While Google has pushed back phasing out third-party cookies until the second half of 2024, the digital world is still changing.
While holistic and accurate measurement might feel insurmountable, every business has options to know what’s working, why, and what to optimize for even better performance. Learn more about the shifting landscape and what it means for marketers working to measure effectiveness and record real business results.
How changes in privacy shook up the advertising landscape
For nearly three decades, third-party cookies allowed advertisers to track consumer behavior in a very granular way and aggregate audiences for targeting. The only problem? People don’t like being tracked. Pew Research found 79% of Americans are concerned about how much data companies collect regarding their interests and activities across the web.
Safari and Firefox started blocking third-party ad network cookies as early as 2013—well before the EU enacted the General Data Protection Regulation in April 2016. The ubiquitous browsers changed their default setting, blocking all third-party cookies for all advertisers. In the US, this move toward greater privacy was followed by the California Consumer Privacy Act in January 2020. In April 2021, Apple changed its “opt-out” tracking policy for iOS devices. Presently, 75% of iPhone/iPad users decline to opt-in. As a consequence, marketers can no longer track any ad views beyond a day or any clicks beyond a week.
Google now plans to remove cookies from their browser in the back half of 2024, officially bringing the era of cookie-based tracking to an end. The information housed in third-party cookies, once accessible to all, will eventually sit with Google. Marketers have already been adjusting their strategy to proactively tackle this challenge.
What replaces the third-party cookie?
With the cookie-less future on its way, the clock is ticking for advertisers to find new methods to reach consumers and measure the effectiveness of their efforts. Replacing third-party cookie tracking and last-click attribution measurement is not the death knell so many proclaim. While it has its value, it was never a perfect system to begin with; according to Gartner, cookie attribution accuracy ranged from 40-60%. It was a good tool and helped a lot of marketers make decisions for not a lot of investment, but it was not the Holy Grail.
The upcoming cookie-free landscape forecasts a future where older but highly reliable tactics are looked at with a fresh eye and some new ones are introduced.
Every business will need to consider its options based on what resources they have and what works for them. In preparation for the next phase of digital marketing, advertisers will be leaning more heavily on identity resolution partnerships, information within walled gardens, and predictive modeling. Advertisers that have access to rich first-party data will be in the best position for the future landscape.
Identity Resolution Partnerships
Many identity solutions have been proposed, but none are universal. More than a dozen companies—including The Trade Desk and LiveRamp—are working on a Universal ID and data enablement platforms that match names, addresses, phone numbers, and email addresses with online devices to create identity graphs and people-based IDs.
Microsoft (Parakeet) and Google (Sparrow, Turtledove, Fledge, FLoC/Topics) are experimenting with different privacy-preserving alternatives, but much about these solutions is still unknown. These tools assemble cohorts of anonymous groups of people expressing interest in a certain kind of content. The idea of buying contextual audiences is not new and has been used effectively in campaigns.
Multiple identity solutions can be a time-tested strategy. According to Forbes, 60% of marketers believe they’ll need multiple identity solutions.
Identity graphs, pioneered by Oracle Data Cloud, collect information about audiences from email, social media logins, Universal ID, and IP addresses. Taking away the cookie shrinks touchpoints but doesn’t totally eliminate the ability to identify people. Oracle’s identity graph can still be impressively accurate without cookies because of its vast collection of other information.
Building identity graphs can be a reliable strategy until the dust settles on Universal ID startups and whatever new technology Google ultimately offers.
Without third-party cookies, advertisers will need to continue to work with multiple platforms to target their campaigns for a comprehensive view of how their advertising performs. Working directly with platforms such as Google, Facebook, and Amazon, marketers can harness platform-exclusive consumer data.
Large media publishers—like The New York Times and Condé Nast— are also a form of a walled garden that can assist marketers in painting a full picture. These publishers create a consent economy by offering a plethora of valuable content to gain voluntary first-party consumer data, which they can then monetize.
In a cookie-free future, these closed ecosystems become even more important sources of truth. The benefit of working within a walled garden is that it’s familiar territory and easy to use. Industry leaders have invested in data science and measurement technology, so advertisers simply upload their data and engage with intuitive dashboards to gain actionable insights. Marketers do have tools they can leverage to help ensure the data they receive is useful and accurate from each platform. One of the most impactful? Having access to each platform through premier partnerships.
While cookies are changing, one thing hasn’t: every platform update seems to affect the speed and accuracy of ad campaign reports, with wide fluctuations not all that uncommon. Given the differences in attribution reporting within and across platforms, mid-market companies often need help making sense of these disparate data sets and sorting out their attribution challenges.
Reliance on walled garden data will certainly grow. In cases when there is questionable reporting, the impact can be minimized by adding other sources of first-party data and predictive modeling into the mix.
Priority access and partnership can mean the difference in platforms taking responsive actions within a couple of days versus several weeks.
Agencies with premier partnerships with the major platforms and publishers are uniquely positioned to help clients gain greater access to their data, test out beta versions of new attribution tools, and receive prompt support when questions arise.
First-party data and predictive modeling platforms
Looking at what some call “the cookiepocolypse,” marketers are trying to get as much first-party data as possible—but all first-party data is not equal. Information taken from promotional offers, surveys, review sites, or sweepstakes can be a mixed bag, as there are some people who just enjoy engaging in that type of online activity but have limited interest in getting to know the brand or making a purchase.
Predictive modeling analysis and building lookalike audiences, on the other hand, can be very useful, requiring different levels of effort to piece together.
Marketers can harness a company’s own data to assess what people are doing on their websites and who is purchasing directly. This information can then be used to buy lookalike audiences from the major platforms.
For instance, a cruise line with first-party data about all the people who have taken a voyage within the last year can use that information to build an audience on Facebook that looks similar. What’s more, by enhancing that data with information appended from offline databases, marketers can then target those potential customers. This method of predictive modeling can be quite muscular—especially if it’s a relatively infrequently purchased product valued at $75 or higher—appliances, vacations, or furniture, for instance.
Looking ahead at the future of measurement
While the loss of third-party cookies closes the door on some approaches to targeting audiences and measuring results, marketers still have very strong options—although some require more effort to implement now. Context-based targeting, media mix analysis, and advertising testing continue to be important. Attribution will mean working within walled gardens or clean room environments and implementing matching strategies. This fragmented ecosystem presents new challenges in stitching together results to form a holistic picture, but modeled approaches for doing just that in traditional channels, like TV and radio, have been around since the pre-cookie era and will doubtless be adapted to the digital channels. Geographic testing, a staple of incrementality measurement and media mix analysis, is being refocused on, too.
These foundational strategies coupled with today’s technology and computing power make media mix modeling significantly faster and more granular.
Gain access and evolve your strategy with an agency partner
For the past decade or so, enterprise marketers, with their extensive resources, have built their own proprietary customer data platforms (CDPs). Mid-market and smaller businesses are unable to do so. But they can still have access through a strategic partnership with agencies that do.
With a depth of experience in the digital tracking landscape, our team combines modern technology and long-proven tactics, along with premier partnerships with walled garden platforms and first-party databases. In collaborating with Amsive Digital, marketing teams gain access to enterprise-level vendor contracts with industry giants such as Oracle, as well as Amsive’s in-house strategists and data scientists, to extract the most ROI from the budget—no matter the environment.
The shift toward cookie-less advertising doesn’t have to mean less impact for your brand. This is the first in a series of five articles diving deep into measurement today—unpacking what works and what’s next. So, stay tuned!