Why Visual Priming Will Play a Big Role in the Cookieless Future

Visual Attention Data

If anyone had any doubts about the importance of third-party cookies to advertisers and the media platforms that support them, then last week’s earning announcement from Snap will have put them to rest.

Despite making over $1bn in revenue in a single quarter, the share price slid by 25%. The reason? Apple’s decision to block third-party tracking apps.

“This has definitely been a frustrating setback for us,” Snap CEO Evan Spiegel said.

Snap is growing fast: it has 306 million daily active users, 23% more than this time last year. It has an impressive predictive algorithm, targeting content and advertising to users based on first-party datasets. Its ad formats generate significant amounts of attention, as highlighted by the Dentsu Attention Economy project.

And yet, despite all of this, the colossal earnings failed to meet even more colossal analyst expectations, in large part due to the death of the cookie. The lack of targeting and tracking on iOS devices has made advertising less effective and less transparent, reducing Snap’s revenues.

We will see more of this in the coming weeks: Facebook, Google and Twitter’s share prices all fell by significant amounts on Thursday. Indeed, these declines are far more noticeable than any movement in share prices related to recent negative PR for some of these companies.

Tim Cook (as well as Ed Chau, and Margrethe Vestager), has done what years of handwringing from concerned clients have failed to do: put a dent in the platforms’ profits.

Remember why losing cookies is a big deal

The cookie is going away. Some, like ad man-turned-privacy campaigner Bob Hoffman, welcome this fact. Others, if they can avert their gaze from the terrible impact third-party cookies seem to have had on our democracy and public discourse, will lament the passing of a useful business tool.

That is because cookies work: people are more likely to notice and act on advertising that is relevant to them. This means that ads that are shown to people that are ‘in market’ are more cost-effective than those shown to those who are not in market. And using data from people’s browsing histories is a good way of building up a picture of what they are interested in and what they might like to buy.

This is not to say that the only role of advertising is activating sales from those who are ready to buy. Andrew Ehrenberg’s work showing advertising works best when thought of as creative publicity aimed at  a broad population rather than persuasive argumentation aimed at a targeted group has been conclusively confirmed by the likes of Byron Sharp, Les Binet and Peter Field.

But the fact remains that targeting works. Serving ads to the right people at the right time delivers better short-term results for advertisers.

Targeting can be more effective given the right conditions

So, what are we going to do now that Apple has taken this ability away, with Google following suit (eventually)?

One way of thinking about things is to take context more seriously: companies such as my employer Lumen and playground.xyz that can help advertisers identify which ads are most likely to be looked at given the context they are served in. For instance, we know that the layout and ad clutter on a site can have a big difference on how likely people are to engage with the ads displayed there.

But there’s more to ‘context’ than how big the ads are and for how long they are viewable. There are contexts beyond the device that someone is holding right now. Attention to advertising isn’t just the product of what is going on right now, but of a broader context of someone’s ‘relationship’ with a brand.

At Lumen, we have known for some time that if people look at an ad from a brand once, they are more likely to look at a subsequent ad later. In part, this is down to targeting effects. For example, perhaps the people who are interested in the brand or product invest more time in the advertising.

But it also seems to be down to priming effects: you are more likely to look at something that is already familiar than spend time with something that comes to you totally cold.

Why priming works

Research with Inskin Media in 2018 showed the amplificatory power of priming within digital. Research with JCDecaux UK has gone further. In 2019, we found that exposure to OOH advertising increased attention to subsequent social media advertising: 2+2 can equal 5.

This year, we have gone further still, comparing the amplificatory effects of cookie targeting versus those of visual priming in our ‘Primed and ready for the cookieless future insight.’

We set up some tests amongst a sample of 1,800 UK respondents to recreate the effects of cookie targeting and out-of-home priming on attention to subsequent digital ad exposures. Creative was held constant to enable us to investigate the impact of priming effects in isolation.

It appears that cookies work: ads get more attention if they are relevant to users, and if they have been ‘primed’ by previous relevant content. Without cookies, awareness dropped 40%.

But it appears that visual priming by other media such as the public screen of OOH works harder. Those people who looked at the posters in the preparatory tests were far more likely to engage with the digital ads later.

Making ads in a medium work harder

More attention means more recall and more purchase intent. Data from the Inskin study has shown that these priming effects can last for many days after the initial exposure.

Why might this be? You might think that it is down to audience effects: people who are in market for a product or service might look at ads – even multiple ads – more than the general population. But, by comparing the attention and recall data of the ‘cookie primed’ versus the ‘OOH primed’ groups, we have been able to abstract this effect.

What remains is the power of visual priming. This is both a very new insight and a very old one. Ads in one medium work harder if they are primed by previous ads – in the same media, or in different media.

This will come as no surprise to advocates of cross-media amplification effects: the ads are working harder because they are more likely to be getting more attention. New technology has confirmed and quantified established intuitions.

Cookie targeting is (or was) a useful tool in helping ensure that the right digital ads were placed in front of the right people. It worked, but it is going away.

Smart advertisers can make up for this loss of efficacy, or even increase the effectiveness of their digital advertising, by adopting a more holistic approach to the lived experience of advertising.