But this time, it’s no game. In fact, the guidance the ICO published in June and July pretty much said to the vast majority of the data-driven digital advertising community, “What you’re doing is against regulation.”


Don’t click away!

I know you’re bored of articles about data regulation. Y’know what? I’m bored of articles about data regulation. No doubt data regulators across Europe are bored of articles about data regulation. So this article isn’t going to review the current guidance from the Information Commissioner’s Office. You can read that yourself.

Instead – for the benefit of the brainstorm (or real life) – let’s simply accept the following: 1) all the legal loopholes you’ve been relying on to run your data targeted ad and content campaigns are now closed; 2) the use of user profile cookies is outlawed unless you have clear, positive, explicit consent; 3) good data – the stuff that’s accurate, clean, detailed and recent – is essential to your business; 4) legally, you’re screwed.

So it’s time to innovate. What are you going to do?

1) Consolidate and extrapolate your data

If it’s unlawful to use most of the data you have been relying on to deliver your ads, you need to think about how to maintain the scale of your ad campaigns without compromising on relevance. You must consolidate all the explicitly consented data you have access to into a single data platform.

Then you need to use data science (“artificial intelligence”, “machine learning” – whatever you want to call it) to extrapolate that data to give your campaigns scale. Technology now exists to go far beyond simple lookalike audiences.

Without collecting any new sensitive personal data, audience expansion engines can use small amounts of explicitly consented data as the seed to build unique mass audiences of hyper-targeted, statistically relevant consumers in under 24 hours. These techniques are now integral to how your business must work.

2) Think beyond cookie data

Publishers collect and process a lot of data from their display ads. But they have explicit consent to process data from a vast amount of other pages too – yet they simply don’t do so. Take a look at the services big publishers offer, such as The Telegraph, The Times, The Guardian.

There’s subscription and CRM data; recruitment pages and job searches; online dating services; events and conferences registrations; travel preferences; competition entries; voucher, financial services and comparison site pages; book shops, online training courses and education pages; and more. Without any advertising audience data, all of this data is extremely valuable in and of itself.

For example, publishers with jobs and recruitment pages get explicit consent to collect and process data far beyond just clicks on job ads. Job seekers create career history profiles or even publish full CVs. They set search preferences for particular types of jobs. Job seekers explicitly want to share incredibly insightful information such as their industry, seniority, job title, education, salary bracket, location, skills and professional interests.

Likewise, when people sign up for publishers’ dating services they share their passions, favourite locations, work, education, appearance, family status, salary bracket as well as their age, gender and more. Search preferences on travel pages give us data about subscribers’ vacation periods, whether they are travelling with a family or pets, and even information about whether they are a regular smoker and what sort of budget they have.

In each case, this kind of data is absolutely necessary to deliver the relevant content and ads that the consumer signed up for – such as jobs relevant to skills, routes relevant to destinations, and profiles of compatible singletons. However, the vast amount of publishers offering these sorts of services are neglecting to make maximum use of this data to serve targeted content and ads. It languishes siloed in separate platforms and departments.

Combining these data points with explicitly consented ad data – where it exists – is even more valuable, of course. When all of this data is consolidated into a single data platform, campaign managers can creatively define very focused, high-quality audience segments with tightly defined interests.

Admittedly there can be challenges to using such data: it’s imperative to gain explicit consent for the purpose of data processing, and consumers must have knowledge and control over their data, something many ad tech companies, publishers and data platforms are failing to do adequately.

3) Use common-sense driven creativity

It’s illegal to target consumers based on data about their sexuality. This didn’t stop one brand successfully reaching gay men using events data from people who bought tickets to the Kinky Boots musical. Recruitment data can be used to target people interested in changing jobs, but it can also be used in B2B campaigns to target particular professions and decision makers, such as IT, finance and facilities directors.

People looking for graduate positions are often moving flat,  changing bank account and needing new formal business attire. Someone inputting search criteria into property pages is likely to want to decorate, buy furnishings or select new utilities suppliers. Thinking outside of direct correlations broadens the potential of data, and reduces the likelihood of consumers seeing retargeted ads for products and services they’ve already purchased.

4) Profile your pages, not your consumers

Instead of relying on cookie profiles of consumers gleaned from data that you can snag from their impressions and interactions, use data from the content they’re visiting. I don’t mean through contextual targeting – that’ll just collect more cookie data. I mean use the data within the article.

Seriously: there are hundreds of words, subjects, interests, characteristics, products, services within a single text article. Each article contains wealth of specific, plain language data which relates to each user – but it is not the user’s data.  Extremely few ad campaigns actually use page profile data. They might have the article in an interest category of content, but they haven’t intelligently analysed and profiled the content to gain useable data for targeting.

One large European publisher has created 1000 distinct, highly relevant target audience segments by profiling their content and giving each article a unique ID. They no longer rely on consumer cookie IDs or third party data to serve ads. They can serve keenly targeted ads without knowing a thing about the user visiting the article, often within milliseconds of the consumers’ very first impression.

5) Set up a panel

You can buy in panel data from third parties, of course, but there’s nothing stopping you from building your own panel. Mail Metro Media did exactly that with its Mail Matters community of 2000 users. Readers are consulted about their current thoughts, concerns and interests and what they want from their content and advertising experience – and they give their express consent for their data to be collected and processed.

Panel data often includes information about consumers’ gender, but rarely do panels collect age data. Despite the growth of ad campaigns targeted via interests, most ad campaigns are still purchased on the basis of age and sex. The raw panel data is useful in and of itself, but there are other benefits. It gives added depth to audience profiles when age and sex are necessary data points. It fine-tunes analytics data and gives a more objective truth about a publication’s audience.

What’s more, it’s solid, current and detailed ground truth data – the perfect seed data for extrapolation. 

6) Enter data alliances

Data alliances – such as Ozone in the UK and Ad Alliance in Germany – can give brands access to vast amounts of audience data but with far greater control and transparency than working with third-party data providers.

They do pose technical and compliance challenges, of course, but these are surmountable especially if the data collectors all use the same data platform, gain all necessary consents, and ensure all data in the alliance is collected and processed under the same single privacy policy. All parties to the data alliance must also enable users to exercise their data rights across the alliance.

7) Expect legal challenges

All that technical stuff above is actually relatively easy, as long as you choose the right data platform. The legal stuff will be more frustrating. We’re in a period when new regulations have been set, but clarification and guidance is still needed. There will be challenges, court cases, damaged reputations and consumers taxing the time of your customer support departments with spurious claims of data regulation breaches.

Hence, whilst innovating, you must ensure you are making objectively honest and meaningful efforts to comply with the regulations.

And take deep breaths.

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Econsultancy subscribers can read our in-depth briefings on data privacy regulation: