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Media Maze: The Cookie Conundrum

Media Maze: The Cookie Conundrum Jim Meskauskas

Everywhere you turn, there's another article, conference session, or discussion list about cookies.

With the threat of wide-spread cookie deletion by consumers -- who fear breaches in their computer's security and the invasions of privacy that they believe cookies enable -- the online advertising industry has been scurrying to figure out how to address these concerns without giving up the benefits that the use of cookies provides most companies doing business online.

Publishers use cookies to identify their audiences. Research companies use them to conduct studies and surveys. Online retailers use them to track consumer preferences, and ad servers use them to tabulate impressions served and actions taken. The uses for cookies are legion.

The online advertising industry has spent a good deal of time these last few months talking to itself about the cookie conundrum.

In the small echo chamber where the online ad industry finds itself, the sound of both well-manicured and paper-dry palms brought together in an orgy of hand-wringing has become almost unbearable, drowning out all but the most persistent of voices.

One of these voices has been the fear-mongering, chicken-little consumer representative press -- not to be confused with the voice of the consumer, a largely absent interlocutor in the cookie debate.

The other voice has been the consumer-education advocates.

Fortunately for all of us, the interactive advertising business is replete with intelligent, innovative, and daring people who enthusiastically embrace difficult challenges and revel in finding solutions to seemingly intractable problems.

It is my sincerest hope that some of you out there are reading this now, and can find among the mish-mash of modest proposals the seeds for a solution we can all live with -- both those of us working in this business and the consumer, without whom none of us could be here.

Below I propose six possible means by which to address this important issue. Maybe somewhere in one of them, or by synthesis of several of them, we can figure this out.

Proposal #1: Consumer education

Educating the consumer about cookies has often been proposed as the best way to deal with concerns about cookies. By ensuring that customers understand more about how cookies really work, why they are used, and how the consumer benefits from their use, many believe that the problem will fix itself. The reasoning is that if a person understands what a cookie is and what it is doing on their desktop, she or he will be less apt to block or delete it. At the very least, the person will be able to make an informed decision about what to do about a cookie when confronted by it.

The problem with this is that consumer education programs require resources to deploy that companies aren't always willing to part with. The time and money needed are hard to come by, and volunteerism, though necessary and noble, is rarely sufficient.

Furthermore, consumers don't typically like to be educated. Anti-smoking ad campaigns have been run for decades, and though it could be argued that they have an effect, it's been a slow, slow boil that has taken many years. We don't have years to commit to this kind of effort with cookies. Also, when it comes to technology, consumers are typically impatient with learning more about how it works when all they really want is for it simply to work. Most people don't care how an internal combustion engine works, they just want to know that their car does what it is supposed to do and that it is safe.

Proposal #2: Industry education

This is an interesting idea I'd not thought of until recently, when I met with Bill Day, CEO of WhenU. He suggested that both adware companies and those companies that rely on cookies get out there and educate those who make software that scrub for spyware, adware and cookies.

Being informed about which cookies are "bad" cookies and which are "good" cookies, and showing them how to identify which is which, the makers of anti-spyware and cookie-blocking/cookie-cleaning software can program their products to discern among the "good," the "bad" and the "ugly." When a user runs these programs, those cookies identified as being respectable in origin won't be tagged for quarantine and deletion.

Organizations like Safecount and the Network Advertising Initiative are working to educate consumers, software makers, and even the government.

Proposal #3: Hide the cookie

Some proposals for addressing the cookie issue are based simply on ignoring the consumer's concerns about them.

One possible solution is simply to make the cookie hard to find or impossible to delete entirely.

United Virtualities has introduced PIE, or Persistent Identification Element, which is a program that stores advertisers' cookies in Macromedia Flash's local cache for backup retrieval. This way, if a user deletes cookies from the browser, those cookies will replace themselves from the Flash files.

