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Back to the Future: The Post-Cookies Fate of Pharma Digital Measurement

The impending death of the third-party cookie has understandably received a lot of attention from marketers, media agencies and measurement companies – particularly in the pharma industry.

Cookies – those little pieces of information left by websites and saved on browsers, allowing marketers to track online behavior and browsing history – have formed the backbone of many of the digital media tactics pharma marketers have relied on in recent years. Moreover, they provided the industry with countless insights that made our jobs more efficient, helped us to better understand our audiences and got us closer to the truth behind the numbers.

Just five or so years ago, cookies provided us with fantastic new measurement tools that both opened our eyes to new realities and confirmed old assumptions about digital media. Cookies-based measurement helped marketers realize that organic traffic, especially from social channels like Facebook and Twitter, was most impactful. Cookies showed us that endemic advertising drove action and that programmatic advertising could be overwhelmingly efficient.

Not everything about cookies has been perfect from a measurement perspective; in some cases, for example, cookies-based measurement has facilitated an environment that favors efficiency over context. However, as new privacy controls and regulations continue to crumble away third-party cookies, so does some of the progress, solutions and the insights they’ve yielded. As a result, pharma marketers, media agencies and measurement companies are searching for cookie-less tactics to ensure they can still reach their target audiences.

There has already been some headway, with some companies reaching back to old solutions, namely relying on email addresses to identify and connect users through active opt-ins. While this is a logical first step – go with what you know – we learned from experience that opt-in only measurement makes it difficult to discern traffic that is truly representative of actual audiences. This runs the risks of compounding problems we are already experiencing in terms of representation in measurement.

Therefore, it is important for pharma marketers to keep in mind that a few numbers from a results report may not tell the whole story about target audiences and their online – or offline – behaviors. As such, it is necessary for the industry as a whole, including measurement companies, to find ways to measure – possibly through re-weighted analysis and first-party data integrations – that are clearly representative of audience behaviors and needs.

The Death of Social Traffic Measurement, Or the Canary in the Cookies Coal Mine

Safari, which represents a majority of mobile browser usage, hasn’t allowed use of third-party cookies since September 2018. And Google, which represents two-thirds of desktop browser usage via Chrome, has been gradually modifying its cookies policy and plans to eliminate them entirely by 2022. As calls for increased privacy continue to get louder and more public – logically and understandably – even more tech companies will follow suit.

But the dissolution of cookies is not new, as publishers who count on social traffic know very well. Following the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook updated its privacy policy in 2018 and prevented publishers from collecting personal information, including cookies and device IDs, from users browsing in-app. As a result, it became increasingly difficult for publishers who received traffic to their content from Facebook to recognize and identify those visitors, and near-impossible for measurement companies to connect those advertising impressions to identifiers that enable marketers to track downstream impact. For pharma marketers, it meant social-driven traffic to their advertising campaigns was under-represented (or ignored) in impact analyses, potentially affecting willingness to invest in similar campaigns in the future.

Social channels can be useful for driving organic traffic, where a person sees content, identifies with it, and chooses to visit the site. Additionally, social platforms like Facebook have algorithms that help identify people who have interest in certain types of content and then serve them with more, relevant articles. Taken together, early analytic measurement showed the value of social in driving audiences and action.

However, once Facebook eliminated use of third-party cookies to collect personal information, the positive impact of social traffic on ad campaigns began to dissipate, with search – the main driver for measurable traffic – becoming the proxy for performance. As a result, social measurement is essentially living in a “cookie-less” world today. Social publishers are being measured mainly by the value of the search traffic they receive, which is not representative of the business model clients purchase.

In the end, clients lose the ability to optimize media funds accurately, leaving them in a pickle as measurement is only as good as the sample it can collect. Without cookies, current media measurement methods can potentially overlook the context and behaviors of people who find content via social vs. search or other methods.

Fortunately, measurement companies recognize these issues with social measurement and are actively working on solutions. These companies see the trends in social measurement as a canary in the coal mine, an indicator of the issues to come when cookies officially disappear completely, not just for social publishers.

Going Back to the Future, Or Email Opt-Ins Are Our Density… Umm, Destiny

Not too long ago, before the industry realized how to harness cookies in a more analytical way, registered users who provided an email address were a key tool to measure ROI for pharma marketers. At that time, email addresses were the only way to link to patients’ health records in a way that was HIPAA-compliant.

As the reign of cookies comes to an end, I have read and heard a lot about turning back to measurement methods that rely on a website’s opted-in members who provide emails. Because registered users agree to privacy terms, this measurement allows for privacy-compliant methods to collect and connect personal information. So it makes sense that email identification is a leading candidate for the future of pharma digital measurement.

Up until about five years ago, when digital measurement based on cookies became widespread, it was well-known that measurement based on registered users was lacking. The limitations were simple: registered users are often not representative of a site’s traffic.

What’s frustrating to the pharma marketer is that, with increasing barriers to third-party cookies, the measurement data available from 2015 to 2017 was more representative than it is today. And today’s data is going to be better than what’s coming next. As measurement enhancements and methodologies evolve to safeguard privacy of personal information, it appears we are (unfortunately) regressing in our ability to measure a fully representative audience.

The Takeaway

It is likely that whatever pharma measurement tool the industry lands on, whether that be email opt-ins or new tech integrations, will have some consequences that could – at least temporarily – set back our understanding of how online advertising impacts offline health behaviors. Measurement has extraordinary value, but the best way forward is to recognize that big data solutions require critical understanding of how data collection and methodology impact results.

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David Shronk
Senior Vice President of Media at Health Union
David Shronk is senior vice president of media at Health Union. David leverages his years of working in both pharma marketing at GSK and digital measurement at comScore to create client solutions while leading business development, account management, media operations and product strategy. Health Union leverages content marketing and social media to cultivate online communities dedicated to helping people live better with serious health concerns, like migraine, multiple sclerosis and blood cancer.
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