• There’s no denying the advertising dominance of the walled gardens. Google and Facebook command more than 60% of all digital ad dollars spent in the U.S.—and when you add in Amazon, Snap, and others, that percentage only grows.

     Walled gardens get marketers to open their wallets because their closed environments have made it incredibly easy to reach specific audiences at scale. Practically every digital ad company has taken notice and developed different ideas to offer an open web solution that delivers the same success for marketers. Their methods are disparate but most come back to the same general consensus: figuring out “identity” is key. 

    All the talk about identity has made it one of the most misunderstood terms in the industry, to the detriment of marketers who, now more than ever, need to prove the value of their investments.

    The Misconception of Identity

    Identity has become a catch-all phrase referenced by ad targeting, people-based marketing, audience segmentation, and more. At its core, however, identity is simply about showing that multiple touch points, whether it be devices or a mailbox or a browser, belong to the same person. Nothing more.

     And, it’s worth calling out that while identity can unify different devices for a person, there is no guarantee that it is doing this unification across all devices. Further, thinking only about identity all but ignores heightened sensitivity around user privacy, data protection, and the impending “cookiepocalyse.” 

    Think of identity like a driver’s license. It helps show who a person is presenting themselves to be, but doesn’t tell us anything about what interests they have, what content they consume, their shopping habits, their family status, and so forth. It also does not verify if the person is actually who they say they are—an important factor in the ongoing ad fraud arms race.

    This isn’t to say that identity isn’t important. It’s a critical starting point. The industry must view it as a building block rather than the whole answer though. Once identity is resolved, it is then time to think about how to use that information to enhance audience strategy, bid strategy, and creative strategy.  

    Painting a Full Picture of the Consumer

    If identity is like a driver’s license, a people-based marketing solution is your entire wallet with a school ID, an auto insurance card, or a gym membership card inside. Perhaps there is a punch card from a favorite sandwich shop and receipts from past purchases.

    This is what the walled gardens do so well. Take Facebook, for instance—they have your identity information (i.e. the license) thanks to the login, but then they also have the “wallet” of essentials based on your activity on Facebook.

    Additionally, Facebook has strong audience authentication measures. Based on the strength of a login, Facebook can resolve identity and then reconfirm that identity when a person next logs in. Non-walled gardens often rely on a transient ID that can be easily stolen, spoofed, or made unreadable by an advertiser.

    Solving for Context and Privacy

    Context and privacy are always critical, but especially now when every generation’s media habits have changed, some significantly so. Priority must be given to both identity and context—and privacy can’t be an afterthought. Building solutions that solve for all of these areas, beyond just identity, will free up resources for platforms, publishers, and marketers to refocus on the issues that will actually bring advertiser spend back to the open web: 

    • Does the identity have enough reach and frequency to give the advertiser room to run tests and learn approaches? 
    • Does the identity have measurement built in?
    • And so on…

    There is a path forward in digital advertising that can shift dollars away from walled gardens. Identity is important, but it’s only a building block. Once we solve for identity, that’s when the work really begins.

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