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Internet cookies: From 1994 to 2019, and the industry shifts of the future

Internet cookies as we know them became popularized roughly 20 years ago (after being first released in 1994.) While they certainly still have a place in the ecosystem, technical innovations have created new identifiers that surpass cookies’ limitations. Emerging identifiers are critical to businesses if they want to continue to engage and inspire their end-users.

Relatively speaking, 20 years may not seem like a significant chunk of time. But when applied to the advancement of technology and innovation, it might as well be another era entirely.

Consider this: in the year 2009, Apple’s app store had barely been around for one year. Spotify was a mere months old. Mobile phones only just begun offering GPS functionality. Facebook Messenger didn’t exist. And in an effort to better compete with the immediacy and sharing economy of social media platforms like Twitter, real-time search became mainstream on Microsoft and Google.

Origins of the internet cookie

Internet cookies as we know them today also became popularized roughly 20 years ago, as a way for websites to anonymously track a visitor’s activities and user preferences.

It was less about “Big Brother,” and more about prioritizing and enhancing the consumer experience.

Cookies meant that brands didn’t have to “ask” for the same information over and over again. Login credentials could be saved, online shopping carts became a reality and the notion of “consumer-first” took center stage—each of these a critical pillar in driving the digital world forward.

Fast forward to 2019: Cookies have drastically evolved beyond their originally intended purpose

Having long served as the backbone of the world wide web, cookies were a catalyst for monumental innovation and growth in the industry. They allowed for sophisticated advertising opportunities that spurred meaningful relationships between brands and consumers.

In the midst of another form of digital revolution, with major tech players like Apple and Google discontinuing the use of third-party cookies across their platforms, marketers are facing yet another pivotal turning point: they can no longer rely on this data source.

While cookies certainly still serve the ecosystem, technical innovations have created new identifiers that surpass cookies’ limitations.

Other emerging identifiers—like Connected TV, mobile IDs, and people-based identifiers—are critical to businesses everywhere if they want to continue to engage and inspire their consumers in the new age of advertising.

Challenging tradition

The turn of the millennium also brought the “third golden age of television” which, over the past two decades, has seen substantial shifts in traditional entertainment—from advances in media distribution and content creation abilities within linear, to generation-defining shows available to stream including “Stranger Things” and the heavily contested “Game of Thrones.”

Consumers are now armed with a range of over-the-top (OTT) devices that provide instant, on-demand access to the exact content of their choosing.

In 2019, there will be an estimated 190 million connected TV (CTV) users in the United States, and advertisers plan to spend billions reaching these audiences.

CTV has drastically changed the way consumers interact with digital content and, as a result, has given advertisers a new means to identify, target and measure users within a cookie-less environment.

The on-demand economy is the way forward and it will become increasingly important for brands to tap into it as this new market accelerates and becomes one of the most important vehicles for connecting with consumers.

The cookie pre-dates the smartphone

In fact, it came at a time when a hand-held portal into an all-accessible internet was relatively unfathomable. Cookies were designed to move website to website within a desktop-only world, and weren’t equipped to track the user from app engagement to mobile browser and everything in between.

The mobile world has grown increasingly fragmented with the rise of walled gardens, as companies seek to keep users engaged within their affiliated platforms, making it even more difficult to maintain a holistic, people-based view of the end-user.

Mobile IDs, however, have emerged to supplement the cookie and footmark the individual user through the internet’s many entry points.

Additional people-based identifiers have also cropped up to enrich and supersede the cookie as necessary, in order to give marketers a comprehensive view of the consumer.

In assigning the individual a unique ID that measures their activity across touchpoints and devices, marketers are able to tailor their advertisements to their target audiences and ensure the content the user is seeing is relevant and applicable to their needs and interests.

The expansion of identifiers beyond cookies has allowed marketers to discontinue generalizations and produce more meaningful interactions.

Long-anticipated industry shift

The martech and adtech ecosystem widened its use of cookies to operate as a defining digital identifier—a role it was not intended nor designed for.

Though they continue to serve their purpose within the marketing process, cookies are disparate touchpoints that don’t provide an accurate, full view of the consumer—unless supplemented alongside emerging identifiers.

The customer journey will continue to expand in complexity as advancements in technology continue to push society forward down a digital-first path.

With that, the staunch focus on privacy regulation has presented advertisers with a new opportunity to develop and utilize modernized means of reaching their audiences in an even more privacy-conscious way, ensuring participants have control over how their data is being used at every point.

The long-anticipated industry shift is a result of an enduring desire to democratize data for the good of all, not just a privileged few.

As the industry takes a step back from the cookie jar, they look ahead at a new frontier for exceptional marketing experiences, driven by people-based solutions that encompass all forms of identity.

Scott Howe is CEO of LiveRamp.

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