, it would involve an algorithm that crawls user data with the intent of clustering those with similar interests. That way, individual data could be hidden “in the crowd” and ultimately ignored as the flock as a whole gets relevant content.
In the end, all hope will not be lost if and when standard trackers go by the wayside. If anything, the techniques that emerge will be all the better as they isolate the most engaged of users as well as value their privacy.
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