The reports of the cookie’s death have been grossly exaggerated.

“The death of cookies,” to borrow a phrase, is (mostly) fake news. I wouldn’t be concerned with this topic, except that so many reputable media outlets have been publishing misleading and sensational headlines about it.

Take a look:

Adweek sent an email special report with the headline:  “The Death of Cookies.”

AdAge with Cheetah Digital posted on social with the same frenzied phrase: “The death of cookies”

And Segment (Twilio’s customer data platform) went even further with this social gem: “Digital Advertising in a Cookieless World.”

But here’s the problem: It.  Isn’t. True.

So let’s get to the bottom of why all these authorities are spewing all this gunk.

The first thing that’s important to know is that there are two primary kinds of cookies:  these are called “first-party cookies” and “third-party cookies.”  (I know, it’s weird that there’s no “second party cookies.” Somebody got ripped off in this deal.)

First-party cookies are data files that are shared between your browser and any website you visit.  When you visit a site, especially a site that you may go back to multiple times, say a news site like NYTimes.com, a small text file is generated and stored on your browser. It contains information about you (nothing too personal, unless you choose to save passwords via your browser, and please don’t do that,) like the browser you’re using, the operating system, where you’re located (via your IP address,) and even the browsing history.  They were originally created to optimize the performance of websites.  Since there’s a history encoded in the cookie, the website does not have to fully reload each time you visit it – it sort of restores the previous session, and then updates the site with its latest content. This is why your shopping cart on e-commerce sites is “remembered” and preferences on other sites are stored.  Each time you go back to the site, the cookie is updated with more information.  So it’s a bit of a history log between your browser and a specific domain. 

Disclaimer: This is an oversimplification of first-party cookies, but it will serve to help distinguish it from the other type.

Third-party cookies are different in many ways. First, and most important, they are stored under a different domain than the one you are visiting. They are typically “shared” from the domain you’re visiting with – you guessed it – third parties. The most basic example is this:  you go and visit NYTimes.com to read the news, and you see banner ads on the top and along the right side from a brand like Toyota. Since NYTimes is a publisher, and has sold advertising space to Toyota, they may have also agreed to share your data, and allow Toyota to drop a third-party cookie to track your browsing behavior.  The thinking with this was “it would help Toyota to know what other kinds of sites readers of the New York Times might visit, and what their browsing behavior is, so we can build a better profile of potential targets.” 

Disclaimer:  this is also an oversimplification of third-party cookies, but it should serve to help distinguish it from the other type.

Okay.

So, the headlines you’ve been reading are misleading, because they leave out a very important qualifier: the only thing that’s “dying” is the third-party cookie.

Pushing out headlines like “the death of cookies” or “a cookieless world” is like saying “music is dead” just because we’ve banned Justin Bieber. It’s sensationalizing the story at best. It’s clickbait at worst.

First-party cookies are here to stay, and there’s no way they’re going away, since it would cut off hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue being transacted every year. First-party cookies form the basis of ad targeting, retargeting, (yes, you can still be retargeted via first-party cookies,) display advertising (banner ads,) most social media platform algorithms, and the mighty Zeus of them all, search engine marketing and its associated retargeting.

[The post ends there, but I have a few words to say about WHY third-party cookies are getting the axe.]

The whole kerfuffle over third-party cookies is generally about privacy, and not having one’s data shared without one’s knowledge. But who are we kidding? Our data is getting shared every day, all over the place, whether we a.) like it or not and b.) know it or not.  Did you ever Google yourself? I’m sure you didn’t actively and purposefully put all that information there – it was aggregated from across the web without your knowledge or consent. How do you think data marketing companies make money? They go and mine data they already have, or it’s getting shared with them from retailers, credit card companies, and others. Yes, GDPR legislation has been adopted, but all it effectively does is add another annoying click before I get to the content I want on any new website. Ugh. And if the last year has showed us anything, (since third-party cookies have started phasing out and Apple’s iOS tracking regulations have been adopted,) it’s that you can still run effective and even mobile-friendly ads without third-party cookies and nobody is any worse for wear.

This author’s preference is to have his data shared (no social security numbers, credit card numbers or bank account numbers, thank you very much,) so that my general Internet experience is more carefully curated and more fully tailored to my preferences. Killing third-party cookies was accelerated as a knee-jerk reaction to the 2020 election and fears of the “echo chamber” effect, and more sensitive issues like child welfare, gender identity, and other possibly incriminating privacy gaffes. All the while, forgetting that you can still be retargeted via first-party cookies. They could have worked that stuff out and still made the Internet an interesting and contextualized place.

