Cookies have not only been a staple of the holiday season, they’ve also been the currency for audience targeting for some time now. They’ve surpassed all other methods of audience segmentation and now play a role in every aspect of highly sophisticated advertising campaigns, including targeting, measurement, and optimizations. In short, cookies are digital “footprints” that are saved when a user takes certain online actions that organizations can then use to tailor content, messaging, and advertising to that user in the future. This can be as simple as remembering your account password to keep you logged in or as complex as anticipating a future purchase you might be making based on what you’ve searched for recently.

However, since GDPR was announced by the EU in 2016, and with US proposals such as California’s CCPA in 2018, privacy conversations around third-party cookies have become more prevalent than ever across the globe. While none of these policies were built to directly eliminate cookies as a whole, their creation and enforcement are a step in the right direction to protect an individual’s online privacy and allow each individual to become the owner of their own data. 

As a result, internet browsers — such as Safari, Chrome, and Firefox — have begun implementing changes that restrict the use of third-party cookies. Media partners, such as Facebook and Google, have also indicated that the loss of cookies will impact advertisers’ ability to continue using their platforms and tools the same way they have been for years. But they’ve been short on providing guidance on what that may mean. 

While there is much ambiguity surrounding what may come next, the end result is clear: We’re on a path towards a cookie-less future, which may come sooner than expected. And without these cookies, things are going to look a little different. 

As we move towards this future together, we’ve put together a few questions you should be asking yourselves or your media agency to ensure your organization is set up for success in 2021 and beyond.  

Targeting

Advertisers have long heralded cookie-based targeting as superior to its counterparts, but where did the foundation for this begin? The thought of a cookie-less world has forced advertisers and brands alike to start looking inward again — by assessing the quality of their own data and looking for innovative targeting solutions that utilize this. If you’re trying to understand whether your key audiences are first or third party, ask yourself this: Do I/we own the source data that is driving this targeting? If yes, first party.If no, third party.  Here are some other questions you’ll want to think about as it relates to your current targeting approach:

Will we still be able to target our most valuable audiences after this change?

If your most valuable audience segments are defined by behaviors and information gathered across third-party platforms, it’s likely that the output of this is going to look different in the future. It’s worth beginning to test your audience segmentation from this point onwards, understanding how you can drive value from owned data sources, as this is going to be the most reliable form of audience targeting before long. 

How will we be able to retarget people based on their website behavior?

Most retargeting segments rely on cookies; however, the bigger players, such as Facebook, could potentially turn to deterministic data to enable advertisers to still use this tactic effectively. Details are yet to be confirmed as to what this might look like practically, but in the meantime we recommend identifying ways to retarget audiences using your first-party data and testing the comparative performance this year. 

How will this affect the accuracy of interest-based audiences that are created from multiple data sources?

Where multiple data points are combined to create an interest or behavior-based audience, we should expect that the ability to do this will be severely limited by 2022. It may be possible to use deterministic data to attempt to re-create these audiences segments, but details on how the main advertising platforms are responding to this haven’t yet been confirmed. 

Will we still be able to assess the value of our audiences across all channels?

The value of an audience is measured by what they bring to an advertiser, which can include revenue, engagements, or other quantifiable actions. It’s likely that we’ll still be able to understand and quantify this value at the audience level; however we should be prepared for data sharing between vendor platforms to have increased restrictions, so the level of detail within the attributed ‘value’ will be understood on a case-by-case basis. This may mean we start to see more platforms report value on an aggregated level, rather than reporting on granular segments.

Should we start testing new targeting options now to get ahead of the game?

Definitely. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel right now, but it’s certainly time to start understanding the value of your owned audiences, as well as begin to think about how to reach similar prospecting audiences with different targeting methods and tactics that don’t rely on third-party cookies. 

Campaign Management & Measurement

Being able to effectively monitor, optimize, and report on campaigns relies on having accurate and complete data. In order to add context to this data, you need the ability to understand who is engaging with your marketing and how they’re responding to it. The big question mark at the moment is around how much data will be available to advertisers without third-party cookies supplying this in the same way that they do now, and how much advertisers will be able to do with that information. In order to assess the impact that this may have on your business, we recommend asking the following questions:

Will we still be able to optimize towards high-value conversions, if that data sits on a third-party platform?

The answer to this is going to be different for each marketing platform. For many smaller partners, potentially not. However for the big players, such as Facebook, there is technology being built that will be able to ensure that value optimization is available to a certain extent. 

How will platforms such as Google Ads be able to optimize their bids if we can’t guarantee the ability to track data via cookies?

Platforms like Google have yet to offer complete plans on how they will operate in this new environment; however, we do know some pieces of information. Google specifically has been trialing several APIs, looking to build solutions to a lot of the issues that the removal of third-party cookies will bring. Whether this will go as far as to allow advertisers to continue to accurately optimize based on location or device is yet to be known. 

Will we be able to continue tracking conversions, such as new leads or donations?

As long as these hard conversions are actions a user is opting into and as long as they are being recorded in your first-party CRM, the ability to track should continue as is. It will be important to ensure your CRM segmentation strategy is buttoned up so you are still able to use this data to build custom audiences within your advertising campaigns. What will become harder to replicate are retargeting strategies that were based on users who visited specific pages or may not have completed an action before leaving the page or site.

How will this impact our ability to measure return on ad spend?

Measuring metrics like return on ad spend (ROAS) require an organizational agreement on what your attribution window looks like. While last-click and short-term click-based attribution models will likely still be easy to implement, longer view-based models will become nearly impossible to use. Facebook has already begun to sunset their 28-day attribution model and will soon only provide data for 1-day and 7-day settings.

These are just a few questions to get the conversation started. In general, we recommend that you keep a heavy focus on your own first-party data and understand how to use it to achieve similar results to those currently generated from third-party data. Your owned data is going to be more important than ever in a post-cookie world.


Need help breaking down what these changes mean for your organization? Want to discuss a data audit to assess your cookie impact? Get in touch.