May 2, 2024

The Transparent Marketer: a radical approach to customer privacy

The shift had to happen at some point; we’re entering the post-cookie age. But what does that mean for your relationship with the people who buy your products and services?

Hands down, cookies have made us better at serving relevant online advertising. But when it comes to finding that ‘single identifier’ in an era where users jump between channels and screens, deleting cookies as they go - and with increased third-party cookie rejection, as well as the use of disparate sandboxes for apps and browsers on mobile - we can only deliver a start-stop view of the consumer journey

Enter cross-device tracking. (And a handful of legal and ethical dilemmas).

Though still in its infancy, cross-device has people going mad for it. So briefly – for anyone who isn’t hitting the ceiling with excitement, because they don’t know what it is – here’s a brief overview of the two methods it uses:


This is where a log in to a website makes a user traceable via the Personally Identifiable Information (PII) they enter (which is tied to their account). This is an almost surefire way to gauge who someone is. Naturally, the most frequent and plentiful logins are made via our friendly chums, Facebook, Google, Twitter and Amazon, which leads us to those unscalable garden walls – a dead end for most right now. Oh, and because of all that PII, the deterministic method is the most likely to raise privacy concerns. More on that shortly...


This, on the other hand, uses impersonal identifiers, such as device operating system (OS), brand and model, IP address, location data, browsing patterns, and so on. Probabilistic cross-device tracking works with a very cool 97.3% accuracy, and has become a favourite with many marketers. There is a “but”, of course: probabilistic is a black box of complex methodology, where it’s not always apparent how data is being collected and analysed by vendors. And really, how close do you need to get to PII before you’ve breached someone’s privacy?

So here’s where I’d like to begin my introduction to 'the Transparent Marketer'.

It’s clear that before cross-device grows real muscle, there are some realities we need to get to grips with. Ruth Boardman, Partner at legal firm Bird & Bird, hit the nail on the head at Adobe’s EMEA Summit last year, when she called for marketers to accept the true intentions of cross-device (i.e. to try and identify individuals), and focus instead on securing users’ full consent to the data collection involved.

She’s spot on. And here’s why.

Reason one, is that cross-device has quickly gathered plenty of negative attention from both the FTC in the US, and the ICO in the UK. Basically, everyone will have to tow the line if they want to avoid penalties. (Do note, that in spite of the EU referendum result, any business in the UK using EU citizens’ data will still be answerable to the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) laws).

Not getting into trouble is the easy reason though. The Transparent Marketer, who respects his or her customers’ right to anonymity, choice, and honesty, sees that transparency is actually essential to the longevity of digital advertising and the integrity of the brand.

It feels right at this point to take a look at the very relevant lesson we can learn from ad blocking: don’t expect people to be indifferent towards their privacy and the way you may (mis)handle their information. If marketers and technologists continue to see it as their ‘right’ to collect data without fair notice, opt-out preferences and a higher value exchange (for the customer), we risk creating our very own monster: a customer who is, at the very least, apathetic to advertising, and at worst, sees brands as ‘the enemy’ – a creepy and manipulative institution that demands everything for nothing.

The Transparent Marketer wants individuals to embrace their brand, not fight against it, or simply accept its advertising as a necessary evil. If we do ever reach that point, the digital advertising industry can start counting its days.


1. Be transparent with your customers

Provide jargon-free, real-time notices at the point of data collection: what data you are collecting, how are you doing it, and how will that data be used. Such frank openness may seem like a it puts your brand in a vulnerable position, but respect for choice is essential to customer loyalty and the longevity of your business.

2. Know your tools

Don’t make any claims about anonymity before fully understanding how your tech partner collects, analyses, and shares data. Not all tools are made equal when it comes to privacy, so get a solid guarantee that your data practices are 110% above board.

3. Create a fair value exchange

Technologically, online advertising has advanced in leaps and bounds, but how far has the actual advertising come in terms of offering real value? If, when an ad is served, the advertiser takes something from the user, something beneficial should be given in exchange. Whether it’s quicker load-times, a memorable creative experience, or some kind of practical takeaway or incentive, the radical marketer wants to make advertising better for the people who see it.

Let’s be honest about this, the initial outcomes of increased transparency might be hard to stomach, i.e. with more choice, customers can just say “no”. But should we see that as a bad thing?  Before pushing them further away with poor quality ad experiences, it’s worth asking ourselves what would happen if we listened to the signals that users give us, and let those guide our methods.

Cross-device is applauded as the answer to a presently disjointed system of user tracking, but are we ready for it not to be? The Transparent Marketer is ready to do what works – for the long term – and believes in an equitable model, where exchange is fair and neutral. If we can manage this with cross-device, great, if not, we need to get ready to innovate again.

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