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Cookie Saga: Consumer Education Needed

Cookie Saga: Consumer Education Needed Alan Chapell

Mark Twain once quipped, “Rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” I can only wonder what he’d have to say about our industry’s recent dialog around cookies.

My former colleagues at Jupiter are no doubt pretty happy to have their numbers vindicated, after a good deal of skepticism was leveled against their report from many -- including me.

Of course, which research methodology was right is ultimately far less important than the action items that each of us can take away from the research as a whole. And I think there are still a few things we can draw from the recent body of research on cookies.

  • First, while consumer’s SAY they delete cookies, they are sometimes not deleting them quite as frequently in practice. Is this a statistically insignificant discrepancy, or another disconnect in consumer behavior that needs further examination? Stay tuned.

  • Second, the overall impact of those who DO delete their cookies is less significant than previously thought.


  • Third, and most importantly, this research demonstrates that -- at least for now -- the accountability of online has not yet been significantly impacted by cookie deletion.

But should we necessarily breathe easier after digesting the results of the new and improved Atlas study? I’m not so sure.

As I mentioned in a previous article on cookies, it’s not the number of consumers who are deleting cookies that has me concerned. It’s their collective fear and loathing of online profiling that keeps me awake at night.

At this point, some of this fear and loathing is beginning to result in the wholesale deletion of cookies by some consumers. And while it's encouraging to note that cookie deletion has not increased significantly over the past few months, given the current cultural and political climate, who’s to say it's not going to get worse? And what, if anything, should our industry be doing to gain consumer acceptance of cookies?

Like most big questions, it depends upon whom you ask. Some in the industry are reluctant to act -- fearing, I suppose that any action may make things worse. Others have suggested that attempts at education are inherently futile because consumers simply don’t give a damn. Others are still searching for the right solution.

Consumer Education

Many in the industry, myself included, have talked and/or written about educating consumers on the value proposition of cookies. It’s a great concept, and it certainly makes for good article fodder. But what does it really mean? What is it about cookies that consumers are supposed to embrace?

Maybe it's as simple as assuring people that cookies are not inherently bad, despite the insinuations of some of the anti-spyware software companies. Perhaps it's about educating consumers that an ad server recognizing that a particular desktop has visited the Tower Music website is not inherently creepy, while knowing that Alan visited the Tower Music store in the East Village might be. And maybe we need to disavow consumers of any notions of a correlation between online profiling and identity theft.

But perhaps reassuring their safety is not enough of a benefit to move the needle. In other words, the real challenge may be in telling consumers how cookies make their lives (or at least their online experience) better.

It’s a much simpler argument to make for first party cookies. Anyone who’s tried to surf the internet after disabling all first party cookies can probably attest to that. Unfortunately, the value proposition for third party cookies isn’t nearly as direct. Accountability is the most significant benefit of third party cookies. But drawing the connection between accountability, advertising revenue and free content is kind of like having Al Gore over to discuss the implications of global warming. People may very well tune out before we get through the first sentence.

Of course, this entire thread presumes that consumers understand the difference between first and third party cookies -- a presumption that I’m not necessarily inclined to draw. Clearly, some of our elected Representatives don’t always distinguish between first and third party cookies. Can we necessarily expect more from those they represent?

What about relevance?

Most consumers, when asked, will indicate that they’d rather get a relevant ad than an irrelevant ad. And many have indicated that they are willing to give up some of their privacy -- either by providing personal information, or by agreeing to have their online movements tracked -- in exchange for more relevant ads. But as the Atlas Study demonstrates, consumers don’t always practice what they preach.

So at the end of the day, will consumers truly embrace the tradeoff between privacy and ad relevance? What about the tradeoff between free content and advertising?

Send me an email and tell me what you think. And get involved in www.safecount.org. Your industry needs you.

Additional resources:

The Media Maze: The Cookie Crumbles
Friday Fodder: the Week in Review

Alan Chapell, CIPP, is president of Chapell & Associates, a consulting firm that helps companies understand privacy and incorporate consumer perception into product development. He has been in the interactive space for more than seven years with firms such as Jupiter Research, DoubleClick and Cheetahmail. Mr. Chapell is the New York chapter co-chair of the International Association of Privacy Professionals, publishes a daily blog on issues of consumer privacy, and will be teaching a class on privacy and marketing at NYU this summer.

Return to Challenge Defined

NextStage engagements often begin with us saying to clients, "Tell me about your audience." The best responses come from clients who have spent time and money researching their audience. Less helpful responses start with, "Umm...well...ah...let me see..." These responses are expensive because they indicate the client doesn't know their audience well enough to market successfully to them.

It is NextStage's belief that you can't market successfully to anybody until you know who they are, what they think, how they think, what they respond to and what they'll respond with. The smaller your target audience, the more you must design specifically for it. Large audiences are easy to design for; keep it simple! In all cases, the safest design method is one I described at the San Francisco Emetrics Summit as similar to the first contact scenarios in "Star Trek." People with my training and background often learn this as: The first message must be instructions on how to build a receiver.

That statement is the stopping point for many. You need to answer two questions the statement is asking before you can make it work: Who's sending that first message? Who's receiving it?

Most people think, "I want to get a message to my audience, so I'm sending and they're receiving." Good answer and full of problems. It's very challenging to create actionable instructions for an audience if you don't know much about them.

The correct answer is something like this: "I want to get a message to my audience, so they must teach me how to create a message they will act upon."

Whoosh! The first message is not from you to your market, it's from your market to you and is: "This is what will get our attention, so this is what has to be in your marketing message."

The first message is to you from them. It contains instructions on how to craft a message they will willingly receive and favorably act upon, for example, how to build a receiver they will be able to use.

NextStage's most widely used method to help clients build receivers involves placing a small piece of tracking code on the client site. NextStage's tracking is different from web analytics tracking, behavioral tracking, et cetera., because we're not interested in analyzing websites, we're interested in analyzing people. NextStage's tracking determines visitor logical processes, cognitive processes, decision styles, memorization methods and emotional cues. There are more than 80 items at present, and we're adding more as our research progresses. These 80 items cull down to about 45 directly actionable items for our clients: age, gender, buying styles, best branding strategies, impact ratios, touch factors, education level, income level and what NextStage collectively calls the CB/EM -- Cognitive, Behavioral/Effective and Motivational -- matrix.

In the case of Emetrics, NextStage has been tracking site visitors' cognitive, behavioral/effective and motivational activity on the Emetrics Summit site since  March 1, 2007, so we have a rich CB/EM matrix of the existing Emetrics audience information to work with.

Next: Methodology Part 2: Rich Personae Development

Return to NextStage Methodology Part 1: The Audience Is...?

Knowing your audience in depth and detail is a required first step. The more richly detailed and complete your knowledge is about your audience, the more you can do to build a receiver -- a website, video, print ad, et cetera -- they will naturally and effortlessly interact with. There are two crucial elements to "receiver" design that come from the previous section's discussion on a rich audience personae and specifications for building that receiver.

Let's consider each of these elements on their own and use the Emetrics Summit as an example in both cases. The first -- rich audience personae -- is incredibly straightforward. The Emetrics Summit's organizers know who their existing audience is: web analysts. All web analysts think alike, yes?

All web analysts think alike at certain times and regarding certain things, yes. The rest of the time, web analysts are as different from each other as any other collection of randomly selected people you'd find walking down the street. A rich personae starts with the basic personae description you'd find most anywhere: they're this old, this educated, they have this kind of job, they're interested in these kinds of things, they have 2.3 children and half a dog.

The next layer of a rich personae determines the CB/EM matrix. In the case of Emetrics, some of that CB/EM matrix was shared in Mapping Personae to Outcomes. At this point, we know what the audience looks like and how they think. We complete that rich personae by elaborating what they'll respond to in rich environments, for example, not only on a website, on TV, in print, but also who and what needs to be at the Emetrics Marketing Optimization Summit in order to fill the seats. This was first done at the request of Lunametrics CEO Robbin Steif, when she asked who WAA members would respond most strongly to. A simple analysis revealed the characteristics of presenters that Emetrics organizers needed to have at their Emetrics Marketing Optimization Summits:

  • 35-45-year-olds who have been analyzing websites for 10-plus years both in and out of corporations

  • That have been doing web analytics for 5-10 years, and ditto for large and small businesses

  • That have spoken/presented at major conferences

  • That have "hands-on" knowledge of at least five different analytics platforms

  • That have product neutral (no commercial affiliations)

  • That are patient with ignorance

This determination was made via NextStage's TargetTrack tool prior to engaging with Emetrics, and it was later incorporated into the engagement process. Interestingly enough, the majority of presenters at Emetrics had most, if not all, of these characteristics, even though NextStage, at the time, had no knowledge of the summits at all.