PIE has been met by some with outrage at the thought that marketers would use technology to bypass the intentional will of users to avoid cookies. Others see it as important to protect users' cookies from being hijacked by unethical marketers using spyware.

Proposal #4: Keep quiet

The biggest reason why consumers feel the way they do about cookies is because we all keep talking about them. Anything that gets so much attention must be worthy of so much attention. The consumer comes across this entire hubbub and figures there must be something to worry about. Perhaps if we just keep quiet and stop talking about cookies all the time, consumers will lose interest. Out of sight (or is that out of "site"?) can equal out of mind.

Proposal #5: Fuggetaboutit!

We could just do away with cookies all together, relying instead on a combination of simple non-cookie-based tracking technology and third-party survey research to plot audience demographics and track activity. Site-side cookie-like technology can identify users by their IP addresses and require registration that can be matched to that IP address from the site. Yes, the web would devolve into a medium that will lose its most potent killer app as an advertising vehicle, namely, its trackability. But, hey, at least no one will be complaining about having cookies anymore.

Instead, consumers will start complaining about how their surfing experience has become so terrible. They will then be begging for cookies to come back.

Problem solved.

Proposal #6: Surrender control to the consumer

What the consumer wants (or thinks he or she wants) is control. Why not just give it to them?

How about a consumer-controlled "universal cookie" in the vein of Passport? Does anyone remember its predecessor, Firefly?

The consumer has a "passport" that contains all kinds of information about him or her as a user. It can track activity, keep record of "favorites," contain demographic information provided by the user -- anything. The granularity of the information can be determined by the consumer, and the release of information at each site visited is at the user's discretion. The consumer can grant "always open" status, for instance, to those sites they trust and regularly visit.

I think we'd all be surprised at how much information the consumer would be willing to share with us if we just put them in charge of that information.

Sure, there will be inaccuracies and imprecision, but the accountability of the web would still far exceed that of any other medium.

The biggest problem in implementing something like this is that such a passport will require standardization, and no one is much interested in relinquishing the possible ownership of a platform, major software companies and publishers wanting their particular format to be in use.

No one knows where all this is going to end up, but I have to believe that with all the brain power this industry has at its disposal, something can be worked out. Maybe it will be one of the above, maybe a combination thereof, or it could be something else altogether.

To paraphrase Shakespeare, "There are more things online, Horatio, than are dreamt of in our philosophy."

Jim Meskauskas is the media strategies editor for iMedia Connection.

Blunder No. 3: Granting Affiliates Carte Blanche
In my prior piece, I pointed out some of the dangers of giving affiliates and partners carte blanche to acquire registrations, distribute samples or responses of any kind through any methods necessary. What tends to happen in these situations is that affiliates and partners set up what I call "webs of plausible deniability," which allow them to use sketchy means to do their acquisition work and blame it on someone else if they get caught.

This piece of spam I recently received from an address at the pointedforce.org domain is a perfect example.

The email above offers a sample of Tide detergent on behalf of QualityHealth, a health-focused destination site that counts many top-tier brands among its advertisers. Pointed Force, according to its website, is an "email consultancy with a specialized expertise in building permission-based email marketing solutions."

I don't have a relationship with either QualityHealth or Pointed Force. Well, at least I don't have a relationship in which I've ever given either one of them my personal email address. Thus, when the Tide sample email arrives in my inbox, it takes away from the brand. The email has Tide branding all over it. I'd postulate that most people getting spam don't much care to figure out who is ultimately responsible for spamming them. Instead, they look at the brand that prominently displays its branding in the email they receive. Yeah, it's a negative brand experience.

Looking at other emails I received from Pointed Force that day (I got six in total), here are some of the other products the company is advertising, in addition to Tide:

  • Virility Fizz, which according to the email's subject line is a "fast acting, sparkling drink for men."

  • Colonex, which if the email promoting it is to be believed, can flush up to 20 lbs. from the colon.

  • Something called MyNewSatelliteTV that lets people watch satellite TV on their computers without adding any hardware.

