Adobe’s new Marketing Cloud Visitor ID: How Does it Work?
A few months ago, I wrote a series of posts about cookies – how they are used in web analytics, and how Google and Adobe (historically) identify your web visitors. Those two topics set the stage for a discussion on Adobe’s current best practices approach for visitor identification.
You’ll remember that Adobe has historically used a cookie called “s_vi” to identify visitors to your site. This cookie is set by Adobe’s servers – meaning that by default it is third-party. Many Adobe customers have gone through the somewhat tedious process of allowing Adobe to set that cookie from one of their own subdomains, making it first-party. This is done by having your network operations team update its DNS settings to assign that subdomain to Adobe, and by purchasing (and annually maintaining) an SSL certificate for Adobe to use. If that sounds like a pain to you, you’re not alone. I remember having to go through the process when I worked at salesforce.com – because companies rightly take their websites, networks, and security seriously, what is essentially 5 minutes of actual work took almost 3 months!
The next change Adobe introduced – and, though it happened well over a year ago, only now am I starting to see major traction – was built on top of the Demdex product they acquired a few years ago, now known as Adobe Audience Manager (AAM). AAM is the backbone for identifying visitors using its new “Marketing Cloud” suite, and the Marketing Cloud Visitor ID service (AMCV) is the new best-practice for identifying visitors to your website. Note that you don’t need to be using Audience Manager to take advantage of the Visitor ID service – the service is available to all Adobe customers.
The really great thing about this new approach is that it represents something that Adobe customers have been hoping for for years – a single point of visitor identification. The biggest advantage a company gains in switching to this new approach is a way to finally, truly integrate some of Adobe’s most popular products. Notice that I didn’t say all Adobe products – but things are finally moving in that direction. The idea here is that if you implement the Marketing Cloud Visitor ID Service, and then upgrade to the latest code versions for tools like Analytics and Target, they’ll all be using the same visitor ID, which makes for a much smoother integration of your data, your visitor segments, and so on. One caveat is that while the AMCV has been around for almost 2 years, it’s been a slow ramp-up for companies to implement it. It’s a bit more challenging than a simple change to your s_code.js or mbox.js files. And even if you get that far, it’s then an additional challenge to migrate to the latest version of Target that is compatible with AMCV – a few of my clients that have tried doing it have hit some bumps in the road along the way. The good news is that it’s a major focus of Adobe’s product roadmap, which means those bumps in the road are getting smoothed out pretty quickly.
The other thing this extra request does is allow Adobe to set an additional third-party cookie with the same value, which it will do if the browser allows. This cookie can then be used if your site spans multiple domains, allowing you to use the same ID on each one of your sites. Adobe’s own documentation says this approach will only work if you’ve set up a first-party cookie subdomain with them (that painful process I discussed earlier). One of the reasons I’ve waited to write this post is that it took awhile for a large enough client, with enough different sites, to be ready to try this approach out. After a lot of testing, I can say that it does work – but that since it is based on that initial third-party cookie, it’s a bit fragile. It works best for brand-new visitors that have no Adobe cookies on any of your website. If you test it out, you’re likely to see most visits to your websites work just like you hoped – and a few where you still get a new ID, instead of the one stored in that third-party cookie. There’s a pretty crazy flow chart that covers the whole process here if you’re more of a visual learner.
Adobe has a lot of information available to help you migrate through this process successfully, and I don’t want to re-hash it here. But the basics are as follows:
- Request from Adobe that they enable your account for the Marketing Cloud, and send you your new “Org ID.” This uniquely identifies your company and ensures your visitors get identified correctly.
- If you’re using (or want to use) first-party cookies via a CNAME, make sure your DNS records point to Adobe’s latest regional data center (RDC) collection servers. You can read about the details here.
- If your migration is going to take time (like if you’re not using tag management or can’t update all your different implementations or sites at the same time), work with Adobe to configure a “grace period” for the transition process.
- Test. And then test again. And just to be safe, test one more time – just to make sure the data being sent back to Adobe looks like you expect it to.
Once you finish, you’re going to see something like this in the Adobe Debugger:
There are two things to notice here. The first is a request for Adobe Audience Manager, and you should see your Marketing Cloud Org ID in it. The other is a new parameter in the Analytics request called “mid” that contains your new Marketing Cloud Visitor ID. Chances are, you’ll see both those. Easy, right? Unfortunately, there’s one more thing to test. After helping a dozen or so of my clients through this transition, I’ve seen a few “gotchas” pop up more than once. The Adobe debugger won’t tell you if everything worked right, so try another tool like Charles Proxy or Firebug, and find the request to “dpm.demdex.net.” The response should look something like this if it worked correctly:
However, you may see something like this:
If you get the error message “Partner ID is not provisioned in AAM correctly,” stop your testing (hopefully you didn’t test in production!). You’ll need to work with Adobe to make sure your Marketing Cloud Org ID is ”provisioned” correctly. I have no idea how ClientCare does this, but I’ve seen this problem happen enough to know that not everyone at Adobe knows how to fix it, and it may take some time. But where my first 4-5 clients all had the problem the first time they tested, lately it’s been a much smoother process.
If you’ve made it this far, I’ve saved one little thing for last – because it has the potential to become a really big thing. One of the less-mentioned features that the new Marketing Cloud Visitor ID service offers you is the ability to set your own unique IDs. Here are a few examples:
- The unique ID you give to customers in your loyalty program
- The unique ID assigned by your lead generation system (like Eloqua, Marketo, or Salesforce)
You can read about how to implement these changes here, but they’re really simple. Right now, there’s not a ton you can do with this new functionality – Adobe doesn’t even store these IDs in its cookie yet, or do anything to link those IDs to its Marketing Cloud Visitor ID. But there’s a lot of potential for things it might do in the future. For example, very few tools I’ve worked with offer a great solution for visitor stitching – the idea that a visitor should look the same to the tool whether they’re visiting your full site, your mobile site, or using your mobile app. Tealium’s AudienceStream is a notable exception, but it has less reporting capability than Adobe or Google Analytics – and those tools still aren’t totally equipped to retroactively change a visitor’s unique ID. But creating an “ID exchange” is just one of many steps that would make visitor stitching a realistic possibility.
I’ve intentionally left out many technical details on this process. The code isn’t that hard to write, and the planning and coordination with deploying it is really where I’ve seen my clients tripped up. But the new Marketing Cloud Visitor ID service is pretty slick – and a lot of the new product integration Adobe is working on depends on it. So if you’re an Adobe customer and you’re not using it, you should investigate what it will take to migrate. And if you’ve already migrated, hopefully you’ve started taking advantage of some of the new features as well!