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Meghan Biron, a lead on Google’s digital marketing team, reflects on the current user privacy environment her team faces, with laws like the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) taking effect on January 1, and changes to how web browsers handle cookies. She shares lessons here that can help prepare marketers for what’s ahead.

Digital marketing is an incredibly powerful way to connect with people interested in the products that Google has to offer, such as the Pixel 4 phone or the family of Google Home and Nest devices. But when we show people ads and measure the impact of our campaigns, we also have to protect and respect their privacy. It’s a responsibility that we take very seriously.

As user expectations for privacy grow, governments and technology companies have taken steps to address people’s concerns. And these changes have affected how our team does its job.

Laws like the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), enacted over a year ago in Europe, and the CCPA, taking effect imminently, introduce new requirements for how businesses collect and use data.

On top of that, some web browsers have introduced restrictions to third-party cookies, including Safari with Intelligent Tracking Prevention (ITP) and Firefox with Enhanced Tracking Protection (ETP). Their actions put pressure on how advertisers can personalize ads and measure campaign performance.

What it means for digital marketing

As a result of these changes, our team has had to rethink how we approach some core digital marketing practices.

  • Creating audience lists. Between regulation and browser changes, there’s now heightened attention to and more limitations on the sources of data that we can use to engage our audiences.
  • Managing ad frequency. Restrictions on cookies have made it harder to manage how many times people see our ads. As a result, we risk irritating users — and damaging our brand — when we show them the same ad too many times.
  • Measuring performance. We also rely on cookies to help us attribute conversions to our digital media. So when cookies are constrained, it becomes harder for us to accurately report on and evaluate how our ads are performing.

Here are four things we are doing to respond.

We’re relying more on the direct relationships we have with our audience. Since use of third-party data is under pressure, it’s more important than ever that we lean on first-party data from users who have a direct relationship with us. For example, when people show interest in certain products by visiting the Google Store’s website — and have given us consent where appropriate — we can use that data to inform the ads we show them in the future.

We’re using automation to fill in gaps when data is missing. One use case: We’ve traditionally relied on third-party cookies to help manage how many times people see an ad. But when third-party cookies aren’t present, we still want to avoid overexposing people to an ad. So we turn to tools that use machine learning to predict how likely it is that people will visit different websites that are serving the same ads. Then we’re able to optimize how often those ads should be shown to users, even when third-party cookies are missing. There are other use cases, such as modeling campaign performance with machine learning when conversion tracking is disrupted by cookie constraints.

We’re being flexible with how we deliver the most relevant ads to users. When we aren’t able to accurately determine someone’s interests and preferences to help personalize an ad, we can refer to the context of where the ad will appear instead. And while matching ads to the context of the page where they appear isn’t a novel approach, the technology we’re testing to make this happen is.

Just one example: We ran a campaign for the Google Home Mini on The Guardian. The ads appeared alongside recipes in the food section. And, with the help of machine learning, we were able to scan the page and customize ads based on the content of the recipes, like the type of dish being prepared.

A series of 3 ads, each picturing a Google Home Mini, that ran on The Guardian. The text reads from left to right: “Lemon and ginger friands for dessert tonight?”, “Hey Google, add ginger to my shopping list.” and “Hands-free help at home.”

We’re betting big on cloud technology for measurement and insights. Our team is using secure, cloud-based solutions to analyze campaign data to better understand our users and personalize messages for them. These solutions are safer because user data is encrypted and aggregated before our teams can use it to perform analyses.

By adopting these practices, our team can still reach the right people with our marketing campaigns, while ensuring that we comply with regulations and in spite of restrictions on cookies. But we expect more changes are coming, and it’s not entirely clear to what extent our digital marketing practices will need to evolve.

To manage through this uncertainty and ensure we’re prioritizing user privacy and trust, we’ve formed a dedicated team to stay on top of all the changes and to consider a variety of potential scenarios, whether it’s future regulation or additional actions by technology platforms. This team’s focus is forecasting the impact of each scenario on our campaigns and developing a game plan for how we would respond. By shifting our approach in a few key areas and staying nimble, our team feels better prepared for a privacy-focused future.