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‘A reset button’: How publishers are prepping for a cookie-free future

Man stands vacuums cookie crumbs while standing on a mouse pad with a mouse nearby.

Illustration by Esther Park / Shutterstock / The Current

At the top of Snopes’ website is a “true or false” quiz where visitors can put their debunking skills to the test. Through this daily challenge, the fact-checking publisher invites readers to log in to save their score and keep track of their progress.

Motivating readers to log in for free accounts or paid subscriptions with perks like games is one approach some publishers are taking to strengthen their first-party data and augment digital ad revenue as Google deprecates cookies in Chrome this year. A 2019 Google study of the top 500 global publishers found that publisher revenue decreased by 52 percent on average access to when third-party cookies were disabled.

Snopes Chief Revenue Officer Justin Wohl believes publishers will experiment with things like games, newsletters, and even AI chatbots that can summarize large swathes of text to get those valuable email addresses. Meanwhile, other publishers are turning to solutions like single-sign-on technology that streamlines the login process.

Collecting that first-party data, however, is only the first piece of the puzzle. A major goal is to then authenticate those audiences for their advertising partners in order to have a simpler view of those users across devices and other IDs as well as boost addressability to those users.

The Current spoke with six publishers testing identity solutions like Unified ID 2.0 (UID2), RampID, Core ID, and other interoperable identifiers, and the good news is that these publishers are optimistic that they will be able to implement solutions by the end of the year. Across the board, some publishers are finding that identity solutions significantly increase their ability to monetize audiences by better pairing IDs with email addresses. Snopes saw a 200 percent increase in cost per mille (CPM) while using UID2 over ads with cookies.

“We learned that having an email address is going to be worth two times [more] for that user on our cookieless inventory, so that set the kind of path towards allow[ing] people to create free accounts,” said Wohl. “That's all the proof you need. That's exactly what we've been looking for since 2020, when Safari rates dropped by half.”

The value of authentication

Mediavine, which helps over 10,000 publishers monetize their content, created a platform called Grow in 2020, that incentivizes readers to log in and consent to personalized ads, with benefits like the ability to save content — like recipes and quizzes — across its portfolio. Mediavine found that authenticated traffic from Grow, which 7,000 of Mediavine publishers currently use, sold ads at a rate 104 percent higher than unauthenticated traffic, according to Amanda Martin, VP of partnerships and business strategy at Mediavine.

“I do think that there is a reset button that gets hit here in a positive way for publishers."

Grant Whitmore, VP of ad tech and programmatic revenue, Advance Local

Meanwhile, online gaming publisher Unwind Media, which owns sites like Solitaired and Solitaire Bliss that draw in 27 million users a year, saw a 51 percent CPM lift when a deterministic ID was present in the bidstream, and an 11 percent increase in fill-rate over the last 30 days.

“We found that authenticated users monetize better, but they also come back more frequently,” says Emry Downinghall, SVP of programmatic revenue and strategy at Unwind Media. “And in our case, because we do casual web gaming online, they play more games, right? So they're really our core dedicated user base. And if you build that relationship, it also works from the product side — they're your brand ambassadors.”

Of course, the push to authenticate audiences is happening on a global scale, and testing results are similarly coming back positive around the world. When Ameba Blog, a publisher in Japan, activated inventory with UID2, it saw a 67 percent increase in impressions and a 47 percent increase in ad spend, according to Kazuki Kishishita, media monetization consultant at Cyber Agent, owner of Ameba Blog.

Ongoing challenges

For publishers, it’s easy to show how authenticated users will benefit their bottom lines, but it’s not as easy to know which identity solutions to focus on. As the industry shifts to addressability, experts say it’s a bit like a cat-and-mouse game, where publishers’ hands are mostly tied, eagerly waiting to see what identity solutions their advertising partners will end up zeroing in on by the end of the year. Downinghall says Unwind Media, for instance, is currently testing UID 2, RampID, ID5, SharedID, and Amazon Publisher Audiences, despite many of those being interoperable.

“Publishers are in a position where they kind of have to ready all the different alternatives,” says Mediavine’s Martin, which is using UID2 in its Grow platform. “It's a pretty big lift in general because we're going to need to meet the buy side where they choose to spend their money next year, and what tactics they choose to go to. So we're spending a lot of time just making sure that we have all of our infrastructure in place to support all the different alternatives to cookies, because there's not going to be a cookie replacement.”

Publishers also continue battling to express the value exchange to their readers. As Snopes’ Wohl says, “Not every single publication will be able to stand up a crossword puzzle and expect to have it be the one that people go to, so publishers will have to find niches.”

“We found that authenticated users monetize better, but they also come back more frequently.”

Emry Downinghall, SVP of programmatic revenue and strategy, Unwind Media

To support its identity strategy, global media company Future, which operates websites like Tom’s Guide, TechRadar, and Who What Wear, has invested in single-sign-on technology and is exploring third-party solutions, such as OpenPass, which allows readers to sign in one time across any website that carries the technology. For Future, it’s a way to make the process more seamless for its readers.

“Building stronger relationships with our readers is good for business,” says Jeffrey Goldstein, VP of programmatic at Future. “It gives us better insight into understanding most importantly what drives their passions, and how we can support them on that journey.”

A move for transparency

Along with the goal of better-monetized audiences, publishers view the deprecation of cookies as a path forward in reclaiming some authority away from walled gardens like Google. “We believe that an integrated ID approach would allow publishers to control the collection and use of user data, thereby improving the user experience while ensuring greater transparency,” says Cyber Agent’s Kishishita.

“I do think that there is a reset button that gets hit here in a positive way for publishers, with the diversity of solutions in the ecosystem, which balances the equation a little bit from where it has been,” says Grant Whitmore, VP of ad tech and programmatic revenue, at publisher Advance Local, which runs several localized news sites across the U.S., like and The Oregonian.

Whitmore still expects to see plenty of cookie-based audience buying into the second quarter of 2024, due to the difficulty of buyers not being able to show the immediate results they want. But by July, he predicts more switchover in marketers’ implementation of identity solutions as cookies continue to deprecate. “The old patterns will prevail until they no longer exist,” he says “We’re hoping to see a lot more than what we’ve seen today. Adoption needs to happen.”

“If we need to make this change for the long-term benefit of the open web and monetization on the open web. What better time?” asks Unwind’s Downinghall.

The Current is owned and operated by The Trade Desk, Inc. This information is provided solely for background and is not a representation or guarantee of any future performance.