Publishers are already torn over whether using email-based identity technologies in the hopes of generating higher ad revenue is worth scaring off visitors with a roadblock requiring their email addresses.
Complicating the dilemma: apps that generate temporary email addresses and render ID tech useless.
For now, there’s no data to quantify the impact of these auto-generated burner email services, but publishers say they create just one more problem that could disrupt their goals of garnering genuine personal information for their own first-party data purposes or enabling the email matches that identity technologies need to work.
“When you start to introduce these types of apps, you end up with the same softness, that same churn that cookies always had,” said an exec at a large news publisher who asked not to be named. Third-party cookies — which are in their last throes of life before Google disables them in its Chrome browser by January 2022 — were “always inconsistent” said the executive, but, “This is further exacerbating that because it’s not even identifying people consistently.” At this point, however, it’s not clear that many publishers are actively addressing potential problems that might arise from auto-email generators.
For years data brokers and consultancies have used email addresses as a key piece of information to match a digital identity to an offline one, potentially unlocking information that builds an even more detailed picture of someone. That concept has evolved to form the foundation of many of the technologies marketed today as replacements for third-party cookies. But if one side of the equation provides a bogus email address, identity tech reliant upon matches of encrypted emails is stuck searching for the keys. (To learn the basics of how identity technologies use emails, watch Digiday’s explainer video.)
Burner emails, trash emails, throwaway emails or temporary emails — whatever the name, Google’s Play store offers at least 60 apps, many of which are free, that generate randomized email addresses and enable email verification. These technologies are promoted to people as ways to reduce unwanted marketing messages or enable a way to register to view content or get discounts without worrying about disseminating a personal or business email address out into the data universe.
Sites including LifeWire and Wired advise readers to try out apps that generate one-time emails. Apple allows people to hide their email when using its Sign in with Apple feature by sharing an Apple-generated address instead of their actual email address. One of a multitude of tools with similar names, a browser extension for Mozilla’s Firefox browser called Temp Mail lets users of its free version store up to 50 fake emails; a premium version lets them store up to 500 fake emails, a service that could be exploited for fraud if used to mass-produce phony subscription, social media or e-commerce accounts.
Publishers, hoping to generate identifiable first-party data about their audiences and feed identity tech that promise to deliver higher ad revenues, are grappling with whether to put up gates requiring email registration before people can access content. If they do, said Ian Trider, vp of real time bidding platform operations at ad tech firm Centro, “I fully expect lots and lots of users to supply fake information.”
Email quality problems could affect the efficacy of identity tech, said David Spiegel, former vp of digital revenue at the Los Angeles Times who just joined G/O Media as its chief revenue officer. “There are ways very easily to see the cracks in the mirror of this wonderful solution,” he said of email-based identity tech.
“When mobile Apple users don’t opt-in, we don’t attempt to serve these consumers targeted ads. We respect their privacy choice,” said Eliot Dahood, CTO of identity tech firm BritePool. “Consumers who use temporary email addresses want to stay anonymous. Our system operates so that users of temporary email addresses are never served targeted ads.”
However, for publishers, the inherent appeal of identity tech is enabling higher-priced targeted ads based on identity, often derived through email matches. Other identity tech firms that use email addresses to establish identity, including LiveRamp and Zeotap did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
The commodification of the email as an identity link
There is little to no available data to gauge the impact of auto-generated burner email services on the viability of identity tech reliant on matching two accurate email addresses or its affect on publishers’ first-party data efforts. However, some publishers and email tech observers foresee a future when burner email tools start to take a toll on the value of email as an identity link.
“Consumers are incentivized to use a machine-generated email since there is no reason to provide a deliverable email address,” said Keith Petri, CEO of lockrMail, which offers a service allowing people to organize and provide rules for whether and how they receive emails from companies. “It is still early days, but by [the first quarter of 2022] the data will speak for itself when analyzing registered email accounts and the percentage of new registrants from domains like Burnermail.io, Privaterelay.appleid.com, relay.firefox.com,” he said, suggesting temporary emails created by apps that live on these domains are incorrectly assumed to be valid and therefore representative of “authenticated users.”
The incentives to create countermeasures allowing people to avoid having to cough up their actual email addresses could increase, an exec from a second large news publisher said. “If emails become a major tracking mechanism, we’re going to see a growth in offering of single-origin emails,” said the exec, suggesting that there are opportunities for companies already offering tools like password managers to create temporary email services to appeal to people frustrated by more and more content gates requiring an email registration.
“Apple already has that, and there are a few startups with offerings there, and it would be a pretty straightforward thing to offer for a password manager so I assume they will, too. It would be a good and pretty cheap feature for email providers to offer, too, though,” said the exec. The exec said they did not believe email-based identity tech would serve as a lasting approach for advertisers or publishers, in part because they create privacy concerns, but also because they don’t work without genuine email addresses, which could become commodified if temporary email services proliferate.
Poor data quality and subscription fraud enabled by email-based registrations are just what one large media conglomerate that works with CLV Group, a management consultancy that specializes in data and identity, “are trying to avoid,” said CLV’s CEO Neil Joyce. He said his media firm client employs a single sign-on technology that supplies an ID for people, rather than asking them to submit their own email as their login. The company “are very clear about single sign-on being generated by them,” he said.
A history of email quality and inconsistency
Publishers and advertisers have struggled with other email quality problems before temporary email tools came on the scene, said Spiegel. He said while a potential onslaught of one-and-done emails created by auto-generator tools is “a concern,” they are just as much a risk to publishers as the more classic approach people take to avoid email registration: by creating email accounts specifically for e-commerce or discount signups to catch spam or legitimate but unwanted marketing messages. “Is it any more or less a concern than the idea that people use junk email addresses in the first place?” asked Spiegel. “People have been using spam email addresses a lot longer.”
The risk of collecting poor quality information becomes especially acute when gathering that data might sway people from staying on a website at all, according to the first of the two unnamed news publisher execs. “It’s very expensive and very difficult for publishers to get folks to log in,” this person said. Plus, publishers already have a hard time resolving audience identity when people use a personal email address for one site, but a business account for another, said the exec.
Publishers considering putting up an email gate before people can access content or comment not only run the risk of gathering bunk emails, they could deter people from staying on their sites all together, said Trider, who noted that publishers would need to achieve enough value from logged in users with valid email addresses to counteract the likely audience exodus.
“I assume the impact on their page views and bounce rate will be extreme,” he said.
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