Why cross-device ad targeting is so promising — and so challenging — for mobile

Online marketers have long relied on cookies to track users’ behavior on the web in an effort to deliver targeted ads as accurately and effectively as possible. But two major factors continue to minimize the relevance of cookies in mobile: Apple’s Safari browser doesn’t support third-party cookies, preventing advertisers from tracking users and retargeting pitches across multiple sites. Similarly, the webview technology used by native apps to display online content is unique per application, preventing the sharing of information between cookies or with the browser.

The latter problem is particularly troublesome because apps continue to dominate the time spent on smartphones. Apps accounted for an overwhelming 86 percent of the average U.S. mobile consumer’s time in 2013, according to Flurry, while the web claimed a mere 14 percent, down from 20 percent in 2012. So while consumption of mobile data continues skyrocket, the mobile advertising industry still lags behind.

Cracking open the app world

Apple last year began encouraging advertisers to use a product called IDFA, or “identifier for advertisers,” which can track users across iOS apps, and Google has followed suit with a similar product for Android dubbed Advertising ID. But there’s no shortage of others trying gain ground in mobile advertising by solving the cookie problem:

  • Verizon recently took a bold step toward addressing the app-advertising problem with the launch of PrecisionID, which assigns unique identifiers to its subscribers that can then be accessed across devices. Users who log into Verizon’s site on a PC to pay a bill, watch a video or check an account, for instance, can have their online activities tracked after they leave the site, then have ads delivered to their mobile devices based on their tastes, locations and other data. The move appears to be the boldest yet among U.S. carriers, all of whom hope to get a slice of the very promising mobile advertising pie. And while data is anonymized and users can opt out (if they are even aware of the program), Mobile Marketing Watch wondered if the plan is too creepy, and the Los Angeles Times claimed Verizon is selling out its customers. So the nation’s largest carrier is gambling that it can monetize its new weapon without alienating subscribers. Verizon’s fellow tier-one operators are sure to be watching this effort closely to determine how effective – and how risky – it is.
  • Facebook, Google and Twitter all require users to log in to access their accounts across devices, giving them the same cross-device tracking and retargeting opportunities Verizon is now leveraging. The combination of a massive Android user base and cross-device opportunities will be very powerful for Google, which already dominates the mobile ad market. Facebook has quickly become a major force in the space, too, thanks largely to its recent successes with app-install ads. Twitter has yet to enjoy that kind of success, but it has made a series of savvy moves following its $350 million acquisition of MoPub last fall. And, importantly, each of these three operate their own mobile ad networks, enabling them to track users across devices and websites.
  • Countless smaller players could capitalize on the relative insignificance of cookies in mobile as well. Amazon, Hulu, LinkedIn, Netflix, Pandora, Spotify and Yahoo are just a few of the most obvious examples of companies with sizable audiences that regularly access their content and services from both PCs and mobile devices. These players will be constrained by a relative lack of data at their disposal, but they may be able to make strides by supporting more focused campaigns.

None of these solutions is a panacea for advertisers looking to crack the mobile code, because none can give marketers a 360-degree view of a market fragmented by multiple competing operating systems, carriers, social networks and other components. No vast network of publisher log-in data exists, so advertisers still can view only slices of the overall impact of their cross-device ad campaigns, so measuring ROI will remain a big challenge for the foreseeable future. And it’s important to note that cookies aren’t worthless in mobile; they are simply a limited tool for delivering targeted ads. That will gradually change over the next few years, though, as content owners and ad networks begin to help advertisers reach users more effectively through cross-device marketing platforms.