In the two years since Apple introduced Intelligent Tracking Prevention (ITP) for its Safari web browser, prices for ads targeting Safari users have plummeted by 60% according to data from ad tech firm Rubicon Project.
ITP virtually eliminates the ability for advertisers to target individuals based on their browsing habits using cookies and that means “the allure of a Safari user in an auction has plummeted” according to Rubicon Project CEO Michael Barrett told The Information. “There’s no easy ability to ID a user.”
And it’s not going to get any easier as the Apple WebKit team just announced ITP additions that are even more aggressive in blocking tracking attempts and close loopholes that could be exploited by trackers.
The inability to track users as they travel the web throws a wrench in the plans of many advertisers looking to reach users in key target audiences. For instance, many advertisers want to reach affluent consumers and rely on behavioral cookie-based tracking to help them identify these users.
But is behavioral cookie-based tracking really necessary?
The number of studies looking at the efficacy of behavioral targeting is relatively small. One recent study that looked at behavioral targeting’s relationship to publisher revenues found that publishers serving ads with cookies enabled realized a surprisingly small gain (4%) in revenue. While that doesn’t necessarily mean advertisers aren’t realizing higher returns from behaviorally-targeted ads, efficient market hypothesis would suggest that if the returns to advertisers were substantially higher, publishers would be earning substantially more than a modest 4% by using these ads.
Is it possible that the value of behaviorally-targeted ads is overestimated? Given the fact that advertisers significantly overestimate the ROI on digital ad spend generally because they don’t account for selection effects, it seems entirely possible if not probable that advertisers also significantly overestimate the value of behavioral targeting based on cookie tracking.
A great opportunity for advertisers?
Arguably advertisers don’t need behavioral targeting to effectively reach specific segments. Contextual advertising is back en vogue thanks to the crackdown on cookie-based tracking. While contextual advertising cannot guarantee that any specific user is part of a desired segment, at scale, certain kinds of content will attract certain kinds of consumers in greater proportions. Thus if they target this content, they can effectively target those consumers.
The challenge, of course, is that advertisers have oriented their programmatic buying around behaviorial targeting. But they don’t have to ditch programmatic to reorient as many DSPs, seeing the writing on the wall, now offer contextual targeting capabilities that are increasingly robust.
Advertisers can also look at upping their use of private marketplaces which give them access to inventory from specific publishers. Obviously, certain publishers reach certain audiences and many can provide vetted data about the composition of their audiences.
From this perspective, the devaluation of Safari users in the digital ad marketplace seems overdone and offers an interesting opportunity for advertisers. Advertisers will eventually have to adapt to a world in which user tracking is far more limited and instead of shunning Safari users, forward-thinking advertisers can prepare for the future and take advantage of the temporary Safari user firesale at the same time.