Next: Methodology Part 3: Audience Focused Optimization

Return to Methodology Part 2: Rich Personae Development

The second crucial element is doing what NextStage calls Audience Focused Optimization (NextStage will be offering an Audience Focused Optimization workshop at the DC Emetrics ’07 Summit). This is where the receiver gets built.

The website can already exist or be in the development stage, it doesn't matter. All that really matters is that the end result be something your target audience will both pay attention to and favorably respond to.

Several market-specific suggestions were made to the Emetrics Summit staff prior to the May 2007 San Francisco Summit, some of which were documented in previous columns. I also shared some of these suggestions and visitor responses to them in my Emetrics Summit presentation, "Quantifying and Optimizing the Human Side of Online Marketing." For example, knowing how the audience thinks enabled design modifications that kept visitors engaged and returning through the redesign process. The end result of these efforts was demonstrated by visitor comments and emails.

The simple fact that Jim Sterne and his crew let visitors know ahead of time when a redesign would be online resulted in three major outcomes:

  • The day the redesign went live, the site experienced huge spikes in traffic, levels of interest and navigation.

  • People emailed that they'd been on the Emetrics Summit site and noted the update announcement.

  • Other emails demonstrated that people had returned specifically to discover what had changed since their last visit. (The wording in that last line is intentional. People didn't return to "see," they returned to "discover." They were on the site thinking, evaluating, analyzing, interpreting. In other words, they were engaged.)

Automating the Suggestion Process
NextStage's Active Intelligence tool combines these three steps and generates a design modifications report containing a series of suggestions for new and existing marketing materials. (These suggestions are generalized for this column and please, please, please don't assume they apply to every event and conference site out there.)

Each level contains critical, important and desirable elements. Further, each level is built on completion of the previous level's suggestions. In all cases, the suggestions are meant to be simple modifications to existing sites and easily implemented directives for sites in the making.

Some of the suggestions provided for Emetrics Marketing Optimization Summit included:


  • Use fewer menu items

  • Rename remaining menu items so that they are questions that can be answered

  • Make the menu system/structure completely consistent from page to page


  • Make the progression of pages tell a story so that one web page logically and thematically leads to the next web page

  • Make the menu system either consistently horizontal or consistently vertical (remove top-of-page city menu and replace it with graphic links that already exist within the banner image)


Next: Entering New Markets via Creative Best Practices

Return to Methodology Part 3

At this point, design modifications have been implemented to maintain Emetrics Summit's dominance in the web analytics market. Entering new markets is simply a matter of modifying the inputs to these same NextStage tools, and utilizing Emetrics Summit's existing recognition as one of the parameters available to enter new markets. This allows Emetrics to take its existing look and feel and only make the necessary changes to establish itself in marketing, search and other optimization market segments.

Simply stated, Emetrics can take its existing brand and modify it enough to stimulate interest in new markets while retaining the dominance and loyalty established in the old markets. People wanting to come to an Emetrics Marketing Optimization Summit will know that a proven and well-established brand is behind the new venture, bringing existing credibility to the new effort. This allows the new audience to borrow an expectation level from Emetrics Summit's existing audience base by recognizing and sampling their experience (which has always been highly satisfactory).

This methodology -- taking what is known to be successful "here" and only changing what is required in order to be successful "there" -- has an enormously long and (ahem!) successful history. It has worked for every civilization that expanded its territories via trade -- as opposed to conquest -- and is the basis for the most long-lived cultures on the planet.

"The insights NextStage provides are all obvious-after-the fact," Emetrics’ Jim Sterne reported. "Their recommendations make infinite sense once they are on the table. The amazing part is the social science behind what seems like logical web usability."

Links for this article:
 • Usability Studies 101: Redesign Timing   
 • Focusing Your Customer's Attention  
 • Usability Studies 101: Experience as an Equation  
 • Headlines That Attract Attention 
 • Keep It Simple to Maximize Market Share 
 • Tips For Your Next Website ReDesign

Joseph Carrabis is CRO and founder of
NextStage Evolution and NextStage Global and founder of KnowledgeNH and NH Business Development Network. He was recently selected as a senior research fellow and board advisor for the Society for New Communications Research. Read full bio.

Chapell & Associates is headed by Alan Chapell. In 1997, Chapell founded the privacy program at Jupiter Research, an internet research firm focusing on the consumer internet economy. During his four and a half years at Jupiter, Chapell also...

View full biography


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