Death of Third-Party Cookies – Rebirth of Less Creepy Marketing

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There has been an awful lot of cookie-talk lately. Way back in 2020, search engine behemoth Google announced that it would slowly bring an end to third-party cookies and, in doing so, change how digital marketing functions. Perhaps out of hesitancy to move too quickly, Google then announced in March of 2021 that the move to a cookie-less world could wait another year. The change is now slated for 2022 but may not be completed until a year later.

This resource focuses on Google, the current mover and shaker. However, browsers and other technologies without third-party cookies (or that allow users to opt out of tracking) already exist and have for some time. Firefox started blocking third-party cookies by default in 2019. In March 2020, Apple began blocking all third-party cookies and probably took more than a little pride in beating Google to the punch by two years. Based on several Google posts, we expect that all third-party cookies will be gone by 2023, which seems to be the industry expectation as well.

Today we’re answering every marketer’s burning questions about third-party cookies and providing guidance for connecting with you audience in a cookieless world. 

Why Is Chrome Removing Third-Party Cookies?

Much of Google’s intent was outlined in the initial 2020 statement. The company is focused on meeting users’ demand for more privacy and more transparency in how their data is collected, packaged and sold to advertisers.

Privacy has been a hot topic in the tech space for years, but there is a sense that a reckoning is coming. Companies like Facebook have been successfully sued for privacy violations, while Apple is leaning into security as perhaps the most important feature that differentiates it from competitors.

Who Will Be Affected by The Change?

All Chrome users and pretty much all businesses who do digital marketing! Mozilla Firefox and Apple’s Safari have already stopped collecting third-party cookie data, with Apple beating Google to the punch by two years. 

At last count, there were about 2.65 billion people using Chrome worldwide. That’s still a lot of cookies being tracked.

How Exactly Will This Work?

If it’s pre-2022 and you’re reading this on Google’s Chrome browser, which accounts for about 69% of desktop browsing traffic around the world, then Chrome almost certainly attached a tiny slice of code to your browsing session. That code will follow you around this site and, when you leave, follow you when you check the Cubs score (they lost), shop for new Bluetooth headphones and look at prices for that long-awaited flight to Phoenix.

Things are about to change. (How many times can we say “change”?)

Here are a few key points about what the death of third-party cookies will mean:

  • Cookies will still exist. First-party cookies will still collect data on behalf of the owner of a site or app, but information will only be shared with that property owner, not Google and whoever they sell your data to.
  • Users will be assigned to a Cohort. If you’ve ever wanted to be anonymously assigned to a cohort with tens of thousands of strangers, you’re in luck. Google has proposed the Federated Learning of Cohorts, an AI system that learns your interests, browsing patterns, and other identifying factors and lumps users in with others with similar interests. Since users’ personal identifying information is not included, the system is more private.
  • What happens on Chrome, stays on Chrome. With FLoC, all collected data stays with Chrome and won’t be shared with other entities.

There is a lot to it, and if you want do get into the weeds, check out Google’s frequently updated Privacy Sandbox.

What Will the New Google Cookie Policy Change?

It’s not too dramatic to say these third-party cookies are the basic infrastructure of online advertising and that many companies – especially ecommerce brands – have built large portions of their marketing strategy on them. Removing third-party cookies will limit the amount of data companies like Google can gather about browsing habits. For marketers, this all translates to more difficult processes for ad targeting and tying strategies together from various marketing channels.

Here are some other changes (both ugly and hopeful) that you can expect:

  • Third-party advertisers will have a hard time. One study by the Competition and Market Authority in the United Kingdom found that short-term revenue from online publishers could see a 70% decrease in ad revenue.
  • Ecommerce businesses will feel the burn, too. If most of your revenue comes through ecommerce, then third-party cookies are a vital part of finding high-quality new customers and using remarketing to bring back past users as well. Ecommerce channel ad spend has been increasing for years, but the pandemic accelerated spend by nearly 50% in 2020. If these types of ads aren’t as effective in a post-cookie world, brands may choose to invest their marketing budgets in different way.
  • Content will need to be consistently awesome to fill the funnel. No more creeping on an individual’s browser activity to get in front of them. Businesses must use SEO and content marketing to attract users at various stages of the sales funnel and nurture them from there!
  • First-party data will become your best friend. Marketers can still rely on first-party data from attribution and ABM software, from tech giants, and from their own fancy custom event tracking. (More about this below.)
  • Personalization will get less creepy. With FLoC and first-party data, there will still be ways to create personalized content and lead nurture campaigns. It’ll just be less creepy and will typically rely on a user opting into the experience.
  • Attribution models and reporting will change fundamentally. With users becoming more anonymous, attributing conversions at a high-level will be more challenging. This means that your top-level analytics and conversion data will often only tell you which campaigns your users likely came from. This is a complex topic, but it’s not a new one.

Marketers have been sweating in their improvised at-home offices since the “cookie death” news broke in 2020. Their, uh, vocal hesitation about the change played a big role in the additional year delay for Chrome. The issue has been so divisive in ecommerce that some of the biggest tech companies are refusing to play nice. Amazon says it will block FLoC from its platform, which sees more than 2 billion sessions per month. Now that’s putting your foot down.

Even if Jeff Bezos doesn’t like it, Google’s move is still going to happen. Here are a few ways to prepare.

Alternatives to Third-Party Cookies

The internet isn’t going anywhere. Brands and marketers will still be able to derive plenty of information about users and run effective campaigns.

Let’s (First-) Party. First-party cookies will be more important than ever. By setting up event tracking for campaigns, you will be able to derive anonymized data from your domains and evaluate user behavior.

