Why the End of Cookies Creates a Problem for Ad Frequency Capping

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We’re living through the biggest point of change ever in the history of advertising. The withdrawal of third-party cookies from Google’s Chrome web browser and the upcoming launch of iOS 14.5 from Apple will fundamentally restrict the industry’s ability to target individual users and track cross-site activity.

Without third-party cookies and with fewer individual identifiers from iPhones, aspects of digital marketing that we have come to take for granted and barely think about are about to be seriously impacted. One of these is frequency capping.

Why challenges to frequency capping matter

Frequency capping ensures that the same user or the same device can only be served the same ad a specified number of times, depending on the desired level of exposure. This is now a standard feature on almost every DSP and media plan. 

Unfortunately, traditional methods of delivering frequency capping rely heavily on exactly the sort of cookies and personal identifiers that are currently being phased out. Frequency capping as precisely as we’ve always done it, e.g., saying I only want to show Customer A seven ads across the life of this campaign, is about to become impossible at the sort of scale to which advertisers have become accustomed. 

The impending disruption of frequency capping is important because studies have shown that being exposed to the same ad repeatedly can leave a consumer with negative sentiment toward a brand.

Introducing ‘flexi-capping’

At Blis, our approach to frequency capping, which we’re calling flexicapping, is based on using whatever user ID signals (or ‘identifiers’) we still have access to and layering it with other contextual data in the public domain (e.g. time of day, weather conditions, shopping records) in order to achieve the sort of scale advertisers demand. In the first instance, where we still have the green-light to use opted-in device specific data, we’ll use it. 

The next class of identifiers we use are publisher-specific or site-specific IDs. These publisher-specific identifiers can still be used to uniquely identify a device, but only within the scope of a single publisher or a publisher group. For example, if you’re playing Angry Birds, your device will have a unique identifier, but it will be only available for Angry Birds and its publisher. When you use a different app or publisher, you will have a different unique identifier. Those identifiers are specifically introduced as a fallback option whenever we are not able to see a device ID or third-party cookie.  

A further class of identifier is the IP address, which allows us to limit the number of ads that we show to an individual household or commercial location. It makes sense to use these identifiers as they are unlikely to be affected by Google or Apple changes in the future. They also allow advertisers to maintain a high level of control over ad delivery and limit over-exposure. 

How flexi-capping meets the moment

With so much going on at the moment, marketers could be forgiven for overlooking the upcoming disruption to frequency capping. However, it’s widely accepted that consumers dislike the over-rotation and repetition of any individual ad. Indeed, studies have shown that being exposed to the same ad over and over again can leave a consumer with negative sentiment towards a brand forever.

It’s important for brands to establish an alternative approach to frequency capping before the final demise of third-party cookies. While web browsers such as Safari and Firefox have already outlawed the use of third-party cookies, the fact that Chrome has more than 60% of the market has allowed some agencies to simply divert budget there and pretend that the world wasn’t changing. Time is fast running out to recognize the new reality.

The industry-wide conversation around frequency capping still has to happen, but the approach outlined above offers a sensible way forward for brands and their advertising partners. The suggested approach to frequency capping, based on layering the tiers of identity that we still have sight of, is in tune with the wider privacy-first agenda of the online industry and its regulators. Flexi-capping fully respects current and incoming privacy and platform regulations while allowing the flexibility and scale that brand advertising campaigns demand.

It’s time to think about your post-cookie approach to ad frequency capping.

Gil Larsen is Vice President, Managing Director, at Blis US.