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How to Navigate a Cookie-less Future

The news that Google was pushing back the deprecation of the third-party cookie until late 2023 came as somewhat a welcome surprise to digital marketers. Since Google first announced their plans in February 2020 to phase out third-party cookies, inboxes have been flooded with invitations to webinars and industry news on how to plan for this shift in how marketers track user and website behavior. 

However, despite the advertising industry’s collective sigh of relief, very little has changed.

The delay is simply borrowed time, and as marketers, we would be remiss if we took this announcement as an opportunity to procrastinate in planning our approach to the inevitable change. There are many digital unknowns and uncertainties, but it’s important to get ahead of this and recalibrate before the 2023 deadline (which could potentially shift again).

 

What are third-party cookies anyway? 

At the center of this issue is the third-party cookie. Cookies are tracking codes or pixels placed on a user’s browser that allows marketers to pass information about that user to third-party platforms (advertising platforms or data management systems). 

As marketers, cookies allow us to better understand the effectiveness of campaigns and what matters to our target audiences. They help pass purchase data, identify users to enable retargeting on other websites/platforms, and allow marketers to understand audiences to find similar customers with web browsing behavior similar to their current customers.

Vermilion Design Digital Cookie-less Future

What do cookies mean for privacy?

Google explained that the decision to pivot away from third-party cookies was to protect users and grant them more control over their data privacy.  Both Firefox and Safari have already eliminated third-party cookie tracking capabilities from their browsers. However, with Chrome being the preferred web browser for over half of the U.S. market, the impact of this shift feels larger from a marketer’s perspective.

 

Why is Google removing third-party cookies?

Let’s be honest. The reliance on third-party cookies has gone on for much longer than anyone ever anticipated. After all, the “cookie” is 26-years-old! 

As marketers, we understand why advertisers may be frustrated by an inability to leverage third-party cookies in the future, but we also celebrate a move that acknowledges user and data privacy as a top concern. 

Throughout the years, incremental changes and adaptations have rolled out, but with the passage of GDPR, CCPA, and increasing demand for control over how data is collected and used, this shift is long overdue.

We feel this move will force the industry to take the next step in becoming more transparent and provide users with more agency over their data. Brands and their agency partners are obligated to meet this expectation if they hope to continue to build trust and lasting relationships with their customers.

 

vermilion table comparing first-party and third-party cookies

 

How should marketers plan for a future without third-party cookies?

A few ways marketers can prepare for campaigns that no longer rely on third-party cookie data:

  • Invest in First-Party Data

The mantra “first-party data is king” isn’t new. But now more than ever, brands need to invest in building systems to collect, store, and leverage customer data based on their consent. All of this comes with a financial and time investment. It’s not enough to store the info your customers provide, but marketers need to use that data to provide relevant ongoing communication and build relationships with their audience. Marketers need to work towards owning the customer relationship vs. just owning or leveraging their data.

  • Vet Your Data Partners 

Marketers aren’t the only ones preparing for the end of the third-party cookie. Ask your data and platform partners about the steps they are taking to best support brands and advertisers. Make sure they have measures in place to handle data privacy, ensure they are leveraging targeting tactics that protect users’ privacy, and ask for details on how they collect their data. This step will not only help make sure your partners are following best practices, but it will also help you evaluate their viability for campaigns on their platforms in a cookieless future.

  • Use Interest-based and Contextual Targeting

While individual user tracking will be limited, marketers will still have the ability to reach users based on interest and contextual targeting. For example, keywords, categories, affinity groups, and persona behavior will still be available. Brands should invest in building a deeper understanding of existing customers. When you better understand the behavior of a target user, you can show up on sites and platforms where they are most likely to engage.

  • Stay Informed

Various options have been proposed as solutions to replace the third-party cookie. At this time there isn’t a quick fix or a 1:1 replacement. Marketers should be following the conversation closely and researching proposed solutions as they evolve. There will be a period where we kick the tires on some of the proposed alternatives — as well as a period where these alternatives evolve based on industry feedback. Here are a few resources the Vermilion digital marketing team is following closely to stay informed on this major industry shift:

 

So, what now?

While these new requirements may initially feel like a limitation, by shifting our targeting strategies and acknowledging the importance of users’ rights to data privacy, our industry has the opportunity to grow. 

In order to be successful, we must embrace this move as a chance to become smarter marketers and invest in deeper, authentic connections with our customers. If done right, a cookie-less future can lead to increased brand loyalty and trust.

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