If Toyota wants to follow me around for two weeks to find out that I’m not a fit for their brand, so be it.  At least I won’t see ads for the 2022 Camry hybrid anymore.

Facebook’s Meta transition. A mashup that proves hardware is the new tech.

Late last month, noted CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook is changing its name to Meta, and changing its official stock ticker from FB to MVRS.  The name Meta is a shorthand for the metaverse, which is itself shorthand for an almost fully immersed online world, where people can play, work, and gather in groups in the virtual sense. Zuckerberg is betting big on building it, even though it’s been tried before. (More on that in a bit.)

That this massive shift away from one of the world’s most recognizable brand names comes amid a slew of scandals is indeed curious.  But let’s leave all the political soundbites and sexy headlines aside for the moment.  This is not about the Facebook Papers, nor about Russian disinformation, nor about Cambridge Analytica, or data collection, or facial recognition…man, they do have a lot of shit swirling around the campus out there, don’t they?

Nah, this smells like a big bet hardware play, plain and simple.

This whole Meta rename is nothing more than a cosmetic corporate restructuring that will now control Facebook and its other well-known brands, including Instagram, WhatsApp, Messenger and Oculus.  A lot like when Google changed their name to Alphabet, and rolled up all their brands, including Google itself, under the holding company.  (PS – only investors care about this stuff, and THEY still call it Google. And the stock ticker for the company known as Alphabet is…GOOGL.)

So why isn’t Zuckerberg saying that?

I have an idea. Maybe it’s because the metaverse isn’t a great idea.  Or, rather, maybe it isn’t a great idea to shelter it under the enormous loads of cash that the artist formerly known as Facebook has at its disposal.  It’s been widely reported that the year one budget is over $10 billion, and that 10,000 people, mostly in hardware, will be recruited to make it go.

When any entrepreneur wants to launch a new idea, especially a broad and ambitious one like the metaverse Zuckerberg envisions, it’s good practice to prove it can actually accomplish something on its own merits.  It’s a good practice to seek capital from investors and show milestones that prove the concept.  In the absence of that kind of oversight and objective grownups in the room that business incubator model provides, it’s just another lavish vanity project.  The Metaverse is to Zuckerberg what space is to Bezos, Musk and Branson: a vast unknown that he hopes to monetize.

And let’s remember two important things about Meta’s metaverse:
First, the road to the metaverse was paved by Second Life way back in 2003, a full year before Mark Zuckerberg’s “hot or not” turned into “thefacebook.” It is a metaverse full of avatars and provides an almost identical experience to what Zuckerberg envisions: an interesting alternative online environment, where you can have virtual meetings and other whatnots.  (Kinda mostly trying to ply a virtual shopping mall, though.)

Second, and far more interesting: Meta’s virtual world will require, not suggest, that you purchase some very real and very significant pieces of hardware to access it. Oculus VR goggles are currently retailing at around $300, and may not have the full range of capabilities to access what will eventually become the Meta metaverse. It’s a long way to go to sell a bunch of accessories, but it sure sounds like a hot hardware play, doesn’t it? Build the metaverse, get a lot of good press, then tell those who can afford it that the only way to get on board is to buy some rechargeable VR binoculars, now available in six avatar-worthy colors!  All of this is coming right on the heels of Facebook (can we still call it that?) inking a deal with Ray-Ban to sell some fancy Smart Wayfarers that take photographs and play tunes, also for about $300.

If I didn’t know better, I’d swear Zuckerberg was trying to emulate Steve Jobs in some way. After all, Apple’s most successful product was/is the iPhone, not the Macintosh, its former flagship. It required the purchase of a significant piece of hardware. It was an ambitious project and came decades after the company launched. And Jobs didn’t just have the phone developed with a base OS and software.  He outsourced the smartphone “experience” to third party developers via the app ecosystem so every user could customize their device to their liking and have a uniquely personal interaction with it. It’s what ignited the phone’s insanely fast global adoption, and may be a route that Zuckerberg is similarly exploring.  The metaverse will require the purchase of significant hardware.  It, too, is an ambitious project that will launch decades after the Facebook flagship. Let’s all pay attention over the next couple of years and take notice when third-party developers – under a watchful eye and strict guidelines, of course – are invited to curate and broaden the metaverse experience in various ways, like shopping, gaming, utilities, fitness, and others.

