What to know before you FLoC to Topics
Big Tech’s ad personalization woes persist in a privacy-focused world
Well, that didn’t take long.
With opportunities in the land of cookies drying up, Google’s Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC) approach was meant to usher in a new era of privacy-conscious ad targeting.
Now, FLoC seems poised to go the way of the dodo bird. Talk about a fail-fast approach.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation summed up the privacy issues well almost a year ago. In a nutshell, FLoC could get so granular with ad categories based on a user’s browsing history that it would be possible to identify unique users. FLoC also opened the door to discriminatory ad targeting given sensitive demographic data that may be disclosed when browsing info was blasted out to ad partners without express user permission.
But this is Google we’re talking about here. They can’t just have a scalable digital ad play. So, they’ve now bestowed upon us: Topics.
The Google Topics API takes a similar approach to FLoC in that it uses browsing history to guess user interests. Five per week, to be exact. It then feeds the top three from the previous few weeks to publishers for ad serving purposes.
In an attempt to skirt privacy concerns, Google pulls from a pool of just 300 broad Topics categories. Think “fitness” or “travel.”
This may work for cannonball campaigns designed for mass audiences. But if any measure of customization or personalization is of interest? Forget it.
Travel…great. Where? What kind? Who knows. Not advertisers, that’s for sure.
Not to mention, basing interests on browsing history alone will be fraught with misreads. We need not think beyond our own browsing habits to consider how convoluted a picture can be painted by fleeting web interests. (Don’t get me started on synthetic interests that are foisted upon us by AI algorithms.)
Placing a burden on advertisers
Let’s say for a moment that a topics-based approach is of interest to some advertisers. A major challenge they face is the resources they dedicate to campaigns and strategies can only work within Google’s walled garden.
The moment they try to execute a program like this on their own in an omnichannel fashion, the burden is on them to permission those records and ensure they’re not targeting anyone who has opted out of CCPA or another state’s privacy equivalent.
How many marketers will have the resources to build and maintain those files? Not Google’s problem.
We expect ad-tech leaders to ultimately introduce some sort of aligned capability. But there are no guarantees these approaches will be accurate enough to target marketers on a cost-effective basis.
And, of course, the personalization problem persists.
Personalization mustn’t come at the expense of privacy
Topics remind me of the 1950s megaphone broadcast approach to advertising. Back when a brand like Phillip Morris would sponsor an entire TV show.
Seventy years on and this is the best we’ve got?
Well, no. While there will always exist an opportunity to appeal to the broadest characteristics of humankind, the way of the world today is customization and personalization.
After all, consumers are so much more than their last search.
They don’t want irrelevant ads blasted at them all day. What they want is to be understood. For companies to take a genuine interest in what interests them and offer value in the way of goods or services that improve their lives.
In turn, more companies want to establish a long-term relationship with consumers and take them on the buying journey that makes the most sense for them.
They are finding this is possible with an approach rooted in fully-permissioned, personally identifiable information (PII).
Cookies, and even FLoC, represent companies desperately clinging to a world of scraping as much info without permission on as many people as possible to do advertising on the cheap. Topics attempt to clean this up but a result is a vanilla approach misaligned with today’s trends.
Accurate, timely, complete, and permissioned information about a user’s location, behavior, and interests is the foundation of meaningful engagement. It is the fuel for thoughtful, long-term campaigns.
Simply, it is the future. We want to help you get there.