How the Programmatic Scales Are Tipping Towards 1st Party Data

You’ve probably heard that Apple and its Safari browser have taken a strong stand on user privacy protection by blocking the use of 3rd party cookies for ad serving and tracking. More recently, Apple launched “sign in with Apple,” which limits the amount of private information that apps can get from people who use Apple devices. While these developments are still sorting themselves out in the market, they are likely to compromise the momentum health marketers and media planners have recently gained in programmatic advertising. Here’s a look at these browser changes and their implications, and recommendations for how the health industry can prepare.

Privacy Concerns Drive Browser Changes

In 2017, Apple updated its Safari browser with Intelligent Tracking Prevention (ITP), blocking the tracking and use of 3rd party cookies across websites. This means that users of Safari can move from one site to another privately and anonymously, without being watched, categorized, and followed. ITP has been updated several times, with the most recent update in April 2019 being the most restrictive.

Mozilla has announced that it will be following Apple’s lead in the near future with their Firefox browser. Safari and Firefox combined make up 17% of U.S. desktop traffic and over 50% of mobile traffic. There are even rumblings that Chrome, which drives the lion’s share of web traffic, may drop its support for 3rd party cookies. As more browsers impose restrictions on cookie usage, the implications for the advertising industry will become unavoidable.

How Browser Changes Affect Programmatic Buying

These browser changes will affect the large-scale use of cookie-based data that is central to most programmatic buys. What does this look like? Let’s say you’re initiating a media buy for a diabetes drug. The value of programmatic buying is that it enables you to identify people who have demonstrated an interest in diabetes content, via their cookies. You can then dynamically serve your ad to them, wherever they are online, giving you targeting at tremendous scale. But with the ITP privacy protection moves, you will no longer be able to use data about a person gathered from one site to target that person on another site, or personalize the ad experiences to their preferences utilizing 3rd party cookies.

Pharma Programmatic Momentum at a Crossroads

Privacy has always been an important issue to pharma. In fact, it was concerns about health data privacy that slowed the adoption of programmatic for pharma brands. But programmatic has finally arrived for pharma. In a qualitative research study conducted in Q1 2019, pharma marketers and media strategists told Healthline that: “Programmatic gives us audience quality with less waste” and “shifts the spending from placement to audience, using AI and data predictability.”

In response to these privacy-driven browser changes, pharma brands can either retreat to their conservative buy-only-what-you-can-control approach, or they can figure out ways to preserve the best benefits of programmatic while tackling these new challenges.

From 3rd Party to 1st Party Data

With 3rd party cookies being blocked, the need for 1st party data will become more important than ever for advertisers and publishers alike.

The benefits of 1st party data are numerous:

  • There are fewer privacy concerns surrounding 1st party data.
  • Consumers actually appreciate the improved engagement experience 1st party data enables.
  • High-quality 1st party data can yield valuable audience insights and predict future behavior patterns.

To illustrate how 1st party data works for programmatic targeting, let’s pick up the diabetes example we used earlier. In the absence of 3rd party data to target people interested in diabetes content, advertisers can work directly with large publishers to target users who are reading content about diabetes and related topics like weight management, nutrition, or any of the comorbid conditions. You can then target these users on those publishers’ sites programmatically, using these 1st party information consumption patterns. 

How Pharma Advertisers Can Prepare

Advertisers should pursue direct relationships with publishers who have a robust 1st party data strategy and who are collecting 1st party data that can be accessed programmatically, whether on the open exchange or in private marketplaces, or via programmatic guaranteed deals. 

When evaluating the caliber of publishers’ 1st party data, here are a few factors to consider:

1. Is the publisher’s data of high-quality?
Evaluate whether the 1st party data you’re working with is of high quality. Does it represent real people? Are they in fact who we think they are? Do they accurately represent the audience you want to target? Finally, are they in-market and motivated to take action?

2. Is the data scalable?
The most common complaint from marketers and publishers when it comes to utilizing 1st party data tactics is scalability. Marketers should make sure that the publishers they are working with have scalable 1st party data they can make available, and publishers need to make sure to only make data available if it is scalable enough to make sense for both sides.    

3. Can they activate their data?
Having the right DMP (data management platform) and CDP (customer data platform) are essential tools in making sense of a publisher’s 1st party data and packaging that data to perform best for marketers.

The sunsetting of 3rd party cookies doesn’t mean programmatic is going away. It’s just changing. In this post-ITP world, pharma marketers will have to pursue direct deals with high-quality publishers, and activate their 1st party data to make technology-driven programmatic buys on those publisher sites. While these are more limited buys, they don’t necessarily mean you’re giving up scale. Publishers like Healthline gather data on 84 million unique visitors each month and can use this data to extend or accentuate audience reach through retargeting, audience modeling, and new contextual targets. The result? High-quality targeting at maximum reach.

Are you interested in talking about 1st party data to improve your media campaigns? Email us at

About Healthline Media

As the #1 health media property in the US, Healthline Media reaches more than 94MM unique visitors each month (Comscore, August 2021). We provide credible health information with a compassionate approach.