Other tech CEOs have also profited marvelously in various ways on and off the Internet, and have pivoted to hardware in the process. Brin and Page monetized consumer intent with paid search advertising. Then they sold us Pixel phones and Google Home and acquired Nest for broader reach with devices. (And they’re betting big on Waymo.) Musk made his money online with PayPal when it sold to EBay, then monetized major hardware with Tesla electric cars. Bezos is a retailer and monetizes markup. He also likes hardware – Kindle and Echo both do just fine, thank you very much. With Meta, Zuckerberg seeks to do all of the above, just in the opposite order. He’ll first sell hardware to access the metaverse. Then he’ll sell advertising (likely highly contextualized) with a new model that combines search history, affinity, and basic demographics to a mostly Gen Z audience. He’ll build in some exchange system (maybe crypto-based) in the metaverse that costs real offline dollars. And he’ll most definitely build some kind of online shopping component.

So…what color would you prefer for your new goggles?

CONTENT CATEGORIES: fuel your funnel with the right stuff

Funnel marketing is back in fashion, and dozens of new ideas are popping up around this classic business concept.  The marketing funnel (or the consumer journey, or the conversion pathway, as it goes by many names,) is simply a conceptual construct to illustrate the broad phases of how leads are generated and then move from one place – where a consumer is typically unaware of your concept or brand or product – to another, more desirable place, where that consumer is ready to buy (or recommend) your specific product, and hopefully, right now.

It usually looks something like this:

Another concept – content marketing – has also been blogged to death in the last several years. The basic idea here is that brands can and should be generating and distributing a constant stream of content in many forms to attract and retain their target audiences.

Both funnel marketing and content marketing are relevant and valuable. Both concepts are basically applicable for just about any audience in just about any category, and that includes b-to-c or b-to-b. (That’s neat.)

But what I’ve noticed recently is that there isn’t much discussion on how content and marketing funnels can or should work together.

If you decide that it’s time to create content for your brand (and yes, it’s always a good time to do that,) you may also realize it can be quite difficult.  Questions abound about what to create, when to create it, where and how to distribute it, and whether or not it’s a good investment of critical resources, such as time, talent, and capital.

One important strategy is to create categories for your content that line up with your funnel marketing goals. In this case, the illustration would look more like this.

Let’s explore.

Almost every marketing funnel is illustrated by the letters A-I-D-A to represent awareness, interest, desire (or decision) and action. But in broader terms, the consumer journey is encapsulated by three broad categories: evaluation, consideration, motivation.

When the consumer is in the evaluation stage (becomes aware, develops interest):

In the early (high-funnel) stages, a consumer may be evaluating a purchase or interaction in this category.  In some cases, that consumer may be wholly unaware of your brand at this point. If your brand is new, or has just launched a new feature, or a new line, or has been dormant for a while and is back in some way, you want to communicate to the consumer set that you have options that might be worthy of review. 

For this I recommend creating generalized content.  Think about ways to show the consumer simply that your brand belongs in the category and has something interesting (or better yet different) to offer. This is a great time to educate/inform the consumer.

Some examples would include social content, blog posts, listicles, product reviews (to outline the basic brand/product traits.)

When the consumer is in the consideration stage (has interest, develops desire):

In the middle (mid-funnel) stages, that same consumer has probably become a bit more educated as a result of their exploration, and they’re now considering which options are the best for him/her/them. Note that this can only occur with brands that the consumer is aware of, and knows something about. They may circle back and look to check off important boxes, such as features, availability, time to delivery, and other (buying signal) particulars that are now important to them. 

Also note how the consumer, from a psychological perspective, gets more and more self-interested as they proceed down the funnel.  The conversation tends to move from “what does this thingy do?” to “what does this thingy do FOR ME?” 

This is where you should consider more specialized content. Help the consumer see your brand from the perspective of its superiority points, or better yet its unique points.

Some examples would include infographics to position your brand in the category, video or animated product demonstrations, info sheets/brochures or White Papers for b-to-b (to highlight the brand/product difference relative to other choices.)

