As the industry’s infatuation with data and all things cookie related continues, and the privacy microscope focuses in on those using cookies to drive their businesses, this conversation is missing the point — cookies are just a tool, and Man can’t live on cookies alone.

If you want to really connect with consumers, you first need to understand what truly drives their decision-making. Unfortunately, the only way to get at these key drivers is to do the hard work — to ask them.

Back to Basics

Advertisers have mastered the what, when and where that drive direct response advertising, and pumped cookies full of this data — basic demographics to inferred purchase intent gleaned from web pages a user visits.

However, you don’t really know your target audience if you don’t understand their attitudes, values, and beliefs – this is “who” they really are (ask a friend if they’re better represented as a “24-36 year old white male” or the sum of their values and beliefs, and you quickly have your answer) — and “why” they make decisions — whether to buy a product or service, engage with a brand, or support a cause.

Today’s cookies  were designed for direct response campaigns trying to quickly convert users based on simple behaviors, not the deeper consumer insights needed to drive brand advertising.

For example, if a person is looking to buy an SUV, he may believe that buying a Ford is important because he wants to be patriotic in supporting a troubled car industry.  Alternatively, he may want to buy a Volvo because he believes they are the safest cars on the road. This purchase decision is predicated on the values and attitudes he or she has developed over a lifetime. Automotive companies would benefit tremendously by having the ability to target consumers based on connecting consumer values with the values the brand actually represents. Today’s cookies can’t help here.

Cookies Crumble

Logistical realities also emerge that limit utility of cookies to brand advertisers. ComScore research reports cookie deletion at one-third monthly. Behavioral Targeting classifies those reading about the environment as ‘Environmentalists’. However, our research has shown time and again that only a small portion of people predisposed to support a particular cause, or hold a particular view, are active enough to exhibit these behaviors online, making it impossible to reach the majority of an attitudinally defined audience using Behavioral Targeting alone.

The other ugly truth is that much data in cookies today is inaccurate.  By the time data is matched with customer information from partners, fused, shared and resold, labeled and re-grouped, the quality of the data in the cookie is often so diluted as to be meaningless. We’ve all heard the examples of gender data which in controlled tests shows up to be wrong more than 50% of the time. Just because there is data in a cookie doesn’t mean it’s accurate.

Perhaps we’ve gotten so absorbed by the breakneck pace of online targeting, lured by its infinite measurability, that we’ve forgotten the basic lessons learned from traditional market research. Brand advertisers, who remain primarily offline, have been surveying audiences for decades to understand these key drivers. It’s time to combine this tried and true methodology with the best that online targeting technology can offer to build more effective online advertising campaigns.

The only way to really know your audience — understand “Who” they really are and “Why” they make certain decisions is to do the hard part — to ask them what they think and what personal values and beliefs drive their decisions.

The “why” is the heart of the story, and cookies don’t help you with why.