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Why are tracking and targeting in mobile so different from online?

Posted by Scott Swanson on June 18th, 2012 at 8:11 am

Tracking in mobile requires some clever workarounds.

One of the biggest misconceptions in mobile advertising is around the question of whether it’s possible to target and track users the exact same way that in mobile as it’s done in online advertising.

The cold, hard truth is that online targeting and tracking technology is primarily dependent on third-party cookies, and most mobile devices are not enabled for third-party cookies. This makes mobile a truly distinct medium, needing its own tactics and solutions for targeting and tracking effectively.

Why isn’t mobile the same as online?

Well, first you have to understand that tracking in generally done with the use of cookies. A wonderfully anonymous, easily-deleted, and low-file-size technology that is widely used on the desktop internet.

But there are two types of cookies. There are first-party cookies, which are the ones that remember your password when you log in to a website (and therefore keep you from having to re-enter your username on every mobile site you log into). They’re called ‘first party’ because they’re set on the same domain as the website you’re visiting, and have a very high acceptance rate (95%).

Third-party cookies -- the ones that advertisers place on websites -- track unique visitors across multiple domains or pages where you might visit. You might notice that you get ‘chased around’ the web by an ad for a product you may have viewed recently -- those are third party cookies at work. In that example, third-party cookies are being used for retargeting.

Apple doesn't make it easy

The Safari mobile web browser, which now accounts for about 25% of mobile web browsing (see Browser Wars infographic) by default does not allow third-party cookie tracking to be set. On top of that, Apple is currently deprecating UDIDs (unique device identifiers), which historically served as a workaround to third-party cookies for advertisers. This has left the industry scrambling for new ways to track an individual without using the hardware information.

Why is this important? First, because apps and mobile websites are two different sandboxes, without a way to tie the two together, one person on a single device can appear as two different people. Second, conversion tracking requires the ability to ‘follow’ a user from a click either on an ad to within an application to an advertiser’s mobile website, or from a mobile web ad to an app download action.

Some clever workarounds

Tracking in either of these directions can be tricky, even if passing unique identifiers in the click URL. It’s a testament to the great people in our industry that the mobile advertising business has solid solutions as workarounds to these challenges.

Because these two methods for tracking are so important to running a successful digital campaign, there are some great workarounds. At Mobile Theory, we have a close partnership with Collider Media for data and audience targeting. Our workaround for targeting involves using a common login identifier. Once a user logs in to a mobile website or app, Collider can recognize which user has logged in and target accordingly.

In a way, it’s a connection of the online and mobile spheres to find a common anonymous identity. That identity, once matched, can reveal rich, anonymous user data that combines both online and mobile browsing activity to develop a deep, comprehensive view of the user that can be used to serve relevant advertising to unique individuals.

For conversion tracking, one approach that is quite simple is to not try to work around the third party cookie issue and use first-party cookies instead. To do this, you simply configure the cookie to be set by the first-party website for the advertiser. We can either work with the client to set these up or use in-house landing pages. In this way, we can use first-party cookies to track the behavior of a user that clicks on an ad in an app all the way through to a conversion on the landing page, creating a bridge between the actions.

A mobile-specific approach to tracking & targeting

We’ve noticed that there seems to be a lot of misinformation on the subject of how all tracking and targeting works in mobile and what exactly makes it different from online. Since the mobile medium is growing faster than any new medium in history, and will soon eclipse online in terms of usage, it’s important to discuss and collaborate on how technologies and approaches that work in one medium require a different approach in the other.

The important thing to remember is that mobile is truly a distinct environment from online, and as a result, requires its own individual tactics and approach. The good news is there are a number of unique mobile-specific targeting and tracking approaches that work very well to accomplish marketers’ goals.

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