I won't speculate on who ultimately signs off on using unsolicited email to push Tide samples. It really doesn't matter. What matters is that when agencies and brand managers want to conduct an online sampling campaign, they ought to spend as much time on the details of how and through whom, as they spend on their display media campaigns. And they should let media partners know that going to external resources requires prior approval from the agency or brand.

Blunder No. 4: Failing to Customize Sponsorships

Here is a screenshot I found over at MSN Autos.

Lexus has a persistent sponsorship on this page. You can refresh your browser to your heart’s content and you’ll continue to see these Flash ads for Lexus.

Obviously, the luxury cars area of MSN Autos is a good fit for Lexus. It totally makes sense to have a sponsorship here. You’d think, however, that they could make the sponsorship a lot more engaging by using creative assets other than the ones they use everywhere else.

Take a look at the two rectangle ads here. They’re the exact same ads with the exact same message. In the screenshot, one of sales event invitations has opened up, so they look different in the screen grab, but the two ads are the same.

We know that to get the maximum media value from sponsorships like this, we need to make multiple ad units on the same page work together. In my last piece, I cited the example of the Budweiser ad in which beer poured from the leaderboard into a glass on the skyscraper. But regardless of whether the two ads work together in concert or not, at least make sure that the ads that appear on that page don’t do the same thing. That’s like paying double the CPM for the placement.

Perhaps vary the message, so that one ad invites interested prospects to the sales event while the other showcases a particular Lexus model or provides a reassuring message about warranties. Just don’t be repetitious.

Blunder No. 5: Failing to Know the Difference Between Acquisition and Retention
Aside from my accountant, there's no other company out there that knows more about me and the finance-end of my business than American Express. I'm constantly on their site checking the company's card balances, looking at the Membership Rewards available to us, and even considering a lot of the services they offer to small businesses like mine. Why, then, does American Express online advertising not recognize that?

We get countless offline direct mailings from American Express. Quite a few of them are aimed at getting my company to upgrade from Gold cards to Platinum cards. (Frankly, we're on the fence about upgrading, and if they sweeten the deal so that we're able to recoup the incremental annual fees a bit earlier, we'd probably do it.) The mailings seem to know that we're Gold card holders and that we're enrolled in Membership Rewards. Why doesn’t the online advertising?

Regardless of the site I'm on, I'm constantly being pitched by Amex to apply for a card. That's silly. I'm already a cardholder. They'd probably know this if they dropped a cookie on me when I checked my card balance, checked my Membership Rewards balance, or when I redeemed points at ShopAmex.com.  Then they could serve me that upgrade message or convey some additional program benefits I might not be aware of.

Alas, I'm clubbed over the head with the acquisition message countless times. And if I didn't know what I know about online advertising, I might begin to suspect that perhaps they don't value my business. I mean, can't they recognize their own customers when they see them online?

The technology exists for American Express to do this today. They've been able to implement it for many years now, actually. Segmentation of ad messages is something the major ad servers have put a lot of effort into, recently, and it's a lot easier to do this than it once was. Some well-placed action tags and some intelligent logic behind ad segmentation could go a long way here.

One thing I've learned from this business is that we're expected to be in a constant cycle of measuring, learning and improving as time passes. Next quarter's online media plan is always expected to be better than the prior quarter's plan. We're supposed to apply the intelligence of what worked in the last campaign to steer future efforts.

Why, then, do we still see big brands making basic 101-level blunders? I hesitate to speculate. But we can fix a lot of these blunders with some very simple thinking and some attention paid to how people actually see and experience our brands online.


Tom Hespos is the president of Underscore Marketing and blogs at Hespos.com. Read full bio.

Jim Meskauskas is a Partner and Co-Founder of Media Darwin, Inc., providing comprehensive media strategy and planning.  Prior to that, Jim was the SVP of Online Media at ICON International, an Omnicom Company, where he spent nearly five years.

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