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The publishing game is changing (again) and transparency is the only way to level up

A dark cloudy sky with a browser window in the center. The background of the browser window showing a sunny blue sky.

Illustration by Robyn Phelps / Shutterstock / The Current

Anyone who plays online strategy games gets accustomed to “seasons” — each season iterates on the last, with logic and rules perpetually changing based on player feedback and the vision of developers. Sometimes a new character is debuted, or an underutilized ability gets “buffed” or strengthened, and all of this is meant to refresh gamer interest and encourage new paths to victory.

Whether or not you’ve spent hundreds of hours mastering Warcraft titles, if you’ve been in digital media, you know what it means to have the game changed on you.

Starting around 2015, publishers were presented with a new opportunity to generate earnings for their websites with header bidding. This programmatic means of auctioning ad inventory offered a conceptually different approach to selling impressions to advertisers than direct sales, with much lower operating costs for the publisher. Using data available on the webpage and in the browser, advertisers could bid on impressions one at a time, without making upfront commitments or guarantees, which allowed them to be more nimble in updating campaign strategies before budgets were all spent. The open-market strategy that emerged from the introduction of header bidding afforded publishers the opportunity to maximize the attractiveness of any and every impression and to offer it to a set of qualified buyers to compete for it fairly.

In the years since, programmatic advertising continues to navigate its share of seasons, especially with the recent deprecation of third-party cookies on Chrome. This particular game began in 2020, when Safari removed third-party cookies from its browser. Publishers that didn’t take any action then have been missing out on revenue from that readership for nearly the last four years. Now, having this component of online advertising completely removed from the browser experience means that publishers will need to move toward authentication — quickly — because they need a new means of making their impressions attractive to buyers. Google’s Privacy Sandbox will offer marketers non-cookied means of targeting their future media buys in Chrome, but this coming technology doesn’t solve for the cookie loss in other browsers that publishers are already faced with, nor does its methodology stand to outperform deterministic IDs for marketers.

So, what’s next, erecting the paywalls? Not necessarily. Registration has traditionally been a means for attracting readers into a marketing funnel, developing them from “known user” to “newsletter recipient” to “paying subscriber.” This is still in play in online publishing and is an offering that we’ll continue to develop at Snopes alongside other tactics for authentication, like our new trivia game and forthcoming experiments with chatbots. But for us and many outlets, email will be a relevant playbook for monetizing only a small two-digit percentage of total audience, and going forward is too narrow a lens through which to consider reader relationships alone.

I challenge the publisher community to think about other creative ways to authenticate audiences. If it’s clearly communicated and easy to do, consumers are typically open to adapting. As an example, consider SMS-based two-factor authentication, where consumers receive a text message with a link or code to proceed. The approach has become commonplace for everything from accessing checking accounts to booking a 7 a.m. spin class and is about as frictionless of an authentication event as website operators can hope to enable, until single sign-on solutions like OpenPass and passkeys become more prevalent.

Providing a phone number doesn’t directly expose a person to unwanted spam and marketing and doesn’t necessitate the creation of an account. It does, however, give publishers all they need for the purposes of providing addressability to advertisers in the programmatic ecosystem, and securing higher yields on their inventory.

Fortunately for all who long ago reached their breaking points with alt-IDs and other post-cookie solutions that failed to deliver value, today’s leading replacements for third-party cookies — like Unified ID 2.0 (UID2) and RampID — offer tangible results: In our own testing, we observed a doubling of costs per mille in cookieless browsers when including a UID2 token in programmatic bid requests. The IDs also feature interoperability, ensuring that the data backing them can scale in its inclusiveness and offer progressively better results for advertisers.

Publishers can also present readers with an array of options to support them, even for just that one visit. With a slider button politely defaulted to “no,” the collection of an email address or phone number can be promised for use only to drive higher ad revenues during that session, leaving readers free from further obligation or communication to the website. Should they opt for it, sliding to “yes,” the publisher can then attempt to form an ongoing relationship via email.

All these examples illustrate that transparency is the emergent strategy in this season of online advertising. While news of major changes to browser technology like the deprecation of third-party cookies — and the nuance surrounding why it matters — might not reach beyond the already privacy-minded or tech-working online community, publishers should tell their readers that by authenticating, they are helping to fund the content they know and love. Strategic and creative publishers will succeed at clearly communicating this message and reap the benefits in their advertising businesses. And for me, I’m just excited to see who shows up on the leaderboards.

This op-ed represents the views and opinions of the author and not of The Current, a division of The Trade Desk, or The Trade Desk. The appearance of the op-ed on The Current does not constitute an endorsement by The Current or The Trade Desk.