It’s worth noting that the two biggest first-party data collection companies in the world are – surprise, surprise – Google and Facebook. When your audience uses Facebook and Google products (think Gmail, ads, Google Maps, etc.), the technology hands over prodigious amounts of data based on what content was consumed, that person’s friends and contacts, and their browsing habits. Facebook has tracking tools on eight million websites worldwide, while more than a billion people use Google products per month.

Besides relying on existing tools to apply first-party data to your marketing, you can also set up tracking to collect deeper data on your own.

Build a First-Party Data Strategy. First-Party Data comes directly and exclusively from the interactions your users have with your web properties. While the methods of applying this to a specific business case can be quite complex, there are three key steps to get on the right track:

  1. Identify users and confirm consent. If your users are no longer anonymous, it is much easier to piece together their journey. Prompt to sign in or sign up as soon as possible. Bolster identification by allowing SSOs, enhancing user experience for users that connect their social accounts, and utilize progressive profiling to get more information where appropriate. Also, use this opportunity to confirm consent with your Data Collection and Privacy Policies.
  2. Capture user actions as data points and custom metrics. Every click, tap, and text input on your site is a chance to collect valuable insights. Identify (and create) opportunities to correlate information about a user (and the choices they are making) to other factors. Create opportunities for users to express their preferences – give them more choices, prompts, and ways to give you feedback and volunteer information (without being creepy). If you’re hip with Google Analytics 4, this should sound familiar to you – these “events” are exactly what GA4 was designed for!
  3. Analyze, Categorize and Correlate. Now that we have two data sets, one based on Cohorts, and one based on our real users, we can infer connections between the two. Data analysis is both an art and a science, but there are a few things anyone should be able to manage:
    a. Analyze the data. Take a gander at your GA4 analytics, experiment with the new reports, and bask in the glory of your data! Does anything surprise you? Things that seem “off” in analytics data are where your actionable trends tend to live. If you’re really tech savvy (or have support from an agency), use your new custom metrics in Google Big Query to dive even deeper, create unique reports in GoogleLooker Studio, and more.
    b. Categorize your users into groups that matter for your business. Were certain users served specific campaigns? Did certain users come from different channels? How about demographic or geographical segments? Retention, conversion, engagement, share of voice? The possibilities are endless, but don’t go overboard or you’ll have trouble filtering the signal from the noise.
    c. Correlate those groups with Cohorts. Make inferences about Cohort groups based on your new First Party User Categories. This will allow you to offer some degree of personalization at the top of the funnel, even before interacting with the user!
  4. Let your users “Choose their own adventure”. Your users have intention – let them present you with that intent as soon as possible. Give them clear, navigational choices that will set them on a personalized path to conversion. Often called “Experiential Design”, this UX philosophy places priority on making the user’s path more engaging from the start. Gamifying or “Choose your own adventure”-ifying the experience and user identification process works much better than old-school transactional methods of gathering information (eg: “Want a coupon? Give us that email address!”).
  5. Don’t give up on personalization. Privacy may come at the expense of a more personalized digital experience, but you may rely on using more tools and techniques to accomplish the same thing. First-party data, FLoCs, and features that Google hasn’t announced may combine to yield digital advertising that is just as targeted and effective without being, well, creepy. At the top of the funnel, rely on the assumptions we’ve made from correlation between your First Party Data and Cohorts, as described earlier. Once your users are on your web properties, engage with them and use the results of those engagements to personalize their on-site experience and the marketing they receive in the future.
  6. Make Great Internet. The real key to thriving won’t change! Just make accessible, exciting, useful, and stunning content. If you’re already focused on content marketing, keep going and make it even better. In the cookieless world, businesses must rely on search behavior as a proxy for market demand. Draw in new users with excellent content that performs well in search engines and speaks to every stage of the buyer’s mindset. If you don’t have one already, we suggest a robust content calendar that covers multiple content marketing channels.  
  7. Change the focus of your KPIs. As we move forward, quality metrics like session duration, pages per session, and % of return/new users might become more important for analyzing a successful campaign. Many of these KPIs should focus on your specific marketing goals. If you’re focused strictly on revenue, find ways to connect data points that you trust to that goal. For example, revenue is more affected by average cart total more than sessions. Another important focus should be the customer journey. Use event tracking, specific annotations in Google Analytics and Google 4, and measure wins and loses by how efficiently users move through the sales process. Using automated and comprehensive A/B testing should also help to confirm or conflict with your established theories about relevant KPIs. If a marketing effort, be it SEO or paid or social, works or fails, learn why so it can be replicated.

Data Privacy Is a Selling Point for Brands

Privacy, as a societal issue, is a fundamental shift that matters to your customers. According to Deloitte, 83% of consumers say they are aware of recent breaches of personal data stored with retailers. 59% said that a single data breach would negatively impact their likelihood of buying products from that company.  That may not be surprising, but it’s not indicative of an audience that mistrust brands. Viewing privacy as a hurdle is the wrong; it’s an opportunity to building a strong, lasting relationship with customers by valuing their concerns and protecting their data.

Buckle Up

We’re about to embark on a brave new digital world, but it’s a world that’s going to look strikingly similar to the one we’re already scrolling through. By investing in great content, brilliant graphic design, and always prioritizing the user experience, brands from any industry can thrive in a world without third-party cookies.

At Oneupweb, we love this stuff. If you’ve like to learn more about data privacy, third-party cookies, and other pressing tech and marketing topics of the day, let’s chat. To get into the details, check out Learn with OneupWeb, full educational course with resources for brands, marketers, and tech junkies. If you’ve made it this far in the post, that’s you!  

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