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Tracking Pixels: Marketing In The Dark

March 27th 2019

Tracking Pixels: Marketing In The Dark

The many ways that online advertising has changed over the past 10 years should be turned into its own, university-level business education course. SilverServers and our clients have been on the front line of these changes, hard lessons or otherwise, since 1997. As part of the many search engine optimization and online marketing avenues we have a hand in, SilverServers has both installed and used tracking pixels over the past 10 years to help target and monitor the effectiveness of our advertising. Now in 2019, it seems those days are coming to an end. In our opinion, rightfully so!

In an effort to provide a measure of privacy, many software and service providers who have relied on tracking pixels for a long time are swiftly and directly moving away from them. Many others are hanging on to them like a life preserver in the digital sea. Why are these businesses moving away from providing and using tracking pixels? Because our users and audience are asking us to.

Ad-Blocking: The Start Of The End

Do you have an ad-blocker installed in your web browser or mobile device? As of April last year, the Delhi School of Internet Marketing compiled data on ad-blockers and advertisement information from around the web. They found that, around the world, ‘64% of people believed Ads are annoying and they use Ad-blocker’ on their desktop computers. A further almost 420 million mobile/smartphone users have installed some sort of Ad-blocker on their device.

Ad-blocking cost marketing agencies and their clients around $22 billion dollars in 2015 alone. At the time it was a process to find an ad-blocker you like for your specific program, install it and keep it up to date. Now 4 years later, many companies and software developers are building these features into their product with no actions needed from the end-user.

The Delhi School also found that from 2016 to 2018, online advertisements increased up to 87%. No wonder people want them off their screen and out of their experience! The industry response to this creeping process was to ask visitors to turn their blockers off, or somehow otherwise detect and react to ad-blockers. Sites are still doing this today, but ad-block use is only increasing exponentially. Is your marketing agency prepared to lobby Apple to keep this technology out of their iPhones? If not, they don’t really have much they can do to react!

Third-Party Cookies: Looking In The Back Window

Another way that marketing agencies decided to try and get around ad blockers, was to shift their metric gathering to other websites and other processes. Instead of serving and tracking an ad on their own website, agencies embedded ‘pixels’ and other software on other websites. From login/user connection systems to embedded maps or ‘like’ buttons, these additions actually only served to track a user’s progress through the web and report it back to the advertising agencies who wanted the information.

Profiles are then built and audiences created out of like-browsing users. Advertisers could be relatively sure that their targeted advertisements were being served to an applicable, hungry audience and the users didn’t even have to visit their website!

Apple for example began to crack down on third-party cookie tracking on its devices in September 2017 with it’s ITP (Intelligent Tracking Protection) service launch. This meant Apple phones and other devices/software would automatically block all third-party cookie tracking processes that a user encountered. Google and other vendors followed suit soon after. Facebook marketing accuracy and audience creation effectiveness dropped almost immediately and since then the online giants have been scrambling for a solution. What did they arrive at? A last ditch attempt to fake your browser and devices into treating third-party cookies like first-party ones.

First-Party Cookies: The Trojan Advertisement Horse

Almost immediately after third-party cookie tracking was compromised, advertising agencies put a plan into motion to fool your devices. If their tracking pixels and offsite cookies were treated by your device as first-party, they could continue to track you and your behaviours around the web. A new online gold rush was on, with many industry giants rushing to convert and re-code their software to maliciously masquerade as first-party content.

What does this mean? When your phone visited a website with a Facebook like button on it, that button made your device think it was actually on Facebook’s platform to ensure the tracking pixel still worked. Advertisers are continuing to exploit this loophole on all internet browsing and accessible devices possible. A little cloak and dagger, don’t you think? We do too.

Tracking Protection in 2019: Ask And Ye Shall Receive

Sticking with Apple’s great ITP service as an example, as of March 5th 2019 third-party cookie tracking is now also being blocked. Other offerings (Firefox, Chrome) are now building ad-blocking and cookie tracking protection directly into their new versions of software. Simply by downloading and using Firefox for browsing the web, your advertising information footprint shrinks dramatically.

This is horrendous news for advertising agencies that still hang their hat on providing an embedded tracking pixel for use in your marketing campaigns. They’ve already had to deal with multiple steps of this process pulling information out of their hands, and now it seems even more target-able data will be gone.

What does this mean for the future of online marketing? Give it back to the people!

People Marketing: The Way Forward

So without accurate and reliable audience information, how can you effectively market your business online? By treating your customers like real people with real needs that are important. Ask them if they want to represent themselves for your marketing purposes. Give them incentives for sticking around that include some impersonal, audience relative data collection. Do this all in front of their faces with respect and clarity.

People Marketing is ultimately the only way forward in an advertising world where the magic bullet of automated audience and demographic information gathering is quickly going the way of the Dinosaurs. Gather direct information from your customers in ways that are unobtrusive and trustworthy, such as their reason for wanting your product. Are they buying for a family member? Are they a professional who uses your product for their business? Perhaps just a hobbyist who needs some help!

If a visitor provides this information, you can at least connect it with other readily available information to manage and categorize your own audiences. Then re-market later to them at your leisure, provided you’ve complied with all the fun spam laws from around the world of course! If you have a contingent of customers that have identified themselves as buying your product for a loved one, and your product is largely geared towards a male audience, there’s your email list for a Father’s Day sale blast. Imagine you sell drones and drone accessories and a group of your visitors agreed to mark themselves as professional interest buyers. You now have a great audience to connect with at the beginning of wedding season, when a lot of professional drone pilots are getting a lot of work!

The backlash the public provides against long held robotic, predatory and invasive data gathering practices is powerful and clear. Stop hiding behind a screen of numbers and treat your customers accordingly. Their personal data does not need to be invaded to provide you actionable information. Their belief in your product and website need not be swayed or exploited for squeezing more money out of them. If you provide a positive experience and a valued service, customers will develop trust with your company. Trust and proof of use will build a culture of community around your product. Use this yourself to interact with and build your audience. Our hands have been in the cookie jar for too long, its time to share.

How long do we have to make the changes to how we offer advertising metrics and value? If you’re still resting on the laurels of tracking pixels alone, you are already behind the curve. If your advertising company is pushing this option on you without any way to actually confirm the information they provide, it might be time to look elsewhere. If you’re unsatisfied with the metrics, cost and inaccurate audience reports you’re getting from your advertising agency, there are alternatives out there. Call or Email SilverServers today for a chat about moving forward in the online marketing world.

For more related content, check out the Business Marketing section of our blog!

Leave Tracking Pixels Behind Today!

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