When the consumer is in the action stage (has desire, ready to act):

Finally, the consumer reaches the moment of truth.  They’ve moved into the mode of desire and are ready to act in some way.  As mentioned above, they’ve considered this from a fairly self-interested point of view, and come to believe that maybe only one brand can really satisfy their needs.  Very often, they may whittle their choice down to two brands (because binary choices are easier for consumers to make,) and run a final A vs B competition in their minds, and yes, maybe even in their hearts.

Whenever you hear someone say marketing is emotional, they’re talking about this critical juncture in the funnel.  Consumers – especially if they’ve reached this binary choice phase – tend to go with the option that “feels” right for them.

If you’ve made it this far, be sure to have some contextualized content ready to go to motivate that consumer to choose your brand.  Take out any remaining guesswork. Show that consumer what it will be like to interact with your brand every day, and how that relationship will progress.

Talk about expectations, get specific on policies and procedures, warranties and registrations, and smooth the path to get the action (which may not always be a sale, by the way) you desire most.

Some examples would include consumer testimonials, case studies, and any customized or educational content like webinars (note the very personalized and specific complexion of these options.)

A big-bet Juul in Altria’s crown

Big news in the world of big brands: Altria has taken a 35% stake in Juul, the privately-owned California startup that has taken the e-cigarette world by storm with its signature sleek-black vape pen, and a tidy 70% market share in the process.

juul_ecig_image

The deal, reportedly worth $12.8 Billion, unofficially gives Juul a $38 Billion valuation, more than twice the valuation it received just six months earlier after a $650 million infusion of cash valued the brand at roughly $15 Billion. The new valuation makes Juul more valuable on paper than Ford, Target, SpaceX and Lyft. This in just over three years, when it was introduced by Pax Labs. (Juul spun off as an independent company in July of 2017.)

yahoo_chart_juul

In and of itself, this is just moderately-sized investment news by big-brand standards. And naturally, the question has arisen: why would Altria (the owner of Philip Morris, who manufactures and markets the leading cigarette brands in the US,) take a major stake in a company whose goal, according to Founder James Monsees, centers “around the idea of making cigarettes obsolete?”

It’s kind of simple, really. While Philip Morris has been trying to invent its own cigarette alternatives – it owns iQOS, a heat-not-burn concept sold outside of the US and has reportedly invested more than $4.5 Billion in it over the last 10 years – it found a company that has out tech-ed them and outsold them in just three years. Kind of a no-brainer: if you can’t build it, buy it.

From a marketing perspective, this is a pure (and big) horizontal line extension. Philip Morris is not going to stop selling cigarettes anytime soon – not when their Marlboro brand is the category leader in a roughly $100 Billion US tobacco market. But they are girding against their slow and steady demise by diversifying their tobacco portfolio.

Current Juul advertising features testimonials of former smokers talking about how Juul has helped them to quit smoking actual cigarettes.  And their off-the-line marketing campaign, focused almost solely on social media, featured celebrities (like Dave Chappelle and Katy Perry,) as proud Juul-ers.

This investment may just be a pre-IPO valuation manipulation. If Altria is looking to capitalize on any opportunities it can find, it may just be pumping up Juul’s value so that it can drive eventual profits right to the bottom line, whether it cannibalizes their cigarette business or not.

And it may not be that nefarious at all.  Altria has a duty to its shareholders to seek out opportunities, and one way to do that is to segment the market and give their target audiences what they (both) want. Cigarettes for some, e-cigs for the rest.  If you’ve got the resources, why not own the leader in both categories?

Concurrently, Juul is undertaking several clinical studies to drive evidence-based claims ahead of their required submission to the FDA in August of 2022. Imagine what their value will be with any kind of favorable decision (and some accompanying language that sniffs of a “safer than cigarettes” authorization,) then?

And remember that Juul is hardly standing still. This is a brand still very much on the rise. They’re currently developing a product (for introduction into global markets outside the US) that will be a “connected device,” essentially keeping users informed of their day-to-day usage. It’s no wonder they’ve been called “the iPhone of e-cigarettes.”

