Should we be paying more attention to Cookieless Users?

Edward Gerits
Edward GeritsQuality & Control ManagerMore about Edward

For many internet users, cookies are a pretty common and harmless element of online life. They’re the small files that hold and communicate data between a browser and the website server to tell it information, like what’s been added to an online shopping cart. Advertising companies also use them to keep track of which ads have been shown to a user, or whether a user has previously shown an interest in the advertiser’s website. Just as some users prefer to opt-out of seeing online advertising and tracking methods by using ad blockers, some users also choose to pass on cookies. Browsers increasingly allow cookies to be blocked, with some browsers, like Apple’s Safari for iPad and iPhone, making this the default setting. The Netherlands has introduced a “Cookie Law”, which requires sites to ask permission before placing cookies. Mobile app users exist in a cookieless environment. All these factors contribute to the number of cookieless users being on the rise. At Bannerconnect, we set out to investigate the cookieless user, the effect they have on campaign targeting, and if this could create an advantage for some advertisers.

What’s the fuss about cookieless users?
Cookieless users fall into two categories. The first accepts cookies in principle, but the cookie simply hasn’t landed in their browser yet. They might be using a device or browser for the first time or may have previously cleared their cookies. Once they’ve seen an ad they will be the proud owner of a cookie and, therefore, no longer cookieless.

The second is users who block cookies, either by choice or their browser’s default settings.

Since this user doesn’t accept cookies, there is no way to figure out if the advertising is relevant; for example, we can’t measure success or track the number of times the user has already seen an ad.

Cookieless User Targeting

Because of the added difficulty in optimising campaigns and making online advertising effective for this group, many campaign managers simply ignore and block all cookieless users from their campaigns. This led us to wonder: does this create opportunities for more adventurous campaign managers to capitalise on?

Cookieless users in the Netherlands
The first step was to get an idea of the potential reach of cookieless users in the Netherlands. We found that across all devices 13% of impressions in NL are cookieless. For desktop, approximately 8% of impressions are served to cookieless users – that means one in every 12 desktop impressions in the Netherlands are shown to users who either haven’t seen an ad via a DSP (like AppNexus or DoubleClick) before, or – more likely – users who don’t accept cookies. For mobile and tablet traffic, this percentage jumps to a whopping 30%. This means almost one in every three mobile or tablet impressions in the Netherlands are served to cookieless users. This is most likely due to the popularity of the iPad and iPhone (50% of traffic from iPad/iPhone is cookieless compared to just 5% of all other mobile devices).

How did we figure this out?
Because we oversee the transaction of millions of ads every day via our CORE data platform, it’s relatively easy to count how many unique users have been seen. Every user has a unique ID stored in their cookie, and an SQL-query can be run to find out the number of unique ID’s. However, this method relies on cookies, which of course cookieless users don’t have. Instead, it’s possible to track the impression requests to see how much of that traffic is from cookieless users.

Opportunity knocks?
We figured that because many campaign managers try to avoid cookieless users, there’d be less competition to reach these users, resulting in a lower cost of impressions. We created a few test campaigns and saw relatively low volume of impressions on the desktop campaigns, but plenty of volume for tablet/mobile devices. For both desktop and tablet/mobile devices, there was no significant price difference between users who do accept cookies and cookieless users. While this might seem surprising at first, it wasn’t difficult to find the reason behind this. The actual clearing price was the same or very close to the price we were bidding, indicating the use of soft floors in auctions.

Across all devices, 13% of all impressions in the Netherlands come from cookieless users, which is a lot of traffic that many campaign managers may be avoiding. We originally thought the cookieless user could be an interesting group to target, as we hoped we’d get more reach and cheaper impressions due to decreased competition. Unfortunately what we found is not very appealing for our purposes. While it is possible to reach users that other campaign managers may ignore, the lack of cookie means it’s not possible to use frequency caps or conversion tracking. At Bannerconnect, one of our priorities is to make advertising relevant, reaching the right user at the right time to deliver a one-on-one experience. Without cookies, this level of relevance is not possible, and therefore a deal-breaker for effective campaign management.

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