The Washington Post has become the first big publisher to sign up for a new way of targeting online advertisements at its readers, as the advertising world searches for a successor to the cookies that currently underpin digital ads.
The identity system developed by US adtech company The Trade Desk relies on users signing up for a single ID, potentially tied to their email address or mobile phone number, that they can use to sign in across multiple sites.
Publishers can then track their behaviour across different devices, helping marketers to identify who has seen their messages and work out which sites have contributed to a successful campaign.
It is one of the most closely watched attempts to find a successor to the cookie, the contentious cross-website trackers that Apple has banned and Google will phase out by 2022.
The Washington Post said it will adopt the Trade Desk identity system and also making it available to more than 100 other online publishers that use its Zeus software to help run their own sites.
Others, including Vox Media and BuzzFeed, also said the system appeared to meet many of the requirements to replace cookies, but that they are still weighing alternatives.
“No one really knows what will happen in 2022,” said Jarrod Dicker, head of commercial technology at the Post. “We want to be prepared, and have a say in what [the landscape] looks like.” The media company is also considering other identity systems and is likely to use more than one, he said.
Next year is likely to see a battle between a number of rival ID systems, each trying to earn a central place in the online media system. Most in the industry expect only a small number to gain traction.
“Eventually this may turn out to be a winner-take-all [market], but everyone’s getting ready to support several [systems],” said Nicole Perrin, an analyst at eMarketer.
The ID systems do not replace all the behavioural data that come from cookies, but they promise a more efficient way to establish identity. They also solve many of the current privacy concerns of cookies since users have to actively opt in to use the services.
“We shouldn’t be trying to salvage what we have today — that’s a complete mess for the industry,” said Mr Dicker.
Many publishers also hope that being able to identify more users will help them fight back against Facebook, Google and Amazon, which have far more extensive personal data thanks to the large numbers of sign-in users on their services.
But Dave Pond, head of media strategy at BuzzFeed, called for the ID systems “to be decentralised” to prevent any single company from controlling user data and gaining too much power across the industry.
In a bid to win over publishers, the Trade Desk has said it will open source its technology and hand over control of its identity system, known as Unified ID2.0. Michelle Hulst, head of data and strategy, said the company was in “active discussions” with advertising industry groups about the idea, and that control was likely to be shared among a number of organisations.