Analytics

How Marketers Can Thrive in a Cookieless World

Written by Ray Curry ·

August 2021

Cookies have played a fundamental role in digital marketing for decades, but marketers have been forced to quickly adjust their strategies as third-party cookies are removed from popular browsers like Safari, Chrome, and Firefox.

These changes undoubtedly present new challenges for marketers, but the reality is that it's time to prepare for an internet without cookies. How brands respond to the new cookie-less world will determine their success in the 2020s and beyond.

What Are Cookies?

In short, cookies are pieces of information that websites send to web browsers in order to store particular data points. Websites often use first-party cookies to optimize the user experience—if you add something to your cart, for example, the store might use cookies to ensure that the item remains in your cart the next time you visit. Third-party cookies on the other hand are pixels placed on a website that make a call to an external server, like an advertiser or ad-server, and then drop a cookie on the user’s browser for things like remarketing and attribution.

While third-party cookies are still entirely legal, the most popular browsers have started phasing out cookies in recent years due to increasing concerns surrounding consumer privacy. Fortunately, marketers will still be able to perform many of the same tasks in a cookieless future.

Solutions

1. Collect more first-party data

Without the opportunity to leverage third-party cookies, the digital marketing ecosystem will rely on more first-party data than ever. Data collection will become even more critical in the privacy-conscious landscape.

Advertisers have long relied on cookies to extract data from other websites. Over the last few years, most browsers have blocked all third-party cookies and only allow cookies that are created by the same web domain as the site the user is visiting. These first-party cookies are used only for the website owner's functionality, such as the cart example above. This prevents advertisers from placing cookies that make a call to other servers to track user behavior.

This dynamic has led some advertisers and advocates to criticize the transition to cookieless advertising as the construction of walled gardens that will corner the market—in other words, Google and other industry giants will only be consolidating their existing grasp over customer data.

If you want to stay relevant after the phase out, you'll need to develop a marketing strategy that replaces third-party data with first-party cookies that can be collected on Google Chrome and other browsers. Basic identifiers such as email addresses and phone numbers will be extremely valuable to marketers who can no longer depend on conventional cookies.

2. Use device IDs, browser fingerprints, IP addresses, and other unique identifiers

Even in the post-cookie era, ad targeting will still depend on identifying users. Attribution will only be possible through the collection of other forms of data. While no single data point can fully replace the functionality of a cookie, device IDs, browser IDs and IP addresses will quickly become invaluable for retargeting and remarketing.

Device IDs actually offer some important benefits over third-party cookies—they last much longer than cookies, they can track user activity, and they will continue to work regardless of the browser a visitor is using.

Browser fingerprints:

  • Collect information about browser, OS, resolution, plugins, microphones, cameras, etc
  • No need to install any cookies to collect a robust browser fingerprint

While deterministic identification offers an unmatched level of certainty, the reality is that probabilistic identification methods will become far more relevant over the next few years.

3. Focus on social media

The end of third-party cookies might be a good thing for data privacy, but it also gives more power to companies with first-party datasets.

Americans spend more than an hour per day on social media, which is now one of the most powerful tools for identity resolution.

Facebook and other platforms that own large amounts of first-party data and offer segmentation and targeting features that will become even more valuable over the next few years.

4. Understand customer behavior

Cookieless marketing will inevitably transform the entire field of digital advertising. That said, user data is only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to understanding customer behavior.

Yes, there is a need to replace the functionality of third-party cookies to the extent that that's possible. But the real innovators will continue to find new ways to approach identity resolution as well as the larger problem of data collection in a cookieless future. It's a mistake to focus on the loss of cookies rather than the broader opportunities that result from any changes to ad tech regulations and practices.

Remember that cookies, device IDs, IP addresses, and other identifiers are simply tools that marketers can leverage. Getting trapped in old ways of thinking will become even more counterproductive in a future without cookies. We expect marketers to rise to the challenge by finding new ways to approach the same problems of identification and attribution.

The loss of third-party cookies will push marketers to first-party data as well as walled gardens like Facebook and Google, but it will also lead to unpredictable and innovative solutions. Recent projects like Unified ID 2.0 are already pushing back against walled gardens and giving digital marketers unprecedented tools for identity resolution.

Unified ID 2.0 bills itself as an “open-source framework that publishers, advertisers, and digital advertising platforms can use to establish identity without third-party cookies.” Unlike third-party cookies, Unified 2.0 requires users to opt-in by entering their email address. Unified ID 2.0 is fully compliant with all major privacy regulations, and existing users can opt-out of the service at any time.

While Unified ID 2.0 hasn’t become an industry standard like third-party cookies, it’s already being used by major websites including Washington Post, BuzzFeed, AMC, Salon, and the Los Angeles Times. This is a perfect example of how the end of third-party cookies will actually move identity resolution forward even as it takes away tools that digital marketers have relied on for years.

The transition to a cookieless world presents a major challenge for digital marketers. On the other hand, it introduces new opportunities for brands to develop competitive advantages when it comes to data collection and identity resolution. These strategies will help you navigate an uncertain future and put your brand in a position to succeed throughout the 2020s and beyond.

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We build immersive digital experiences, but most importantly we build momentum. Ideas Made Measurable is a full-service digital agency designed for brands ready to capitalize on change. With data as our northstar, our extensive expertise inspires consumer action to drive results that can completely transform our clients’ businesses. And we’re lucky enough to do what we love with Boulder, Colorado as our backdrop.