Media platforms rely on cookies, tiny files that can track us across different pages and even sites. Cookies are beneficial for various features, including advertising, managing reader preferences and ensuring a consistent experience while you visit a site.
Such elements matter to all good websites. But they are essential in the content- and experience-driven worlds of news and media. But cookies also stoke considerable controversy. If the idea of being tracked doesn’t sit well, you are not alone. As privacy concerns have grown, so has animosity towards cookies. On paper, they are a great technology. Yet, many sites abuse them to serve advertisers at audiences’ expense.
This practice is particularly problematic with third-party cookies, which are trackers originating from outside the site you’re visiting and can follow you even when you go elsewhere. Users have had enough, and tech companies are starting to react. Apple has banned third-party cookies from its devices, as have Microsoft and the Firefox browser. When Google announced it would follow suit on its Chrome browser, the final nail struck third-party cookies’ coffin.
“It’s going to be a huge issue, a negative issue, for those companies that rely on third-party data for their business.”
An advertising revolution
But not for Media24 and its news sites. South Africa’s most popular and trusted media platform, home to News24 and peer sites, has been preparing for the change.
24.com, Media24’s technology division, builds the sites’ advertising technologies (AdTech). Its dedicated AdTech unit develops and maintains the platform’s various advertising and user preference tracking systems. It provides a vibrant environment where talented and ambitious technologists can work on the cutting edge of digital advertising and privacy.
“For us as a publisher, it’s an opportunity to increase our data currency in a way that respects user privacy while creating an enjoyable experience,” says Allen, noting how AdTech is a very exciting space for the digitally minded. “There are very few industries in the world that go through the kind of pace of change that digital, and particularly digital advertising, is going through. It even becomes a challenge to find the right people because it’s evolving almost on a weekly basis.”
While many sites may lament the death of third-party cookies (Facebook reported it would lose $10 billion in revenue due to the change), Allen and his team see it as a fantastic opportunity. Though the Media24 sites run primarily on internal first-party advertising systems, they also integrate with Google’s ad services. Change was necessary, prompting a leap forward.
“We’re close to Google. We talk to them every week and we’ve been preparing for the change. There were certain areas we had to pivot because we use Google as a platform and Google cookies are seen as a third party. One of the big adjustments is implementing Google’s Publisher Provided Identifier (PPID) – essentially a unique identifier, instead of a cookie that provides that identifier.”
Forward-looking media sites know that the future of news cannot be funded solely by advertising. Subscription models are gaining traction among some of the world’s most successful media outlets, such as The Economist and the New York Times. Media24 has also adopted this approach, launching a subscription model in 2020.
Yet many so-called paywalls have failed. The success stories distinguish themselves by being more than just a pay-to-read transaction. Readers expect value such as personalisation and perks, including newsletters and exclusive insights. Calibrating for these preferences can make or break a media site’s business model – another reason why sites must strategically implement cookies and tracking. Again, it’s a massive advantage that Media24 can rely on 24.com’s AdTech gurus.
“You can collect audience data in a very ethical way, and use that information to create better content without violating their privacy,” says Allen. “But that only works if you are collaborative. We don’t just build stuff. We work closely with the editorial teams, the sales teams and the site developers, constructing blueprints that everyone agrees on. There is always something exciting in the pipeline and it always has purpose behind it. For example, News24 uses reader data to encourage registrations and subscriptions, and monitor reader experiences to keep improving what we can offer.”
As part of the switch away from third-party cookies, 24.com deployed new data management platforms that don’t require that technology. Overall, 24.com’s agility, talented pros and close integration with the Media24 mothership deliver what every technologist dreams of: a platform with purpose and progress.
“If third-party cookies should fall off the face of the earth tomorrow, we would still be able to target our campaigns because we’ve recreated all of our first-party audiences. This, in my opinion, kind of set us steps ahead of other publishers. It’s because Media24 doesn’t look to us to wave some technology wand. They take what we do seriously and they give us the space and scope to do that the best.”
Too often, technology experts are burned and burnt out by directionless, farcical and stale development environments. But for 24.com’s AdTech teams, there is no better place to be.
“It’s fantastic,” says Allen. “I don’t think I’ve ever had this much fun with tech in my career.”