Marketers set sights on mobile fingerprinting despite significant obstacles
August 26, 2013
Cross-screen tracking options grow
As more marketers beef up cross-screen campaigns, mobile fingerprinting is gaining some traction as a method to track consumers across different devices. However, challenges with privacy and accuracy are keeping the technology from fully taking off.
For marketers with multiple digital assets, fingerprinting is positioned as a way for marketers to track consumers across smartphones, tablets and desktops. The problem though is that the method is not completely effective since the tracking uses a set of anonymous attributes.
“The biggest opportunity is that digital fingerprinting is a universal solution,” said Craig Palli, chief strategy officer at Fiksu, Boston.
“You can track mobile marketing campaigns across multiple platforms and channels,” he said. “That includes iOS and Android, email, mobile Web, and in-app marketing. It’s also relatively easy to implement, compared to some other types of tracking.”
Marketers are substantially increasingly investing in more cross-device campaigns, attribution and tracking is becoming a bigger issue in mobile.
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Since mobile phones and tablets do not support third-party cookies, some brands are relying on mobile fingerprinting to get a better grasp on how consumers use smartphones, tablets and desktops in tandem.
For example, an executive from 1800Flowers spoke recently at eTail East about how the company is testing the technology as a way to track when a consumer begins to shop for flowers from a mobile device (see story).
Fingerprinting essentially lets marketers string together pieces of mobile and Web activity, such as the size of the screen, time zone and software that is pushed out by a device each time it makes a connection. This forms a unique identification.
Once a fingerprint has been created, it cannot be erased whereas a cookie can be.
One of the biggest use cases around fingerprinting for mobile is the ability to change out a marketing message in real-time.
For example, brands with a heavy email focus could change the content of an email on the fly depending on if the email was opened via a desktop or mobile device based on past data that the company has on the user.
The goal behind doing so is to give marketers device-specific insight into their campaigns.
Additionally, fingerprinting involves less infrastructure than other types of tracking and can be easy to implement.
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Privacy, accuracy are top concerns
Fingerprinting also comes with its own set of challenges, especially around accuracy, according to Mr. Palli.
For example, if a consumer downloads an app over a home Wi-Fi network but then opens it for the first time from a different location, there are different IP addresses and it can be difficult for marketers to track the origination of the app download.
Furthermore, there are multiple other characteristics from a fingerprint that can change over time.
For apps specifically, Apple’s Advertising Identifier and Android Referrer still give marketers a clearly-defined idea of who downloaded their app and from where.
Therefore, a marketer’s best bet with tracking cross-screen behavior today should be a combination of different types of technology, including cookies for desktop devices, IDFA on iOS and Android referrers in addition to digital fingerprints.
“One should therefore take accuracy claims for fingerprinting with a grain of salt,” Mr. Palli said.
“As campaigns get larger, you see more users coming in from varied sources, and more overlap in user characteristics that the fingerprint considers, so the level of ambiguity of results gets larger,” he said.
Since fingerprinting does not give marketers complete certainty about who a consumer is, the technology is likely best suited for marketers who are focused more on branding rather than conversions.
Although the information collected via fingerprinting is essentially a loose string of attributes, some experts argue that the technology has serious privacy ramifications since consumers do not opt-in.
According to James Lamberti, vice president and general manager at AdTruth, San Jose, CA, fingerprinting leaves residue on a user’s mobile device and disrupts consumer privacy.
An alternative to fingerprinting is universal device recognition, which touts scale and privacy as two differentiators from fingerprinting.
“This privacy-by-design method is a sophisticated solution taking a non-invasive approach by observing innocuous parameters for use in developing a statistical probability of uniqueness of a device,” Mr. Lamberti said.
“Personally identifiable information is not gathered, accessed or transmitted while the natural user driven evolution of a device will prevent persistent identification,” he said. “This approach can work on any device, from desktop to mobile.”
Lauren Johnson is associate reporter on Mobile Marketer, New York
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