The digital marketing landscape is undergoing a seismic shift. If you haven't heard, Google is saying goodbye to third-party cookies to address data privacy concerns. And if you’re wondering how to combat a cookieless future, this is where you need to be.
The move by Google is a component of its broader initiative called the Privacy Sandbox — which seeks to create web standards that allow websites to access user information without compromising privacy.
Naturally, this presents a daunting challenge for marketers. Once third-party cookies disappear, marketers will need new ways to run personalized ad campaigns and track user data, disrupting audience engagement, segmentation, and retargeting strategies.
So it’s no wonder many were relieved when Google extended the phase-out timeline to the second half of 2024. This offers a buffer period for businesses to recalibrate their approaches to data collection.
Understanding third-party cookies and why they have been vital for digital marketing is essential.
Third-party cookies are pieces of data stored on your computer by a website or domain different from the one you’re currently visiting. In simpler terms, these cookies come from an external source other than the website you're interacting with directly.
Here’s an example of how third-party cookies work.
Imagine browsing a news website and seeing embedded options to 'Like' or 'Share' an article via LinkedIn. You share the article, and from then on, notice the brand popping up in your LinkedIn feed daily.
That’s happening because even though you weren’t on LinkedIn’s platform, clicking those buttons installed a third-party cookie onto your computer. From there, the cookie will track you subtly until deleted.
Some of the information third-party cookies collect about users include the following.
Such data helps marketers build comprehensive user profiles to tailor marketing campaigns, delivering highly personalized user experiences.
The thing is, Google holds a staggering 83% search engine global market share.
And considering its dominance, the move to phase out third-party cookies will set the tone of digital advertising for many years.
That also means the cookieless era isn't just about adapting; embracing a paradigm where data privacy takes center stage is vital.
Marketers will need to abandon old habits and rethink their strategies. They must balance the drive for personalization with the imperative of earning consumer trust through transparent and secure data practices.
But this shift also offers an opportunity for innovation. It's a call to action to evolve and develop more direct, privacy-friendly methods for engaging audiences.
While Google has pushed back its timeline, the clock is still ticking, and complacency now could mean big trouble later. So, use this extended period to reimagine and retool your marketing strategies.
Here are six steps to proactively adapt and position your brand for success.
While losing third-party cookies will make data collection more challenging, you still have first-party data. This is data sourced directly from interactions on your website or a platform you control (e.g., subscriptions, purchase histories, email activity, etc.).
Some advantages of first-party data include the following.
Now is the ideal time to refine your first-party data collection methods well ahead of Google's cookieless shift. Take this opportunity to dive deep into how visitors engage with your site or app and their preferred transactions.
You can also investigate methods for enhancing first-party data collection. For example, you can allow user registrations and implement single sign-on (SSO), allowing visitors to log in via their Google, Facebook, and other accounts.
Similarly, you could introduce modern applications designed to collect first-party data from your website, like Bread & Butter or HubSpot.
You can also adopt progressive profiling techniques. This is when you examine firmographic, demographic, and psychographic data that reveal insights about customer segments.
Current indications suggest that first-party cookies will remain relevant.
Plus, legislative developments in Europe offer further assurance. Regulators are considering a new proposal under the ePrivacy Regulation that may replace the existing ePrivacy Directive, commonly known as the EU Cookie Law.
The proposed regulation takes a more lenient stance on cookies that are less intrusive and enhance the user experience online.
It suggests consent might not be necessary for these types of cookies, including essentials (e.g., session cookies, authentication, user input, etc.) and some non-essentials (e.g., analytics, customization, etc.).
These developments strongly signal that first-party cookies aren’t under immediate threat.
Second-party cookies are first-party cookies shared between two different domains or companies through a strategic partnership.
For example, if your company specializes in video production, consider partnering with an entrepreneurship blog.
By doing so, you can access their first-party data, such as email addresses or demographic information. Then, use that information to target potential customers, transforming it into second-party data.
In addition, the scope of second-party data collaborations can go beyond one-to-one partnerships. For instance, a shipping company can establish data exchange networks involving multiple businesses, such as packaging companies.
With contextual targeting, ads display on a website or platform based on the page's content. The idea is to present ads relevant to the page's content and, therefore, more likely to be of interest to the audience viewing it.
For example, someone reading a travel article might see airline, hotel, or trip insurance ads. This type is called the topic contextual strategy.
Other contextual targeting strategies include the following.
Using contextual targeting can immediately make your service or product relevant to the audience.
Another intriguing avenue is cohort-based marketing, mainly through Google's Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC) initiative.
Here’s how it works.
This approach allows for targeted advertising while maintaining high user privacy.
There are several improvements to privacy, including the following.
Also, FLoC uses first-party and third-party data to create cohorts. So even when third-party cookies go away, FLoC remains a viable solution.
Keep an eye out for new and innovative solutions. They will continue emerging as we approach the end of third-party cookies.
For example, the following methodologies are gaining traction.
This approach uses metadata from users' devices, such as their browser type and internet connection speed, to make educated guesses about their preferences and behavior. Though less precise than cookie-based methods, probabilistic targeting can still provide valuable insights.
Walled gardens are ecosystems where user activity is closely monitored but not shared outside the platform.
In other words, these platforms are closed systems (think Facebook, X, TikTok, etc.) able to maintain a significant degree of control across their ecosystem regarding data. They are a rich source of user information for targeted advertising within the given platforms only.
Another approach involves gathering data from users who have authenticated their identity, usually through account sign-ups or subscriptions. This first-party data comes with the user's explicit consent, which aligns with the focus on data privacy.
The term "cookieless" might be somewhat misleading. It insinuates a future that’s devoid of cookies, though first-party and second-party cookies are far from facing extinction.
However, their functionality will differ. These cookies will primarily focus on improving user experience on individual websites rather than enabling marketers to track behavior across multiple sites.
In short, ‘cookieless’ only refers to the phasing out of third-party cookies. Maybe marketers will start referring to their demise with something else in the future.
The looming discontinuation of third-party cookies raises questions about its true impact. While it’s a move toward a more secure and private internet, one cannot overlook that Google and other tech giants already hold vast user data.
So, the absence of third-party cookies won't be a hurdle, particularly for Google, as it already has robust data collection mechanisms.
Ironically, other businesses — especially small and medium-sized enterprises — may find themselves at a significant disadvantage. You could argue that Google's shift away from third-party cookies places small companies in a position where they must increase their reliance on Google-centric solutions.
The outcome could be a tightening grip by tech giants on the digital advertising landscape.
Marketers must be agile and adaptable as digital marketing continues its rapid evolution. Failing to do so could jeopardize your brand. Therefore, you should begin preparations for a Cookieless future now.
Not to mention, there’s growing momentum around data privacy regulations globally. So, regulators may introduce more stringent data privacy rules. Getting ahead of these changes can help you avoid compliance issues and provide a competitive advantage.
Lastly, remember to keep informed about emerging solutions that can improve marketing efforts and outcomes. Companies that adopt alternative strategies early will have more time to test and optimize new methods of targeting and personalization.
It also allows thoughtful planning in adapting your technology infrastructure for a smooth transition. Build a data collection strategy that’ll carve a path to thriving in a cookieless world.