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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Building your sandcastle in the privacy sandbox

March 9, 2021 | By Joseph Lospalluto, EVP Americas – Smart AdServer@SmartAdServerEN

Last year we warned about the imminent approach of a new consent economy, born out of privacy regulations, that would completely reshape the ad tech ecosystem publishers have used to develop their monetization strategies. To no surprise, it has arrived with consent and first-party data as the new currency. The consumer now has a seat at the table and the ecosystem is experiencing a total rebuild of itself as we speak.

Now that the consumer has a louder voice, and with regulation forcing the issue, the major tech titans are at war with one another to emerge as the frontrunner in establishing privacy enablement. Each one is making attempts to change the game by leveraging their technology to align with the calls for privacy from regulators and consumers alike. Certainly, these concerns are legitimate. However, the outsized influence they have in the space allows them to take a favorable position. In particular, they can corral everyone in their ecosystems into their new privacy sandboxes. 

Apple’s sandbox

Applying Apple’s rules within their ecosystem isn’t new. They were making moves around privacy long before the other tech giants. Publishers felt the loss in monetization when Apple began blocking third-party cookies in Safari. With Apple’s eyes now aimed squarely on the Identifier for Advertisers (IDFA) and strict adherence to the terms of use around it, publishers must adapt to yet another rule change and monetization threat. By controlling a large percentage of a premium market, Apple has the power to make rules everyone will be forced to follow. 

If DSPs believe IDFA is the only and best buying signal, publishers and suppliers will need to prepare to support it to comply with advertiser demand and ensure inventory is eligible for DSPs to bid on. Yes, publishers can still monetize without the IDFA signal. But if a buyer wants to transact utilizing IDFA vs. a publisher’s own first-party data signal, what choice does a publisher really have? 

Google’s sandbox

Google, on the other hand, seemed to hope to ride out the waves of conversation around privacy and didn’t eliminate third-party cookies right away. When it became clear the issue was gaining traction and that regulation loomed, they introduced their own sandbox. Through the introduction of the Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC), Google is essentially proposing privacy policy that ends up favoring their ecosystem more than it already has given their existing ad tech stack dominance around the globe.

With Chrome currently accounting for 46% of browser share and Android accounting for 40% of the mobile operating system market share in the U.S., publishers will find themselves forced to play along yet again to a rule change that they had little influence in formulating. As of this writing, Google will be the one defining the FLoC cohorts (their version of IDFA) and allowing publishers the opportunity to feed their data into the respective cohorts. Peculiarly, they will be the only player able to do cross-site tracking and attribution, leaving publishers with little influence on garnering their fair share. 

As a result of these big tech players calling the shots and the rest of the industry trying to figure out how to play in this new world, other players have also begun building sandboxes. For example, The Trade Desk is working with independent industry organization Prebid.org to introduce a Unified ID 2.0 and Magnite introducing a PARROT proposal. Globally, there are many other ID initiatives also in development as the entire industry tries to figure out how to thrive in these new sandboxes. 

Build your sandcastle 

As with any change made by big tech, it is in the best interests of publishers to adopt an agnostic view in attempting to evolve strategies for each respective sandbox. Regardless of which sandbox you’re playing in, you must build and fortify your own sandcastle.

The first step in doing so is to remember that big tech needs the publisher in this equation. Why? Because the publisher is the one collecting user consent and in control of the first-party data, which are the key components of trade in this consent economy. This is why it’s critical to defend data at all costs and only use it as leverage for garnering a fair share of the transaction with advertisers. 

Creativity rules

With third-party cookies dead and gone, advertisers will still seek to trade around audience and context. With publisher first-party data the most critical and stable component to monetization, developing strategies for understanding and monetizing audiences in a cookieless world remains a priority. 

Publishers will need to leverage new offerings to provide advertiser options in scenarios of consented and non-consented traffic. For example, non-consented traffic can be supplemented by semantic data points or other valuable, non-identifiers. Industry inflection provides an opportunity for publishers and advertisers to come together to discuss how to best reach and speak to the consumer via varying deal types or placements.

Despite the flux around the ecosystem’s evolution, there’s no time to waste in beginning to build your castle to ensure you’re getting your fair share. By remaining engaged and being protective of your data and your partners, you can begin to lay a foundation for establishing your place in the sandbox. As the topic depends on the outcome of future decisions, it’s important to stay informed on its evolution and to ensure your castle is strong enough to withstand any future headwinds. 

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