Does Tracking have a future?

The problem with tracking

2018 has been a challenging year for businesses dependent on tracking technology to evaluate and manage their digital marketing. First, there was GDPR. Shortly after, both Apple and Mozilla announced browser features that will restrict the ability to track consumers. Among other privacy-related measures, Google made parallel tracking standard for their search engine marketing (SEM), thus providing further challenges. Finally, there is the looming doom of ePrivacy, which will come into force next year or the year after.

The overall trend is clear. Legislators want to get a tighter grip on the way the digital marketing industry handles consumer data. Consumers are increasingly hostile against tracking activities. Big players such as Google and Facebook have started to use concerns over privacy to build even higher walls around their gardens, making it very hard for smaller players to track ads with their own technology and generating data independently. All in all, the question whether tracking has a future at all seems legitimate.

How did we get here?

To understand the future of tracking, we need to understand how we got here. Although it may be hard to imagine these days, there was a time when the Internet did not exist. In those days, marketing was ruled by John Wanamaker’s (1838-1922) famous dictum – half the money he spent on advertising was wasted and the trouble was he could not figure out what half. With the emergence of the Internet, however, came online advertising and online commerce, which pretty much managed to take away these issues. All of a sudden, people working in marketing could easily avoid wasting money and evaluate, optimise and target their advertising with a precision Wanamaker would have never dared to dream of.

The possibilities turned out to be so endless that completely new industries emerged. The Internet developed into a platform on which everybody with an internet access could both consume and produce free content, because the content could be monetized with advertising. But to enable all this, tracking was, and still is, vital. Ad impressions, clicks and orders have to be measured; Customer journeys have to be mapped and touch points attributed. If ads are the fuel on which the Internet is running, tracking technologies provide the pipelines.

In short, the industry should be far more conscious about the content it was able to finance. On the other hand, it also has to be ready to admit that in its eagerness to make money, it had grossly neglected privacy issues. As ads start to appear with items a consumer bought months ago – or worse – when they are impacted with pregnancy test ads before they figured out whether they were pregnant, it is understandable that consumers get distrusting or cynical about the data being collected about them. At the end of the day, advertising is about convincing consumers to purchase goods and services and you can’t convince people without any trust.

How can we earn back the trust of consumers?

The future of tracking therefore depends on how we, as an industry, can live up to this ambivalence: being confident about what we made possible, while being critical at the same time. This, of course, is a huge challenge, but also a fulfilling one. Instead of asking ourselves what business models can be maintained, we should ask how we can make them sustainable and ethical. This transformation can be illuminated by a simple example. Since GDPR came into force, most advertisers have been putting consumers into a corner, obstructing their experience entirely should they not consent to being tracked. Advertisers who want to build trust should, instead, invest in explaining the necessity of tracking and creating incentives, in order to convince consumers to agree to the practice.

Even controversial marketing methods such as retargeting can be made sustainable. The key in this case is empowerment. When consumers buy particular books, it might make sense to inform them about new books by the same author, but only if they have expressed interest in being informed. Likewise, consent management should be far more about empowerment – and that is not always as difficult as it seems. From a technical point of view, investing in tracking methods that do not depend on redirecting is a good first step in making tracking more transparent and easier to integrate in consent management solutions.

Finally, we should invest far more in creativity. Consumers are feeling overwhelmed and betrayed by the industry due to the myriad of ads thrown to their faces regardless of how they feel towards them. Producing engaging advertisements is probably the best way to show that you care for your consumers enough to provide entertainment, and to present a new way of marketing, and even tracking, that consumers actually like.