By now it is clear that a significant number of users are deleting their cookies regularly -- or rejecting them outright. Deletion rates vary widely, but the underlying behavior is plain to see.
What's not so plain is what the industry should do in response, so eMarketer surveyed some key industry players for suggestions.
Lee Smith, chief executive officer of InsightExpress, focuses on education. "No one has really communicated that cookies are intrinsic to what's necessary on the internet," he said. "Education can reduce that fear among consumers." Smith has proposed that the biggest web brands make a communal effort to explain cookies to users in plain language so that consumers would better understand the benefits of cookies.
Nick Nyhan, president of Dynamic Logic and one of the founders of Safecount, a marketing industry group that is seeking to preserve accurate audience measurement without violating consumer privacy concerns, advocates a seal of approval. "The industry itself -- including browser people, anti-spyware software makers, the web publisher, the advertiser, the online ad measurement companies -- is going to have to come up with a 'Good Housekeeping' seal to differentiate the good cookies and good practices from the scary stuff." Safecount calls this the Safecount Good List, made up of "companies known, trusted, and audited." Publishers, he says, would need to explain that cookies are necessary if they are to provide free content to users.
In a recent white paper, Bennie Smith, DoubleClick's chief privacy officer, argued that the industry needs to "fill the information vacuum that has allowed third parties to make specious claims about standard, widely used web technologies and target them as threats…. Once we work together to educate consumers so that they understand that cookies neither slow network connections nor take up significant disk space, we will be in a better position."
But Atlas Institute's Young-Bean Song feels that the onus may fall on publishers. "The major publishers, who have relationships with consumers, have to say: 'If you want to access this great content for free, you have to enable cookies in your browser and set anti-spyware software not to delete benign cookies.'" In the end, Song noted, "Internet content has to be delivered on a permission basis, where the user gives permission for the content site's advertisers to set third-party cookies, and in exchange the user gets access to the content." But it's not going to be easy. "Publishers won't take action until they hear from advertisers that cookie blocking and deletion is a problem. The situation will get worse before it gets better, and that might push advertisers."
JupiterResearch's Eric Peterson, who kicked off the cookie controversy in a report on the phenomenon earlier this year, has suggested that site owners use first-party cookies as a standard and that they consider requiring registration and login, which would allow deleted cookies to be reset.
Trevor Hughes, executive director of Network Advertising Initiative, has argued that anti-spyware makers need to do a better job distinguishing between legitimate cookies and spyware cookies.
Not surprisingly, the no-cookie approach is advocated by comScore Networks and Nielsen//NetRatings. One argument for their panel-based methodology is that it offers a far deeper portrait of users.
At least one major publisher has backed away from cookies. Lee Enterprises "has stopped using server log analysis tools [which rely on cookies] to figure out the reach and frequency of his company's newspaper websites," The Digital Edge reported in February 2005. The publisher's internet sales director "believes that pop-up surveys that ask site visitors about their online habits produce more accurate counts of web visitors and their frequency of usage."
While eMarketer sees eye to eye with elements from most of the suggestions above -- particularly Song's idea for publisher roadblocks, Nyhan's plan for a seal of approval and Lee Smith's and Bennie Smith's proposals for consumer education -- we believe that there's an ingredient missing.
What's needed is a full-blown Cookie Campaign, using the industry's power to persuade and entertain. The Cookie Campaign could use humor and memorable characters to pitch the ways that cookies benefit consumers: personalization, free content, easier navigation and relevant ads.
Remember that most users don't see it that way. A BURST! Media survey found that 47.2 percent of U.S. internet users are unsure if cookies help them have a better experience online. In that that group -- the nearly 50 percent who are unconvinced about cookies' benefits -- lies the target audience that the Cookie Campaign would address.
Since more accurately counted cookies would benefit advertisers, web publishers, agencies, and online advertising and web analytic companies alike, that creates a large pool of potential financial contributors to the Cookie Campaign. Relatively large sums would be needed for the extensive reach this campaign would require -- not only online (where publishers could donate ad space), but also on cable TV, radio and in major print publications.
The Cookie Campaign's true focus should not be on the internet ad industry. Instead, those involved must remember that the consumer really is in control and doesn't want to hear from you unless he or she first gives permission.
Honesty, transparency, permission, fairness and trust will encourage consumers to keep their cookies. The online industry needs the Cookie Campaign to tie it all together.
David Hallerman is a senior analyst at eMarketer. This article is drawn from his recent report on cookie deletion and its effects on online ad measurement.