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2021 AdTech predictions

The 5 most critical things to focus on this year

Last year will go down as pivotal for AdTech for many reasons. But for both technical AdTech professionals and the CMO’s of large brands, digital advertising will operate in a very different way in 2021. I wanted to pick out 5 core things that everyone should be preparing for in 2021.

1. Changes to data legislation are just warming up

The impact of data legislation and how data is handled in a privacy first manner should not be underestimated. GDPR had a colossal impact on certain vendors in Europe when it first came out in 2018, but the main trend we to strengthen the walled garden proposition. California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) on the other hand brought an idea of what this would look like in the USA, all be it at a much less strict level.

But this is not the end, there is a lot more to come for the rest of the world. Throughout 2020 we saw other countries follow with similar legislation, such as Brazil’s General Data Protection Law (LGPD). More will follow suit as data is such a crucial asset now. But key questions remain over where the US is going with CPRA, the upgraded form of CCPA. Not to mention the upcoming ePrivacy regulation in Europe, which equates to a pumped-up version of GDPR.

I have recently surveyed a lot of the largest brands in the world from a London IP address. Rarely do any actually provide consent frameworks that work without doing something sneaky with network calls.

GDPR edit2

Figure 1: Snippet of information checking consent mechanisms of websites

But why should marketers worry about obeying the letter of the law on consent, aside from the obvious preventing of fines that could derail your business? Well, those that implement consent properly will notice the restrictions it places on advertising campaigns. Whether that is the reduced ability to remarket to website visitors or more importantly for some, the problems in measuring success. If you suddenly cannot track between 10-50% of users because they do not consent, imagine the implications for performance data. Whilst performing a YoY analysis becomes impossible.

How to implement consent properly on web is a topic for another time, but it is good to see that Google have released their Consent Mode to Google Tag Manager as a tool to solve the above issue.

2. Measurement & Attribution will need to evolve

To say it has been a challenging year to measure the success of digital ads using traditional methods is an understatement. For the large majority, the reliance on cookies (both 3rd & 1st party) as well as device ID’s (IDFA / AAID) is fundamental to Multi-Touch Attribution. Google signalled their intentions by lighting the fuse on the death of the 3rd party cookie in Chrome by 2022. Whilst Apple decided to follow suit at a faster pace with opt-in consent for IDFA scheduled for early 2021. Something Facebook are now publicly battling.

However, in AdTech always read the small print. Apple have been busy with small but important changes on iOS14. These tackle workarounds that some vendors have implemented on web to get around 3rd party cookies going away. This includes the CNAME cloaking approach, which is now capped to a 7-day maximum window when found, which in turn hurts a lot of analytics tools.

There still a lot of unknowns regarding the future of in-platform or daily attribution. But user-level multi-touch attribution (MTA) seems to be on the way out. The ecosystem consensus seems to be that this will be replaced with an aggregated view or modelled approach.

Despite the best intentions of some of the smartest vendors in the industry to build a new identifier, I personally do not see how this will scale outside of the US, as it will suffer from the increased data legislation in other markets.

Media mix modelling (MMM) solutions will not be the ultimate fix either, considering how they have had to pivot due the impact on their models of the pandemic’s volatility. That being said, the big two vendors that have both MMM and MTA solutions do still have an initial advantage.

So, what is the measurement focus in 2021? First get a real understanding of the impact of no cookie or device ID attribution. Evaluate your technology partners to see what they are planning. The Google Privacy Sandbox is still very much in its infancy, but this is a potential opportunity for advertisers that pay it attention. Also, I expect to see the return of more regional or holdout approaches to measurement to gauge incremental value. But to do this properly, advertisers need to look at their first party data.

3. First party data, it's now or never

Data has always been the foundation of everything in AdTech, but it is more important than ever to be both storing and using the data available. However, blockers have been put in place when moving data from advertiser to advertising strategy. The removal of 3rd party cookies makes cookie syncing redundant in its standard form, thus having a knock-on impact on technologies such as DMPs. And using a cookie or device ID to build a persona is now meaningless, as you cannot activate against the resulting segment.

First party data starts with your own data, so ensure you pass back as much as possible, whilst bearing in mind legal and ethical considerations. It’s also important to make sure each destination or platform gets the same level of attention. Your site analytics may be your source of truth, but this means nothing if you can’t use those data points as the other platforms are not setup in the same way. Your tag management and data layer is more important than ever, as is the ownership of your data. Especially make sure you own all your platform ad accounts, as this future proofs you for a change in partner.

