The Measurement Revolution: A Universal User Token for the Web

The future of measurement is the adoption of a universal user token. A blunt, yet nonetheless accurate, statement that seems to be the consensus across the industry. Are we even remotely close to achieving this? The answer is yes, thanks to DigiTrust, an industry non-profit consortium supporting a standardised user token to improve the consumer web experience.

Founded in 2014 by 20 leading ad tech platforms, DigiTrust’s goal was to research and develop a solution to solve the existing measurement challenges within the digital advertising industry, the challenges in web measurement that IDFA solved for in-app measurement – a robust tool to standardise in-app measurement and give consumers choice and control. Speaking with ExchangeWire, Jordan Mitchell, CEO, DigiTrust explains, “IDFA is a standardised user token, which has saved a lot of the industry. It’s helpful to the entire advertising supply chain, as well as consumers. There isn’t such a thing for web-based traffic at this point; and DigiTrust is something that is owned by everyone, as a non-profit industry consortium.”

What challenges?

The existing challenges with how a user is categorised in the programmatic supply chain stem from each party using a different, cookie-based user token. Let’s set the scene: If ‘consumer 123’ enters the supply chain, she may be given user token ‘ABC’ by the publisher, ‘567’ by the SSP, ‘DFG’ by the DSP, and ‘890’ by the DMP. This then creates multiple third-party, cookie-based user tokens in the supply chain and every single one of them needs to be synced to enable programmatic buying and selling. The result is hundreds of billions of pixels being created on a daily basis, causing a significant slowing of publisher pages.

On top of slower page load times, the syncing of all these user tokens results in the degradation of cookie support. A huge 25-50% of impressions only support first-party cookies – with no support for third-party cookie-based user tokens, there is no retargeting, no audience buying, reduced scale and resulting yield, limited ability to target across the mobile web, and a 50-75% loss of value.

When you combine the issue of multiple user tokens slowing down publisher pages and degrading cookie support, you inevitably end up with data loss. If user token syncs are measured by match rate, which usually sits in the range of 60-70%, each and every sync that needs to take place will result in a reduction of audience volume, as each sync matches with a smaller audience pulled through from the previous sync. This leaves agencies and advertisers with a dwindling audience pool and a significantly limited buyer scale, which, in turn, negatively hits seller revenue. It’s self perpetuating – an untenable situation that is only further negatively impacted with the addition of every new third-party cookie.

If that weren’t enough, we operate in a tilted playing field. An open third-party ecosystem brings huge benefits to the industry – it allows more players to operate in a diversified market, driving innovation across the supply chain. However, it's precisely the increase in players, and the drive for innovation, which is exacerbating the measurement challenge. Those operating within walled gardens benefit from better, more reliable user tokens, which can be implemented at scale, a single technology stack with no data loss, and a single privacy policy.

This, of course, all builds into an extremely frustrating consumer experience. The impact on the consumer is a slower, more clunky content experience, as well as anxiety and a lack of trust in digital advertising.

Our open ecosystem sees increasing regulatory pressure and risk, reduced revenue driven by more third-party cookie fragility, and higher pixel syncing requirements as a result of a proliferation in third-party pixels. The consumer reaction? Ad blocker installation.

This is the cost of talking about something but, ultimately, doing nothing.

What is being done?

The solution: publishers and platforms must come together and adopt a single trusted cookie/user token. This is where DigiTrust comes in, with a goal to solve the measurement challenge once and for all. It’s a cloud-based solution, borne out of research from an IAB white paper released in 2014, which identified that of the five solution classes evaluated, including device, network and server, a cloud-based model would service the majority of core capabilities required for the consumer, the publisher and the industry – basically, it ticks all the boxes.

The DigiTrust offering is a non-profit co-op model, which has been celebrated by regulators, and it provides a DigiTrust user token, which is stored in a first-party cookie and accessible in a third-party context, as well as DigiTrust Consent, a consumer-opt in. According to Mitchell, asking platforms using existing proprietary, cookie-based user tokens to rely on a standardised token would have been met with reluctance: “It was critical for us to set up as a non-biased industry consortium.”

DigiTrust enables all parties to use the same user token, meaning there is no loss of audience match rate with each pixel sync – consistent, 100% match rate with no sync will drive audience scalability and yield improvement. A universal user token will reduce page load times, giving a better consumer experience. A consumer opt-in will also reduce regulatory risk and effort, setting the bar for the industry and giving proof of consent to the digital supply chain. That tilted playing field will also level out, with scalability, no data loss, and a single privacy policy.

However, a universal user token is only universal if adoption itself is such. The success of DigiTrust hinges entirely on the deployment and support of both the publishers and the platforms. DigiTrust was put forward to publishers in Q2 of this year and the response was extremely positive. Publishers have committed to deploy starting from Q4 2016, but one of their obvious key requirements was assurance of involvement from platforms. The platforms are crucial for this to work – not only do they provide revenue in the programmatic supply chain, but also the pixel sync. Fortunately, as you would hope, platform response has been favourable and new platforms are coming to the fore all the time to express their interest.

How does it work?

It all stems from a page view and propagates from there. The consumer views a page containing DigiTrust JavaScript from any browser, across any device, at which point a user token and user consent are established. If there is no consent, a pop-up bar will appear on the page, much like the cookie consent pop-ups that currently exist in the EU. The user token is encrypted and the user consent timestamped and any subsequent page navigation is redirected through the Digitru.st domain. The cookie, with the user token and consent flag, is set in the Digitru.st domain and the publisher domain, before the user is then directed to the desired page.

DigiTrust does not own any data throughout this process – it stores no tracking data, nor does it provide incremental tracking data to the industry.

How do you get involved?

Proprietary ad tech platforms simply need to pay a membership fee to join, which pays for access to the DigiTrust User Token and DigitTrust Consent. All platform members must also be members of self-regulatory programmes. Premium publishers with content and audiences receive free access.

Why are the publishers getting free access? According to Mitchell, publishers are already taking on a large burden from multiple areas, so it makes sense for the platforms to fund it. “If we do it right, this becomes an infrastructure and underlying technology play. If the platforms start to pull back and reduce their pixel sync process, they have a lot to gain. If the initiative is successful, the platforms will see a strong ROI.”

DigiTrust intends to solve a ubiquitous problem space. Both publishers and platforms are faced with their own internal challenges; so, it goes without saying that getting it lined up to be supported and deployed across all parties is a large orchestration. A large, yet necessary, orchestration in which both publishers and platforms can see enormous value. This is IDFA for the web. Nothing else like this exists in an industry crying out for it. The measurement revolution is almost upon us.