The Cookie is (Still) Dead: Device IDs and the Future of Mobile Marketing

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It’s not a new story. Technology experts have been saying it for years: the cookie is dead.

The cookie is dead because mobile is the user’s primary experience, and cookies pose all kinds of obstacles when it comes to tracking marketing campaigns in the mobile space — if they even work at all at that task. The marketing ecosystem has evolved, and cookies represent the past. There’s even a new concept out there: the unreachables — mobile-only users — who hardly ever touch a desktop, hardly ever interact with traditional media. No cookies for them.

We are at the dawn of the era of the device ID.

Except, interestingly enough, our industry is still talking about whether or not the cookie is really dead. There are reasons that the conversation continues, of course, but there are also strong reasons to shift our focus in better directions — and, for the health of any given advertising partner, to do so quickly. Let’s look at the case of lingering cookies and at the case for moving beyond them for stronger outcomes overall.

Scale, Connections, Speed, and Cost: Why the Cookie Still Lingers

The cookie is dead. So, why are we still talking about cookies?

First things first, there’s scale. Cookies are stubbornly sticking around because user-attributed, device-ID solutions require some heavy lifting to bring measurement and campaign analysis up to scale. Unless you’re part of the duopoly (or the triopoly, now that Amazon is becoming a major advertising force), you’re bound to grapple with some significant challenges around scale. You might stick to cookies … but you shouldn’t (more on that in a moment).

Then, we have the plumbing. Today, many brands are looking to leverage first-party CRM data using a mix of available identifiers to match, activate, and ultimately drive measurable performance. This means they also have to solve the challenge of aligning data across channels and then connecting that data to real people in a reliable way. In other words, the audiences that premium providers do bring to the table tend to cost more to access, and with the work it takes to match consumers to publishers — and then match advertisers with both in return — all of this becomes a complex equation. It takes both time and mobile expertise, and it costs a bit more because of those factors. Nonetheless, while cookies can be cheaper, they’re not better; the power of the device ID drives better campaign outcomes and measurement.

Mobile can also complicate things for itself when it comes to solving for the inherent difficulties around matching device IDs with events such as visits and transactions. Over the years, our industry has put a lot of focus on building these connections via cookies. As a result, historically, outcomes have included notoriously low CRM match-rates in mobile, and they’ve also shown poor performance due to measurement standards that fail to take the device ID into account.

The irony is that the device ID is the best proxy to a real person that we have today. Device IDs are more persistent than cookies, they have a consistent opt-out for privacy that is native to the device, and, most importantly, an actual person is attached to a device — the ubiquitous smartphone, almost always in our hands and pockets, day and night.

Beyond Cookies: CRM and Mobile as a Direct Connection

All this in mind, there’s a difference between dead — meaning, a thing literally no longer functions at all — and dead, meaning there’s no longer a lot of energy, power, or effect attached to it. When we say cookies are dead, we mean that the beating heart of the industry, the big action, the major moves … they’re no longer about cookies.

Remember, in the early 2000s, when analysts told us that digital advertising would ring the death knell for direct mail? They were mostly right, in that the shift to digital media was inevitable, representing the next step in the evolution of advertising. Does that mean direct mail is never used anymore? No. It means that direct mail as a primary approach to targetable audiences is no longer the first and most common choice.

And so, let’s put real and usable information on the table. Some hybrid cookies-based scenarios will putter along, and some scale-hungry players will stick to old tech for a bit longer, but smart marketers are investing in customer data platforms that are mobile-first, connecting CRM directly to the mobile device either through a brand’s mobile app or household-based matching. That connectivity makes it easier for brands to activate users — it opens pathways to leveraging loyalty apps, wallet, and point-of-sale payment use cases. The connectivity we’re talking about enables future use cases such as augmented-reality experiences and other mobile connected-device opportunities.

With everyone’s eyes on the converged future — a future in which it will be possible to create, plan, and connect all campaigns — a truly mobile-first strategy is the key that unlocks all channels, putting the mobile device at the center of the human experience.

Device IDs will drive this future; cookies will not.

Brian Crook is chief technology officer at Verve. In this role, he leads the organization’s product, technology, and engineering teams. Brian leverages his vast experience — spanning marketing and advertising technology, enterprise software, and information systems development — to build leading-edge products that deliver results for Verve’s publisher, agency, and advertiser clients.