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The future of identity in a privacy compliant age


Sian Williams, Audience Strategy and Planning Director at MediaCom North, looks at how businesses can crack the identity nut while keeping in step with consumer expectations.


Dinosaurs, woolly mammoths, dodos… Nokia 3210s? It’s a fact of life that many things, once considered great and powerful, will one day expire as they become superseded in their environment. The latest casualty is the 3rd party cookie, soon to be eliminated by a Chrome, Firefox and Safari-shaped environmental catastrophe.

Whilst we may not look back on cookies with the same degree of wonder or nostalgia as other members of the extinction list, it will still be the end of an era, and it’s already started to initiate an extinction phase of some of its over-dependents.

We’ve been greeting the dawn of the Privacy Era for a while now and in a post-GDPR reality we have seen constant and progressive change across the online ecosystem. Consent, compliance and appropriate use of data are our non-negotiables and the abundance or lack of the former, in regard to identity and responsible usage, will dictate how we fulfil the latter.

Identity has always been a difficult nut to crack – it’s not easy to get a persistent, universal identifier across multiple platforms and touchpoints. Cookie identifiers have always caused fragmentation in the ecosystem and duplication across platforms and within measurement is an ongoing issue. Advancing tech solutions and walled garden environments have been building solutions for a unified state which gets us closer to a cleaned-up view of individuals and their actions, but given the breadth of privacy-driven changes in the last few years, the true course of innovation in identity solutioning and management is still to be set.

Ensuring a true consent-based ecosystem isn’t easy, neither practically nor philosophically. In 2019, the issue of consent and transparency became universally embedded across our online experience as businesses set up secure opt-ins for tracking and data collection, and tools aimed at giving control back to the user. This was crucial to ensure that businesses met the standards set out by GDPR and collected their data in the right way for the appropriate usage. This meant that in a relatively short time, opt-in requests have become a ubiquitous feature, potentially triggering a state of ‘consent fatigue’.

As an industry, perhaps we should be questioning how meaningful that consent is if it is given across everything without thought and without true understanding.

Beyond the challenges of user knowledge and behaviour, there are few businesses who have a truly scalable identity footprint. At this point in time, the walled gardens of Facebook, Google and Amazon still have an advantage in the scale at which they can recruit users, manage identity and have a ready platform for education and accessibility. The flipside of this is that privacy can be used as a Trojan horse for these rich but siloed ecosystems to lock down that unified view of the consumer and this in turn fuels a state of disconnection. It may be tempting to go with the flow on this one arguing ease, simplicity and data power-housing, but it pays not to be short-sighted and find ourselves in a world where brands are disempowered, lacking leverage and losing control of consumer trust.

Even walled gardens may see their scale compromised in the future as more restrictions and points of consumer opt-in are put in place. For example, the launch of iOS 14 will introduce another level of consent when an app is opened. Developers will now have to get explicit consent to track user activity across other services and websites via the device’s IDFA code. The consumer will have full control to universally block the ID or reset it. This will impact even big players like Facebook, who are predicting a 50% drop in revenue across their Audience Network as a result of this change.

So, in a world of competing agendas and moving goalposts, we need to embrace the fact that no one can do it alone. We need to step up the pace on finding mutually beneficial and ethically sourced data partnerships that answer our defined data strategy and move forward into a new age of 2nd party data maturity.

In order to solve the identity challenge across the open web, we need device graph co-ops facilitated by big tech and stakeholders outside of Google and Facebook. In order to do that effectively, every stakeholder with an audience and/or customer base needs to fully plan out their data strategy, what their advantages and limitations are, and what their strategic boundaries will be as they open up to smarter partnerships.

Why does it matter to you and your brands?

There are brands for whom building scalable identity solutions is a no brainer – data-driven brands who can generate a high-scale footprint based on their buying model and digital focus. There are other brands whose consumer interactions are still heavily offline and do not really need a 1:1 relationship with a consumer (most FMCGs). Perhaps there isn’t currently a natural strategic fit to engage with this level of investment and complexity, but even these brands need to focus their gaze to work out what identity means for them and what the long-term advantages and threats look like.

At the very least, we need to do it to keep step with the expectations of the consumer. There is an emerging tension at play in that it’s easier to not be a data holder in many ways. However, consumer expectation is growing in terms of how a brand understands them so that it appears at the right time and delivers personalised experiences that add value. To do that we have to really think about the point at which we need to identify the consumer and how we’re going to do it.

Sian Williams is Audience Strategy and Planning Director at MediaCom North.

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