Smoking has gone high-tech, and at least one dinosaur is girding against its extinction with a healthy investment in a vaping future. So let’s start the countdown: a Marlboro Light-flavored Juul pod in 5-4-3-2…

Saving Face(book): three lessons from the Cambridge Analytica scandal

zuckerberg

The recent news that’s still in the news about the Cambridge Analytica scandal on the Facebook platform is making the rounds in marketing circles, and for very good reason. In many ways, and across virtually every category, calls will be made for heads in data and analytics departments nationwide, just as they were (initially) for the head of Mark Zuckerberg. “How could this happen?” the world seemed to ask. More accurately, the throngs pleaded, “how could YOU LET this happen?”

The harsh – and probably less titillating – reality, however, is that neither Zuckerberg nor Facebook are culpable of even a misdemeanor as far as this story goes. The folks at Cambridge were undertaking some very underhanded activities, and OF COURSE they did it out of sight of Facebook’s developer guidelines.

A quick review of what transpired: Cambridge Analytica (through a developer company called GSR,) created and then convinced 270,000 people to download an app called “thisisyourdigitallife” where users shared profile data and answered questions about themselves in exchange for a payment. That part is totally legal and fine.

What’s not legal, and very much not fine, is that the app those users agreed to have access their post data was also accessing data of their extended networks through Facebook. Unknowingly, friends and associates of those initial 270,000 had their profile data accessed too, and without consent. Some estimates put the digital swipe at about 50 million profiles (about a 20X reach.) A new report issued last week, raises the estimate to 87 million.  The algorithm GSR built used that data to create (according to some reporting) 30 million unique “profiles” that then helped in the design of highly targeted political ads.

There are numerous ways to unpack this. But for the sake of the practitioner who may be leveraging data (that’s everyone,) or thinking about it, let’s look at the basic but extremely important lessons this offers us.

Lesson 1: It’s NOT Facebook’s fault.
Let’s leave Facebook out of it (mostly) in terms of blame. Facebook was neither complicit in nor aware of the underhanded swiping of data, or the duping of unwitting consumers to grab information. They have clear policies, and those were blatantly violated by a business on the prowl. [To be clear, “data-scraping” tactics were allowed at one point for academic purposes, but have since been altogether forbidden on the platform.]

Facebook has the odd misfortune of being the central place where two billion+ people go and share information. That Cambridge Analytica stole from them is the issue, but so many of the news stories were focused on the idea that people had their data stolen ON FACEBOOK. That’s not fair, and it’s certainly not indicative of the platform’s policies and guidelines regarding third party developers.

Even if (and this is fiction,) there were some way for Facebook to oversee or even closely monitor every interaction that every third party developer has with any user while on the platform, then said third party developer with dubious intentions would first write an evasive script to keep their real intentions hidden. That’s Hacker 101.

Lesson 2:  This doesn’t make ALL data collection “bad.”
One story, even an egregious one like this, is not indicative of an obvious trend or an impending sign of where the digital marketplace is headed. So let’s not jump to conclusions about the use or misuse of data in marketing. Although it seems like the reflexive idea du jour, now is not the time to “re-evaluate every data collection activity, provider, or service” and start lobbying to pull data – or at least data collection – out of marketing. Data makes life infinitely better for the majority of consumers, whether they are clear about how or not.

Virtually every advance in marketing (from a digital point of view,) has been made infinitely more appealing because of the use of broad arrays of interoperative data sets. From programmatic advertising and retargeting to contextualized offers and recommendations that are algorithmically derived, the average online consumer is treated to a platter of timely propositions that make sense based on their online behaviors.

This is also a good time to remind everyone that maybe seeing your face squished like a funhouse mirror isn’t worth compromising the last seven years of your profile data. And that when you see that “you are now leaving Facebook” warning, it’s because You. Are. Now. Leaving. Facebook.

Lesson 3: Make it a teaching moment.  Evaluate your partners today.
This is an excellent opportunity for careful evaluation and timely introspection. Let’s take a good hard look at ALL our partners, data collection, data storage, data transfer, database, or otherwise – and give them a thorough once-over. Make sure their collection methods are sound. Make sure their statistics are sound. Make sure their conclusions are rooted in strong discipline and rigor. Make sure they’re collecting information that YOUR BRAND can actually use for YOUR objectives. (Not using your customer data pool for information your partners can sell to, say, your competitors, eh?)

As a paying customer, you have the right to ask what sample sizes your data and/or research partners will tolerate before making general conclusions, and so on. This way, when someone calls you on a “you are the company you keep” claim, you can be assured of (and even write policy around) your vetting methods. And here’s a handy little secret: you can brag about it to your clients, too.