MailOnline tests digital identifiers as replacements for third-party cookies

MailOnline has begun to experiment with alternative ways to target Apple Safari users outside of the third-party cookie.

Apple has put the kibosh on publishers monetizing Safari audiences via programmatic ads by throttling the use of third-party cookies, which are relied on to target ads. But publishers are now exploring alternative ways to ensure they can still monetize those audiences, using other forms of digital ID.

Mail Metro Media, the commercial division of MailOnline and London free sheet The Metro, began implementing the standardized identifier from DigiTrust, a non-profit consortium, and the universal identifier from tech company ID5, in June. Since then, MailOnline has seen a 30% increase in CPMs on Safari, according to Tom Pickworth, head of technical operations, commercial, Mail Metro Media. Fill rate was slightly higher, via Rubicon Project, a member of DigiTrust, which increased by 1.4%, added Pickworth.

Speaking at an event in London, Sept. 18, hosted by trade body The Association of Online Publishers, Pickworth said the publisher had seen CPMs drop “a little” due to not being able to track audiences on Safari, and from fewer people opting in to give consent to their personal data being used to target ads, under the General Data Protection Regulation.

The MailOnline segmented its audience while running the monthlong tests in June: 33% of the audience was identified across Chrome and Safari browsers using DigiTrust’s ID, 33% of the audience was identified via ID5’s unique identifier, and the other 33% had no additional standardized identifier, so the publisher could test the outcome.

There were also positive signs on Chrome CPMs as a result of using the IDs. The publisher saw a 20% increase in CPMs on Chrome.

“These [CPM rates] will improve a lot more if more publishers get involved,” said Pickworth, hinting at the chicken-and-egg situation that has meant wide-scale adoption of DigiTrust has been sluggish. “If they do, then more supply-side platforms and demand-side platforms will follow. Some of them will be waiting for more publishers to join.”

MailOnline and The Metro, which had a combined audience of over 29.4 million unique monthly users in July, according to Comscore, are still reliant on cookie-based advertising for an important part of revenue. However, the publisher will continue to experiment with alternative ways of targeting to ensure it can keep on the right side of any future browser changes and GDPR.

“It’s a multi-pronged approach,” said Pickworth. “Data management platforms are getting better for publishers by using local storage, and we’re also using identifiers. There have to be multiple approaches where you’re looking at all sides.”

Publishers’ digital advertising revenue is under threat from multiple fronts, with browsers throttling third-party cookie tracking and the vise around user privacy laws getting tighter. The crumbling of third-party cookies has meant that ad tech vendors, trade body groups and non-profits are all looking to prove they can act as a new standard identity currency, putting publishers in a position where they need to compare and contrast to see what comes out on top.

Other publishers have also begun their beyond-the-cookie journey, though are still at the fledgling stage. TI Media, home to titles including Marie Claire and Wallpaper, is also testing digital identifiers outside of the cookie.

“We see an increasing amount of traffic coming through Safari, and the value of CPMs goes down because it’s a do-not-track audience,” said Adriana Taylor, head of data and insight at TI Media. “And you don’t bid as much on a cookie that has two or three data points attached to it.”

She added that for premium publishers, Safari traffic is significantly higher than the industry average of around 30% often quoted from global browser market sharing sources. In the U.K., on mobile, Safari has 45% of market share, according to Stat Counter, but others range lower.

As a short-term strategy, TI Media is tweaking how it sells ads, trading more inventory directly with agencies and advertisers through Safari, where it can have more control over the prices, and more Chrome inventory through private marketplaces and programmatic guaranteed deals on the open exchange.

Other publishers have taken this route of audience redistribution to manage ad rates, which meant the drastic loss in revenue that Google’s recently circulated report on impacts from browser restrictions on third-party cookies wasn’t as keenly felt.

Agencies, like GroupM which has seen between 20% and 30% of Safari audiences go dark, are also trying to work out how to replace audiences. While redistribution is manageable for now, said Wayne Blodwell, founder and CEO at consultancy The Programmatic Advisory, the fear, longer-term, is less targeted ads leads to budgets moving to offline channels or into Facebook and Google.

While the pendulum has been swinging back to more contextual targeting post GDPR, and publishers like The New York Times are making strides and innovating in this area, the impact will always be less effective than first-party targeting, Blodwell added.

“Two years ago, if you asked a marketer what their strategic goal was, they’d say ‘single-customer view, deployed everywhere,’ which is basically now impossible,” said Blodwell. While contextual advertising has a role to play, it feels like a shortfall and the heavy digital ad spenders who lean toward performance will want some sort of identity, he added.

MailOnline and TI Media don’t necessarily see the future of digital advertising in contextual targeting. For MailOnline, Pickworth said the use of contextual ad buys will be a way of making up the number of impressions advertisers want as the data pool of targeted audience continues to shrink.

“Like all of these things, this will improve the direct buys,” he said, “but on the open marketplace, it’s hard to predict and hard to know what’s on the minds of the advertisers.”

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