Why the Cookie Debate Looks Like the E-Mail Spam Discussion

Cookies are under assault from all corners. Once an obscure bit of Web architecture, cookies and “Web-tracking software” are now part of mainstream-media coverage and lawmaker attention. Our industry endlessly debates the direction this discussion might go. It’s probably best to look at what happened to email in the 1990s.

Back then, email faced very similar critiques as cookies do today. Spam became rampant, and inboxes were flooded with fraudulent and unsolicited messages. Users had no idea how this happened, how people (especially Nigerian royalty) got their email addresses, and, most importantly, how they could control it. This created a difficult environment for legitimate email marketing to take root. Marketing emails that consumers wanted from brands they were interested in were lost in the noise and often blocked by overwhelmed ISPs that had no good way to decipher legitimate messages from those sent by bad guys and scammers.

At that time, it might have sounded like a reasonable solution to simply create a “do not email” list similar to the “do not track” proposal that is currently being evaluated. However, as is evident by the explosion email has undergone, that would’ve been a crude and poor solution. The widespread popularity of Groupon, LivingSocial, Gilt and other companies that use email as their primary marketing channel is proof that consumers want to receive email marketing. They just want to be able to control it.

The evolution of email marketing started with the Controlling the Assault of Non-solicited Spam Act. While it was far from perfect legislation, it laid a foundation and created standards for user control and transparency. Instead of extreme all-or-none solutions, control and transparency should be the pillars of privacy legislation affecting cookies today.

CAN-SPAM made it so that every commercial email had to have standard information about who sent it and how you could contact them. This helped to address transparency and made it easier to flag bad actors through technological solutions. It would be hard to argue that any piece of legislation could have controlled the proliferation of spam more than the technology that Google built into Gmail.

Transparency is important. However, control is what builds consumer trust. Consumers must be able to easily and predictably opt out of receiving messages. As with email, consumers don’t want targeted ads to disappear entirely. Users want to know what information they’re giving in exchange for content, and they want to be able to have a say in how it’s used.

There is a misconception that ad targeting companies oppose user control. This couldn’t be less true. In fact, the best way to optimize a campaign is to have a consumer raise his/her hand and say, “I’m not interested anymore” or “I like this brand, but stop showing me ads for a while.” This is a marketer’s dream. Looking at our own statistics, 96 percent of users who click through our ads to learn more about cookie-based tracking choose not to opt out. Education around the issue is key.

As with email, it will take time for consumers to gain confidence in and comfort with personalized display advertising. Users didn’t immediately flock to opt-in email marketing. It took time to clean up inboxes, and a few successful unsubscribes before users felt comfortable giving their email addresses to dozens of daily-deal and flash-sales sites. The ad industry can accelerate this process by doing a better job of educating users on why they see these ads, what data is collected on them and what isn’t.

Extreme, broad sweeping policies throw out the baby with the bathwater. If we instead build on the pillars of control and transparency, the cookie can truly become the new email. Consumers will look at display advertising as a legitimate and useful mechanism for enabling free content, and reputable marketers will retain access to the most promising marketing channel since the search engine.


Adam Berke is president at AdRoll, an ad-retargeting platform. Follow him on Twitter at @adamberke.


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