The entire digital landscape is undergoing what might be called a pivot to privacy. Driven by consumer demand and a new crop of more stringent regulations, major digital platforms are increasingly curbing, either voluntarily or by law, the tracking capabilities that have defined digital advertising to date.

Most recently, Mozilla rolled out an update to its popular Firefox browser that includes more extensive tracking protection and ad blocking. Considering Firefox’s reach as the fourth most popular browser in the world, the Firefox Enhanced Tracking Protection (ETP) features will default to block unless users actively choose to opt out. Although curtailing tracking may provide some consumer benefits, it’s a devastating blow to programmatic digital advertising and to the publishers that rely on targeted digital ads to generate revenue. In this post, we’ll explore some of the potential impacts.

Firefox Enhanced Tracking Protection Settings
Users can disable ad tracking protections from the Privacy & Security tab in Firefox settings, but the feature is defaulted to On, requiring new users to actively opt out.

Consumer complaints

After a recent round of scandals — from Equifax data breaches and election hacking to Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica leak — it’s understandable that consumers have privacy on their minds. It’s even understandable that advertising would become a target. After all, targeted ads are one of the most visible aspects of online tracking. However, that’s not the whole picture.

An often-cited study from 2016 found that 71% of consumers said that they would prefer to see ads that are personalized to their interests, habits, and shopping history. Although many consumers may neither investigate the settings of their browser nor connect those settings to changes in their ad experience, it’s likely that they will notice a decline in the quality of those experiences because lack of targeting makes such personalization impossible. The return of untargeted and irrelevant ads is likely to color more users view of the ad experience and may drive those users to ad blockers, making them difficult to monetize through traditional means.

First-party forward

In a world where third-party data collection is a thing of the past for a significant subset of users, publishers will need to rely more heavily on their own first-party data to offer comparable targeting to their advertising partners. Historically, publishers have used first-party pixels to collect data about user behavior on their own sites. They used this data to optimize site design and content and to improve performance and user experience. Increasingly, publishers are turning to these same first-party tracking pixels to fill the gap left by retreating third-party data.

While first-party data can fill the gap in terms of understanding audience, it will require a more direct relationship between advertisers and publishers. Demand-side platforms still won’t be able to access publisher-owned data, so publishers should be prepared to build more robust brand-direct relationships. By working closely with advertisers, publishers can help to integrate their own first-party user data into brands’ larger programmatic strategy and close the gap on monetization potential left by the loss of third-party tracking.

Publishers pay attention

The changes coming to Firefox and to the wider digital ecosystem will require digital publishers to pay closer attention to where their audiences are coming from. Firefox currently represents a significant, but not overwhelming, segment of the browser market. However, if users start defecting from such leading browsers as Safari and Chrome in favor of an untracked experience, then that could signal a fundamental shift. Publishers should monitor traffic sources and look for changes.

It’s also important to take proactive steps. A visitor relationship management (VRM) solution can help publishers to own more of their own audience data rather than relying on third-party tracking to fully monetize audience. By indicating that they prefer relevance in advertising, consumers have signaled that they see value in being known to publishers and advertisers. A direct relationship with audiences can capitalize on this same affinity, allowing publishers to offer a more relevant experience of their site as well as potentially a lighter load of more relevant ads.

What now?

In the push for greater privacy, both on the regulatory and public-opinion levels, publishers will need to stay on their toes to avoid becoming collateral damage. By proactively monitoring traffic sources, focusing on brand direct relationships, building direct visitor relationships, and protecting first-party data, publishers can survive and thrive in the post-tracking era by capitalizing on the things that users really want: relevant experiences both on the page and in advertising.