Our Industry’s Efforts to Solve the Identity Crisis Are Grossly Misdirected

Today’s industry trades are clogged with speculation and solutions addressing the forthcoming upheaval of the digital identity landscape. Unfortunately, little of the discussion and proposed paths forward are focused on mobile apps, the environment in which the loss of consumer targeting capabilities is going to be most devastating.

If you look at macro trends within the digital advertising landscape, two truths quickly reveal themselves:

  1. Consumers continue to spend more of their time in mobile environments, with mobile having now trumped desktop to claim the majority (55%) of time spent online.
  2. Of that majority of time spent in mobile, most of it is being spent in apps (with some portion of the time spent allocated to embedded mobile browsers, as the distinction between app and browser time continues to blur).

These shifts in how consumers are spending their media time are well established and ongoing. So why, as our industry faces a period of fundamental reinvention in terms of how we communicate with consumers, is so much of our energy focused on replacing technology (i.e., cookies) that’s not even relevant to the in-app environment? 

The Impact of Lost Mobile Identifiers

When it comes to the ever-more-important mobile advertising landscape, Apple’s deprecation of IDFA with iOS 14 is really just the beginning. In relatively short order, Google is expected to follow Apple’s lead and eventually deprecate its own mobile device ID (GAID) as well. In other words, at some point, regardless of device type, nearly every app will have to ask for users’ explicit consent to use their data.

Up until now, IDFA and GAID have provided common communication frameworks among networks, DSPs, SSPs, advertisers, publishers, and mobile measurement partners, serving as the connecting tissue of data in the mobile ecosystem. These shared IDs made it possible for ad tech players to track users across apps, measure marketing campaign success, and execute on retargeting needs. With only 10-20% of users expected to opt in to ad tracking with Apple’s IDFA, restrictions on these identifiers are going to affect how advertisers identify, target, and measure their mobile campaigns. 

However, just because certain practices have become status quo doesn’t mean they are the only viable solutions for the future. So what should in-app advertising look like in a privacy-first world? This is where a new breed of on-device audience solutions is going to come into play. 

What On-Device Audiences Will Mean for Advertisers

It’s become quite clear that our industry requires a privacy-focused means of continuing to deliver relevant ads to users within in-app environments, without relying on mobile device identifiers. This is possible through on-device solutions, which can generate audiences at the device level and make the audience segments — rather than the individuals themselves — available for targeting. 

On-device audiences solve for the privacy challenges associated with mobile identifiers while still having the potential to infer characteristics such as age, gender, interests, and others with a high degree of accuracy. These anonymized audiences, which can be layered on top of authenticated audiences (i.e., the 10-20% of users who opt in to data sharing), are informed by a variety of privacy-friendly signals, including:

  • Device signals: Device model, location, storage size, input languages, etc. 
  • App context signals: Content category, app, developer domain, session time, content age ratings, etc.
  • Ad context signals: Ad category, time on screen, etc.

Ultimately, the user data never leaves the device, making on-device audiences a useful way of targeting without the need to access personal information. This approach increases the scale of addressable audiences while ensuring high match rates — all without IDFA or other mobile identifiers. 

Measurement and Attribution

As we move forward into a world without mobile identifiers as we’ve come to understand them, we’re also going to have to reconsider how we measure and think about marketing success. Without a doubt, some measurement components will also shift to the device, while others can be aggregated off the device. Ultimately, measurement and attribution in the future will be less about short-sighted direct-response metrics and more about a nuanced approach to “completing the circle” through incrementality, creative, and media mix models. 

As the digital ecosystem adapts to privacy initiatives and regulations globally, we must build future-focused solutions for a world where anonymized targeting will soon be the norm. In doing so, we need to respect and recognize the reality of today’s consumers, both in terms of their propensity to spend their time in-app and their desire to control their own privacy preferences.

The beauty of on-device audiences is that they’re compatible with this Age of Consumer Choice. Some mobile users will consent to be tracked (i.e., stay “authenticated”) for the value they get in exchange. But many will not. And that’s a choice our industry needs to respect above all. 

Ionut Ciobotaru is Chief Product Officer at Verve Group.

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