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  • Athina Mallis

Ian James unpacks marketing in the era of the crumbling cookie

With the demise of the cookie, marketers need to rethink how they offer authentic, personalised experiences to customers in brand-safe environments.

Ian James, CEO and co-founder of Silverbullet, speaks with Target Market Podcast Host Athina Mallis about the idea of the 'crumbling' cookie and how marketers can stop their messaging and targeting from coming across as 'creepy' when they engage with customers.

We’re seeing a lot of changes in the data-driven marketing landscape, but the one most talked about is the idea of the ‘crumbling cookie.’ Can you explain what this is and why it’s important for marketers to really understand the 'cookie concept' in today’s digital-first environment?

The crumbling cookie, it's an interesting concept - and it needs to be put into some context. Marketers traditionally have relied on cookies, or third-party data sets from dropping an identifier into consumers browsers, as they browse through the internet. Those cookies have been legislated against by the GDPR asking big questions about the legitimacy of the cookie. They have also been flagged by Apple, Google, and the big tech firms that run our browsers.

In effect, the industry has chosen to 'switch off' the ability for brands to drop those third-party cookies onto consumers. This all means a seismic shift really in the way that brands can connect with consumers and indeed, look at a different way that consumers can protect their own privacy.

The crumbling cookie really is the demise of the last 25 years of data tracking, and the rise of what's coming next. What we'll now see is the predominance of first-party good data and the ability to use that as the primary identifier for consumers out in the broader internet, not just in direct marketing. That brings forth huge opportunities for new and better marketing technologies and advertising technologies that use that data and unlock the flow of data through clients, organisations, and IoT into privacy safe connections with their consumers and customers.

What can marketers and advertisers do to connect with customers in a ‘cookie-less’ era, and how can they engage without coming across as ‘creepy’?

I think it's fair to say that the cookie has always been a bit of a blunt instrument or an inaccurate data instrument. And that's how it can come across as creepy, because you feel the cookie is really to blame for that sense of being 'stalked' by those shoe ads that you looked for, but you didn't really want it or you weren't in the right frame of mind to buy.

The right frame of mind in the right context or the ad being in the right environment is something that cookies have never really been particularly good at recognising. They recognise the individual browser, but not so much the context.

Therefore, starting to look at a cookieless era, we start to rethink the concept of context, and we start thinking about some of the basics of good marketing or good advertising, which is 'the right place at the right time'.

That's a predominance again that we're going to see through the demise of the cookie. We'll see the rise of 'good' first-party data talking to the right people at the right time, in the right environments.

Those environments will be recognised in a context where 'I'm in the right state of mind to engage with the brand', and I'm enjoying 'good old-fashioned marketing of talking to me in the environments that are relevant to the brand and relevant to me.' That's where you see that intersection between content and context.

At Silverbullet, we're in the middle now of developing new tools and capabilities that can help marketers join up all of their data assets, the first-party data they have with context.

It's about recognising contexts where their consumers and customers are spending time out on the open web, where they're happily enjoying their browser experience and can be advertised to in a more meaningful way and effective way. s

So let’s move onto the concept of brand safety - since the pandemic, we’ve seen a big surge in fake news, hate speech, propaganda and other unsafe content across social channels like Facebook and Youtube. How can marketers ensure brand safety comes first, so their messages aren’t associated with this sort of toxic content?

This is the thing all of our clients are asking us about: what do we do when the cookies are gone? That was a question they're asking us 12 years ago: how do we ensure that we do everything from here on out in a brand-safe environment?

We'd rather call it "brand-suitable," because brand safety also has its challenges. If you just move to pure brand safety, then you can often exclude a lot of very valuable contexts or environments that brands can connect with their customers and consumers in a meaningful way. Suitability is much more of a better term that we're talking to our clients about all of our big brand clients. If you look at suitability, what suitability really means is in a polarised world, it's tougher than ever to find a bunch, especially in the news. But in any social environment.

In the age of fake news, covid confusion and hate speech, we're seeing increasingly tough environments for brands to present themselves in a way that's meaningful for their consumer. Brands are super paranoid about getting it right because you don't get a second chance.

Again, we're in the midst of seeing a whole raft of new tools and products coming to market. These solutions look at the context, and how contexts can ensure that that branded content is suitable for that brand, with that customer and consumer at that particular time.

We work with a variety of products such as 4D, which is our brand suitability and contextual targeting tool that we brought to market in 2020. With that tool, we've also partnered with Factmata, which is a good example of a data set that enables contextual tools and brand suitability tools like 4D to identify content that's just not suitable such as fake news, polarised social views and political views.

Factmata enables 4D to enable brands to avoid at all costs and with 100% or 99% accuracy, that the content they'll be shown against is suitable to their brand guidelines and the guidelines that they've set in the 4D contextual tool.

Has the pandemic forced you to think differently about data-driven marketing?

If you step right back from what the COVID pandemic has done for all of us, it's highlighted the importance of changes that are already happening.

In a COVID era, the use of digital is permanent, and part of all of our lifestyles. Therefore, data becomes an even more powerful asset than it possibly was pre-2020. You see a permanent shift of brands having to behave in a way that harnesses that primary asset, that they have the data asset around their customer. It comes back to what we talked about at the top of the conversation, which is, first-party data becomes the predominant data set that every brand needs to nurture in a positive way. It also becomes the foundation upon which they need to build their marketing infrastructures.

We're seeing a huge acceleration in the deployment of martech, in order to put in the infrastructure to allow data to flow around organisations and out into the consumer marketing environments, advertising and direct marketing. Connection points if you like.

More so than ever, data becomes an actual asset class for big brands. I think we'll see the predominance of it is not only a change for marketing, but is this final shift of gears into what we're describing as the roaring 20s. This roaring 20s, where data becomes a fundamental component of the whole business transformation, not just marketing, marketing, being the sort of tip of the spear if you like, but how customer experience goes to the heart of all organisations wrapped around the data capability.

As Silverbullet, we get super excited about unlocking data capability and leveraging brilliant tools like 4D for marketers to use first party data to enable smarter targeting that's not 'creepy.' It's all about context and all about good consumer engagement in contexts and environments where we, as consumers are ready to participate.

What should marketers STOP doing, and what should they START doing?

I think brands need to start adapting, and stop being incremental, stop playing with and isolating data initiatives in organisations. Stop being incremental and start taking some giant leaps - start embracing new opportunities.

Also stop being siloed in organisations and think horizontally across different data elements, be it the traditional marketing and advertising datasets, or customer information in your customer care and ecommerce platforms. You'd be surprised how many brands still struggle to do that.

What excites you most about marketing?

It's this transformational pivot moment, it's this moment in time, that's sort of reset the playing field if you like. Everyone's in it together, which I think is a really big positive of COVID, I hope we can all maintain that.

The business challenge is, how do I reconnect or connect in a more meaningful way with customers, now that that physical interaction has changed forever?

What I get most excited about is that we're in a world that happens to be at the start of a decade. That's kind of neat, in a sense of thinking about how this decade will be different from the last.

That underpinning of a transformative permanent change is probably one of the most exciting things we've had in marketing, since probably the turn of the millennium, when we all sat in the middle of a dotcom bubble, and it was what the internet was going to do for the world. It feels as transformative as that.

But I think this time, this part of evolution is actually about data. How does data come to the fore and become that primary asset for engaging consumers and customers in a more meaningful way? When we start to think about that, we're hopefully going to see better business outcomes and better customer and brand experiences.

Tune into the full episode here.

Target Market, a podcast series by AZK Media, where the world’s most premium thought leaders across technology, marketing and data come together to share their insights. Hosted by Athina Mallis.


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