Surviving the War on Third-Party Browser Cookies

As more and more digital platforms move away from third-party cookies in an effort to better respect user privacy, how are digital marketers expected to respond to this change in the digital landscape?

Almost as long as we’ve been using browsers to surf the internet, browsers have been using cookies to store data. This started as a way to make things more efficient and convenient, like keeping yourself logged into your email or social network even after you close the browser. But soon enough advertisers started to find new uses for cookies and the sort of data that they can record and send back to their creators, resulting in the rise of third-party cookies that don’t just tell browsers whether or not you’re still logged in but also let advertisers know which sites you’ve been visiting or how much time you spend considering products for purchase.

It’s for the latter that cookies have gotten an increasingly bad rap in recent years. And you can’t really blame people – the way that third-party cookies have been used to “optimise” digital advertising experiences has resulted in a lot of “creepy” situations. This is best illustrated as how casually browsing on an e-commerce site can lead to ads related to those same products appearing in your social media feeds. On the one hand, it can be potentially useful — we’ve all gotten timely ads that show us things that we actually want right when we want them. But on the other hand, it still means that a lot of digital advertising can start to use psychographics based on your online activity to better target you for ads or even political messages.

Third-Party Cookies Are Going Away

While tech companies haven’t figured out an alternative to the cookie that feels less invasive but still achieves the original functionality, we’re already seeing vastly different approaches to addressing these privacy concerns.

Many browsers like Apple’s Safari and Mozilla’s Firefox have taken a more aggressive stance by blocking all third-party cookies by default while Google has previously announced plans for Chrome to eventually phase-out third-party cookie support in a few years; more recently they’ve released stronger statements about working towards a more “privacy-first web” including promises that they will not build new solutions to track users as they browse across the web.

In line with their more aggressive efforts to protect user privacy, Apple’s IOS 14 will require all developers to get explicit permission from users to allow mobile apps and sites to track a user’s activity, a move that companies like Facebook are very publicly against. This will impact a lot of the current digital advertising practices that allow markers to connect user activity across multiple sites and devices using the same third-party cookie data. Subsequently, Google has announced that they are also considering similar solutions for Android, but the specifics aren’t clear just yet. 

What Can Marketers Do?

Many of these announced changes will significantly change the way digital marketers will operate in the future and our plans and strategies for helping clients will need to change along with them. 

So here are a few things to keep in mind in the coming years:

Work with the Changing Landscape – While the different tech companies are getting their act together, you need to keep pace with the rapidly changing environment as more privacy solutions are implemented. For example, Facebook has outlined initial steps that it recommends partners should take to minimise the impact of IOS14 on their ongoing campaigns. You should also take the time to understand what changes like IOS14 means on Facebook and other platforms and how it will impact things like the timeliness of reporting data or what possible constraints there may be for what events can be tracked versus what can be used for ad optimisation. Whether you decide to do this on your own or with the help of a Facebook Managed Partner like Hashtag Interactive, it’s important that you take the necessary steps to prepare for the changes before Apple completes its full roll-out. 

And we’re going to go through similar processes over and over again as other platforms implement their changes aligned with these goals. Google’s longer-term Privacy Sandbox initiative is being done with a greater degree of transparency and certainly merits careful consideration and scrutiny as they move forward.

Take Care of Your First-Party Data – The larger privacy issue involves third-party cookies that anonymously track user behaviour across the web but does not necessarily impact first-party data, which is when you get explicit consent from your customers to use their data to market to them. It’s not enough to just pivot your current remarketing efforts to target your primary customer base though — that would just result in them revoking consent once things start to feel spammy. 

Instead, marketers need to re-examine their entire user journey and consider how to make it worthwhile to customers to give their consent to receive marketing from you and how best to nurture your user database so that you don’t scare them away. This means carefully evaluating all your digital touchpoints with your customers ranging from your email marketing to your social media updates. These approaches can’t work in isolation from one another and if you want to create a complete user experience that actually provides value for them, thus fostering greater brand loyalty and patronage.

Explore Other Data Solutions – With third-party cookies on their way out, traditional notions related to remarketing advertising and other solutions that rely heavily on user tracking can no longer be the primary focus of your advertising strategy. Beyond working with your existing platforms to adapt to the coming changes, it’s also important to continually explore new platforms and innovative data solutions that may provide new ways to advertise to customers in a manner that still respects their privacy while still providing relevant targeting criteria for advertisers.

At Hashtag Interactive, we’re continually on the lookout for new partners for all aspects of digital marketing ranging from programmatic advertising partners, data analytics innovators, and companies experimenting with entirely new advertising formats and solutions. We know very well that the digital landscape is always changing and digital marketers like us all need to keep pace with the industry and remain open to trying out new solutions that may provide value for our clients. 

Yes, the “death” of third-party cookies is inevitable and will result in a LOT of changes to how digital marketing works. But in the end, finding solutions that respect user privacy while still helping companies provide value to their clients is a win for everyone and should be embraced fully. And changes like these just help all digital marketers stay on their toes and provide us all greater challenges in terms of how best to reach relevant audiences in a meaningful way.

on March 22, 2021