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Mobile Cookies Don’t Necessarily Crumble

  |  November 19, 2013   |  Comments

The cookie has always played a vital role in digital advertising - and this is one of the biggest differences between the world of the PC and the land of the mobile. Columnist Anna Bager explains.

tracking-usersAt this time of year, most Americans think about pumpkin pie. At the IAB, however, we're focused on cookies.

The mobile market place is growing at warp speed. The number of smartphone users keeps increasing and they spend a great deal of time on their devices. These handy gadgets are being used in every aspect of your life, from help with practical tasks to serving as a platform for entertainment in the palm of your hand.

No one argues that this usage points to a mobile-first future and, in turn, signals that mobile is becoming a critical platform for digital marketing.
Advertisers understand this and are now increasingly running campaigns and investing effort into building brands across the mobile ecosystem. It is all very tricky, though. Many features, such as retargeting and frequency capping -- used in traditional digital advertising -- do not apply or work in the same way on mobile.

The cookie has always played a vital role in digital advertising; this is one of the biggest differences between the world of the PC and the land of the mobile.

Digital advertising is an empire built on cookies. Though they weren't designed or intended to be a tracking and verification system for interactive marketing purposes, they were available and suited the needs of the industry in the early days.

Today, cookies and means of tracking are controversial topics, regularly at the center of debate. As that debate continues, it becomes more and more clear that we may not have the right solution to secure good solid growth when it comes to cross-platform marketing.

The sudden elimination of cookies on the PC web would be devastating, but in the mobile space, we have been stuck for a long time in an environment where cookies have been at best, unreliable. If or when cookies begin to go away on the PC-based internet, this is an area where the mobile experience will be instructive to the broader digital advertising landscape.

As part our efforts to educate marketers and agencies about where the mobile arena diverges from the PC world, the IAB Mobile Marketing Center of Excellence has created a roadmap to the complex terrain of the mobile cookie, in a whitepaper entitled "Cookies on Mobile 101." Among other things, the paper takes on the widely-held misconception the cookies don't work on mobile.

The simplest general answer to the question, "Can I rely on cookies to track my mobile campaign?" is, unfortunately, "It's complicated." If your campaign runs entirely on the mobile web or on android devices, then the answer is yes, cookies will work. If your campaign runs entirely on mobile web but includes any impressions on iPhones, the answer is more of a qualified yes.

Cookies may work, but they need to be first-party, not third-party. If you're working with a publisher directly, there is a good chance that cookies will give you useful data. Finally, if your campaign includes any impressions delivered in mobile apps, then the simplest answer is no, cookies won't allow tracking or reporting in those cases and you need to seek alternative technologies and solutions. More detail and nuance in navigating all of this is available in the paper.

With all of that said, one thing is clear: We need to find new, better ways of tracking and serving ads and marketing messages across devices. IAB and the Mobile Marketing Center of Excellence have created a special body of members to work towards what's next on this front, establishing The Future of the Cookie Working Group. Its mission is to reimagine the technology used to identify consumers across multiple sessions and devices in a way promotes greater persistence of both identity and user choice. The starting point is, "Imagine a world where HTTP cookies never were invented."

The tracking and measurement problem will not be entirely solved until there is a solution that is truly platform and device agnostic. To use a Thanksgiving analogy, it is more like we're looking for the whole pie rather than waiting on the cookie crumble.

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Anna Bager

Anna Bager is vice president and general manager of the Mobile Marketing Center of Excellence at the Interactive Advertising Bureau. The Mobile Center, an independently funded and staffed unit inside the IAB, is charged with driving the growth of the mobile marketing, advertising, and media marketplace.

Prior to joining the IAB, Bager was heading business intelligence at Ericsson Multimedia and head of research at Ericsson's Business Consulting unit. Earlier, she was research and consulting manager for IDC EMEA.

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