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You know that hotel ad that appears on every site as you surf the internet? Well, the underlying tech behind it, called the cookie, isn't long for this world. Neither is the mobile identifier on cell phones that some advertisers also use for tracking. So what's a hotel marketer to do?

Earlier this year, Google said it would stop letting marketers use cookies, or data files for tracking consumer browsing behavior, in its Chrome internet browser by 2022. The move signals an end to a roughly 25-year stretch of advertisers using cookies to trace consumers as they surf the internet. The absence of cookies raises a hurdle for marketers, especially hotel marketers, trying to personalize their ads and services for guests.

The ad industry isn’t surprised. Apple’s Safari and Mozilla’s Firefox have already put the breaks on companies tracking consumers with cookies due to protests from privacy advocates.

Plus, it’s not only cookies. Identifiers on mobile devices are also an endangered species.

“Mobile IDs aren’t long for this world,” said Dave Goulden, vice president of product at Sojern, a travel-focused advertising tech startup.

The end of cookies and mobile identifiers affects all marketers. But hotel marketers may feel it more than most. The reason? Only a minority of guests at a hotel are repeat visitors, so the hotel may have a hard time knowing anything about a site visitor.

If you, as a hotel marketer, are trying to persuade a visitor to your hotel website to book, you need to know as much about the customer as you can to pitch a relevant deal. Yet most travelers never visit the same hotel twice, so the typical hotel may know nothing about a visitor to its site.

What Are Hotel Marketers to Do?

Hoteliers will need to work harder in a post-cookie world to ask travelers to share their email addresses and other details.

“What we’ll see in the next year is a shift from third-party cookies to new identifiers based on first-party information,” said Travis Clinger, senior vice president and head of addressability and ecosystem at LiveRamp, a public company that specializes in advertising tech and data connectivity

Hoteliers will take the “first-party data” they collect and hire tech vendors to suss out who is visiting their hotel sites and apps. The tech vendors essentially match email addresses with ones that consumers voluntarily have given companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon, to sign in for services such as email, photo sharing, and shopping.

Say a consumer logs into a site like The Wall Street Journal’s with their email address. An ad tech company could then help a hotel company match that email address with one the customer has given the hotel brand in the past to, say, sign up for a hotel loyalty program.

The word “match” isn’t quite right. More precisely, the tech vendors use processes that semi-anonymize, or “hash,” an email address by converting it into a string of numbers. Several tricks allow a company to suss out who an internet user almost certainly is without unethically sharing any customer’s email address.

“Ad-serving vendors like The Trade Desk, Xandr, and Google Search Ads 360 are generally telling us they’re getting their systems ready to accept hashed emails as an identifier,” said Sojern’s Goulden. “They’ll move away from the cookies they’re using today. The Wall Street Journal, for example, will have to switch to using a hashed email rather than a cookie, and the ad server will have to be able to understand it to deliver the ad.”

Making Websites Smarter

For hoteliers, the key message is that they need customers to share email addresses with them. Hotels can attempt to persuade consumers to share their email addresses in exchange for perks. Promises could include guaranteed lowest rates on refundable reservations, automated check-ins with keyless entry that can spare customers from interacting with front desks, or free Wi-Fi.

“Many surveys suggest that something like 85 percent of travel shoppers will visit a hotel’s website before pulling a trigger on a booking, regardless of where they book,” said Stuart Butler, chief operating officer at Fuel, a hotel marketing agency based in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

“Especially for independent hotels and regional hotel groups, the investment they should be making is to make sure the mousetrap of their website and booking engine works really well,” Butler said. “It’s critical that you have to persuade a customer that if you book directly you’ll get the best rate, the best perks.”

“One of the big opportunities right now with Covid is that many people are more interested than usual in making the check-in process contactless,” Butler said. “So offering a mobile app to do a pre-arrival registration or check-in will let you collect more data while providing service that guests will appreciate.”

Hotels will have to use information responsibly for consumers to trust them.

“If giving out your phone number can be used to check in to the hotel online via Whatsapp for example, I’ll bet that many consumers will do it without hesitation,” said Roy Friedman, the CEO of hotel tech firm “With this insight, hotels could ask for more information along the way, such as the purpose of a trip, to personalize the services for their guests.”

Choosing an Ad Tech Partner

Not every ad tech company is effective, of course. Expedia Group, for instance, stands somewhat apart in that has an advertising agency arm that’s connected to its group of travel agencies.

“If traveler X buys something on our sites they have to share their email address with us,” said Wendy Olson Killion, vice president of business development at Expedia Group Media Solutions.

“There are a lot of data aggregators out there,” Killion said. “While they can tie information to a hashed email, they can’t necessarily tie it back to real individuals, like we can. Because they’re relying on information from other sources, there’s always a possibility of data degradation [or mistakes].”

Matching data across suppliers can also help, such as a hotel learning that a guest’s flight has been delayed. Journera, a data exchange platform for the travel industry, is aiming to solve that problem with first-party data rather than cookies.

Facebook is offering tools to travel marketers to show ads only to people who have volunteered information about themselves that may signal their intent to travel or their demographics. Companies like Sojern can make it easier for hotels to manage campaigns on Facebook and its sister site Instagram.

Sojern is also rolling out other changes with all its major partners and advertisers to adapt to a cookie-less future.

“The biggest change is to make sure whenever they have a hashed email from a customer, they make it available to us,” Sojern’s Goulden said. “The second is setting up subdomains on their websites, an advanced technique that lets us do some tracking without cookies.”

“The third trend is that we’re building an offline data ingestion pipeline,” Goulden said. “Let’s say you’re an activity operator with a lot of walk-up bookings where you collect data from customers in-person, or a cruise line with a lot of call center data. We want to be able to sync up that first-party data with our other records, which will help make that travel brand’s marketing efforts more effective in the future.”

The bottom line? Collecting email addresses is going to be a much more important job for hotel companies in a post-cookie future.

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Tags: ad tech, advertising, airline marketing, digital advertising, email marketing, marketing technology, mobile, privacy, travel marketing

Photo credit: A traveler takes a photo at a temple. JumpStory

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