Do We Really Need a “Universal ID” for Accurate Attribution?

By AJ Brown, CEO and Co-Founder, LeadsRx

With the impending changes to cookies, consumer privacy, and device IDs, it’s no wonder that marketers are frustrated. From audience targeting to mapping accurate customer journeys, marketers need a reliable way to guide consumers along their path to purchase in a “cookieless” world. Without this, acquisition costs will rise, and lifetime values will drop.  Frustrated? You bet.

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What’s more, the proliferation of “universal IDs” as a potential solution from various vendors is overwhelming. There are easily 20+ different approaches to unifying consumers across devices, browsers, and apps… each with their own universal identifier based on some sort of algorithm that no one seems to understand. Confused? For certain.

Frustration and confusion are not great characteristics when dealing with an important issue like marketing analytics. Most marketers have a strong desire to apply their budgets in ways that maximize returns, but with cookie deprecation and universal IDs creating fear, uncertainty, and doubt, it might seem like accurate analytics (and attribution, specifically) are doomed. But don’t give up just yet – a solution is available that you may not have heard about. And it might just make frustration and confusion a thing of the past.

What Exactly Are Universal IDs?

As consumers work across different devices, browsers, and applications, “identities” or “personas” are being created. For example, think of a consumer who begins their path-to-purchase on an iPhone using iOS 14 by clicking on an advertisement within the Facebook mobile app. They visit the advertiser’s website, browse through various products, and maybe decide to make a purchase. But then that same consumer switches over to a laptop computer to see larger pictures of products and make their purchase. Their laptop is running Windows and using Google’s Chrome browser, and they may have performed an organic search to find the advertiser’s website again.

As a marketer, you’ll want to know the complete consumer’s pathtopurchase including the ad clicks, organic search, device cross over, order value, and more. This simple example requires some sort of identity “graphing” to unite the two different personas, and after you do a bit of research, you’ll likely want to better understand if a “universal ID” can solve your problem.

Universal IDs are usually derived from other data such as IP addresses, browser and device configuration data, timestamps, ISP information, and more. Data like this is combined with user-declared information, such as login IDs or form data, and then passed through proprietary (i.e., secret) heuristics to arrive at a “universal ID” for an individual.  The bottom line is that all universal IDs are proprietary to the group developing them, and it’s possible that no two IDs are ever created in the same way.

It isn’t necessary for a marketer to fully understand this approach, but it seems that identity management vendors are all too willing to take you into the weeds. And, using these universal IDs within marketing analytics packages can be an even deeper nightmare. The process often requires IT involvement to extract and transform your own first-party data, pass it securely to a third-party identity management vendor, wait, then receive back universal IDs for the data that was matched. Your IT team then needs to bring the ID back into your analytics package for further processing.

This is an involved process, and frankly, one that is prone to human error and data leakage. What happens if universal IDs are NOT properly secured in these data transfers? What about your own first-party data? If any of this data leaks, are you essentially breaching consumer privacy? Are you jeopardizing consumer data?

In a world where consumer privacy comes first, we should never be releasing our first-party data or associated universal IDs. Doing so would prove to be yet another Pandora’s Box of misery for consumers whose confidence in digital privacy is already on shaky ground. Instead, consumer data should be kept within the walls the consumer authorizes. Sticking to this mantra means the option of using universal IDs is off the table.

A Different, Turn-Key Approach

Instead of exchanging first-party data with an identity management vendor of your choice, a better approach is to look for analytics platforms with identity graph capabilities already built in. This is possible because the truth is, you don’t need a universal ID… this is not the end goal. What you need is accurate analytics based on true pathstopurchase, web sessions, and other data. Whether or not a “universal ID” is used to get you there should be irrelevant.And, matching your first-party data to another company’s universal ID only opens up holes in your private walled garden.

It’s still an evolving area, but more and more analytics packages will incorporate identity graph services right within their applications. This makes exposing first-party data unnecessary while also shielding marketers from the need to understand or use a “universal ID.” By applying the technical concepts on your behalf, purpose-built identity graphs will deliver unified, more accurate pathstopurchase, leading to better analytics for making better marketing decisions.

Marketing analytics and attribution are not dead, as some might have you believe. Marketing technology (MarTech) can incorporate identity management solutions without relying on external IDs and third-party systems. Marketers should demand this of their vendors and look for solutions with this capability already available.


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