The Third-Party Cookie Conundrum

How to adjust your marketing strategy for a cookie-less world.

2024 ushered in a new era for digital marketing: a world without third-party browser cookies. 

Unless you’ve been hiding under a proverbial marketing rock, you’ve probably heard about Google’s recent restriction of third-party cookies. On Jan 5, 2024, Google restricted them for 1% of Chrome users by default—much later than its rivals Safari, Firefox, and Brave—with a plan to roll it out to everyone by the second half of the year.
Predictably, this has had the ad tech community up in arms, wondering what this will mean for the precious data that allows them to hyper-personalize the ads they serve to consumers. While Google has been preparing for this behind the scenes for months, marketers and brands are a little less sure how to properly prepare for it. 

Today, we’re going to change that. But first, here’s a quick breakdown of what’s happening. 

What are these delicious little third-party cookies?

Have you ever been browsing Instagram and seen the exact items you looked at on Nordstrom earlier in the day in your feed? Or visited a website to explore a new service, then saw that brand in the ads on your morning news article? That is the power of third-party cookies. 

Third-party cookies are tiny pieces of data that are stored in your web browser and used to track your behavior across different websites. They allow advertisers to understand your preferences and build a user profile of your browsing and searching behavior. 

That’s how they serve up hyper-personalized product ads that you just can’t resist clicking on and buying! 

Here’s what it looks like in action…
  • You visit the website of Nike to browse through various new fitness apparel options. 
  • As you navigate the site, Nike sets third-party cookies on your browser and associated ad networks. 
  • As you browse through running shoes and yoga pants, cookies track your product views and how much time you spend on each page. 
  • You add a pair of shoes and pants to your cart, and the cookies continue to track your interactions. 
  • But you leave before checking out to think about the purchase, and cookies track this too! 
  • Later, you’re browsing posts on Instagram and reading the news, and see ads everywhere for the shoes and pants you left in your cart, exclusive discounts, and related products. 

As you can see, these little pieces of data can be VERY powerful for brands and advertisers. 

But, what’s powerful for the brand is not always what the consumer wants. Which leads us to the great cookie conundrum: to track or not to track? 

Prioritizing Privacy > Personalization

In the years leading up to the great phase-out, consumers have grown more and more weary of being tracked online. Many feel as though they haven’t given explicit consent to be tracked and don’t feel comfortable having a detailed behavioral profile of themselves built and sold without their knowledge. 

Between data breaches, high-profile data scandals (can you say Cambridge Analytica?), and the increased media coverage of these risks, our expectations around privacy are evolving. We’re demanding more control over what data is tracked and how it is used. 

One response to that has been a significant push for more privacy regulation, seen in new legislation like the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) in the EU and CCPA (California Consumer Privacy Act) in the US, which give us more control over our data. You’ve probably seen websites that allow you to decline tracking in the bar at the bottom—a direct result of this legislative work.

How Brands are Reacting

Brands have also come under tremendous pressure to meet this shift in expectations and the global nature of these regulations—especially when noncompliance can mean a record-breaking €1.2 billion fine (sucks to suck, Meta). 

But, most brands tracking our data are highly reliant on advertisers and the revenue that they provide. 

So, we see three solutions emerging:
  • Offering premium, private, or ad-free paid tiers of service, like Meta,
  • Enabling users to have their data deleted, like Spotify and Uber,
  • Or eliminating third-party cookies altogether, like Google, Apple, and Mozilla

And the last one is the one we’re most concerned about today. 

Some browsers, like Safari and Firefox, have eliminated third-party cookies, wrapping up the job in 2022. But Google, which makes up more than 56% of the web browser market and more than half of all global web traffic, had a different approach. 

They believe that a speedy elimination process will have “unintended consequences that can negatively impact both users and the web ecosystem.” And they’re not wrong. 

Staying Relevant in a Cookieless World

This transition is reshaping the landscape of digital marketing and changing the way that we do business online. Advertisers and marketers that once thrived using third-party data to drive sales must invest their attention and dollars elsewhere to generate the same result. 

Here are 5 ways your brand can shift its marketing strategy in 2024 to stay relevant. 

Increase your focus on first-party data.

When customers voluntarily provide their information to a brand, it’s called first-party data. From offering exclusive experiences and sales to building loyalty programs, brands are investing heavily in building their own data sets and profiles and being transparent about what they use that data for. 

Diversify your marketing channels.

Time to mix up your marketing mix and explore new channel possibilities! Email marketing, influencer relationships, brand partnerships, podcast advertising, and content marketing should continue to explode in 2024 as they allow for hyper-personalized audience targeting without third-party data.

Create high-quality & relevant content.

Capturing and retaining audience attention will be harder than ever without precise targeting. Conducting in-depth audience research and then creating personalized, interactive content that tells a compelling story to that audience will help brands create connections and drive engagement. 

Adjust the marketing metrics that measure your success.

Conversion metrics like click-through rate and impressions may not accurately reflect your brand’s true visibility. Instead, create KPIs based on engagement metrics (time on site and scroll depth), fist-party data metrics (number of users that willingly share info), and retention metrics (repeat purchases and loyalty program enrollment).  

Double down on generating qualitative feedback.

With conversion metrics harder to track, capturing the nuanced aspects of user engagement and sentiment can help drive your campaign’s creative direction. This might include the use and monitoring of surveys and feedback forms, social media listening, user reviews, customer interviews, social media polls, and in-app feedback. 

The shift that we as consumers have made by demanding our right to digital privacy has created a ripple across the entire digital marketing spectrum. 

Brands that reprioritize authenticity and transparency, focus on building genuine connections, and create contextually relevant ads will thrive in this new dynamic landscape. The others will simply be left behind. 

Which one will your brand be? 

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