The other consideration for advertisers and publishers is should they focus on creating a login. Whilst every advertiser or publisher cannot afford to make their conversion funnels login only, from a marketing perspective this unlocks a match ID that is not a cookie or device ID and can be used to replace some of what is important to marketers.

With a login as a solid data foundation, advertisers are better able to deal with the changes the ecosystem that are in motion. The emergence of data cleanrooms (like Google’s Ads Data Hub), the pivot to customer data platforms (CDPs), and prevalence of server-side tagging, are all ways of maximising the use of first party data. There are some interesting use cases here, so having the right framework is important, even if the move to first party data does again benefit the walled gardens over open ecosystem platforms.

4. Emerging programmatic channels are an opportunity

With people spending much more time at home, the global pandemic has helped accelerate many existing digital trends. A clear shift in user behaviour can be seen with connected TV (CTV), which continues to grow at a rapid rate. YouTube offers an easy and free way to access this at scale, but the propositions from the likes of Roku and Samsung are also making CTV more accessible. Whilst CTV was originally a US only channel, other markets are catching up. However, so are the fraudsters, so be aware.

This is supported by other innovative channels now programmatically widespread via leading DSPs. Audio and podcasts are becoming ever more popular, especially with YouTube releasing their version of audio ads during the autumn. Usage of gaming based ads are also increasing at a rapid pace, whether that be via Amazon’s Twitch as a premium supply source or in-game via the likes of Bidstack. Out-of-home as a programmatic channel is becoming a stronger product, from both the supply and buy-side, with DV360 predicted to roll out this in beta from 2021. Also, watch out for Amazon bringing a much more refined product to market soon.

Putting in place a compliant, measurable, data led strategy, is just as important with these channels, as with the more traditional ones. The large majority of emerging channels do not support clicks, so do not expect to see them show up in a Google Analytics dashboard by default. As these channels become more central, advertisers will need to build a smart approach to proving their value, whilst linking them to a full funnel media buying strategy.

5. You need to upskill and restructure your marketing

Whilst setting up campaigns on Google Ads and Facebook Ads looks easy, especially considering how these platforms are increasingly using machine learning, most advertisers are not ready to put an advanced set up in place that answers the previous points in this article. For example, there is as much misleading comment on the impact of iOS14 on advertising as truthful insight, and deciding which is which is difficult for the uninitiated.

Advertisers need to ensure they have the knowledge and process to maximise their consented data. But also, the understanding of the media planning and buying, and defining success. For this to happen, traditionally separate teams throughout the business need to be aligned and set-up to work in tandem. Advertisers need to focus on filling gaps in data and compliance. Education is all important, especially considering a new change to the industry seems to come every few weeks. So, creating real partnerships with vendors and agencies is critical for long term success.

What lies ahead?

AS 2021 is promising to pick up directly from where 2020 left off, don’t trust anyone trying to sell a simple solution that will work for all use cases by the end of the year. Spoiler alert: contextual targeting is unlikely to become the ultimate saviour of the cookieless world. There are admittedly benefits in targeting, even though most vendors struggle to do it well. But no contextual vendor has the answer to measuring KPIs in a way that isn’t dependent on cookies or device IDs. I can spend a million dollars on contextual targeting, but if I can’t measure its success how can it be the solution?

There so many questions that are unanswerable right now:

  • When Apple release the opt-in IDFA AppTracking Transparency framework (ATT) , what will be the real impact to remarketing, attribution, frequency capping, and targeting?
  • Will the anti-trust lawsuits break up elements of Google or Facebook, and what does this mean for the AdTech world?
  • Will a unified ID compliantly work at a global level?
  • What will be the endgame of the Google Privacy Sandbox?

Investing all your budget into walled gardens may sound like the low risk strategy. But it’s important to understand that Google, Facebook and Amazon are also impacted, albeit at a lower level. What Facebook have announced in terms of setup, tracking and measurement for the iOS14 ATT is likely to be a preview of what is to come from other vendors. What is for sure,  it’s the advertisers that invest this year in the right set-up for the new world of data-driven advertising will get a significant head-start. 

Get in touch to learn more about how these trends may impact your marketing.

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