Adams & Knight Marketing Blog
POSTED BY: Denis Gendreau

Digital marketing: the cookie crumbles


It’s getting harder to track online consumer behavior.

In recent months, major browsers like Firefox, Apple’s Safari, and Google’s Chrome have intensified efforts to prevent tracking and respect privacy rights of consumers online. To do this, they are limiting the information collected by third-party party data trackers like Google and Facebook embedded in almost all websites.

Now as consumers point and click their way across different websites, ads and digital properties, it’s more challenging for these third-party trackers to identify users and connect their activity over time and across multiple websites.

Tracking prevention is nothing new to browsers. Apple introduced their first version back in 2017. But 2020 has seen additional efforts by vendors to escalate the movement against intrusive tracking.

The most notable change is Google’s commitment to limiting third-party cookies, the most common way to track a user’s cross-website activity. While Google has traditionally benefitted from this tracking, the company recognizes the need for consent and transparency when collecting online user data.

What this means for marketers
Unfortunately, many digital marketing campaigns use online ads and retargeted ads which need tracking data in order to work. For instance, if you were looking to target potential new car buyers, previously you would be able to utilize data of online shoppers who have displayed car-buying behaviors compiled from various third-party data providers, like Oracle, Acxiom or Lotame. But now, without the cookie-based data, you can’t target these audiences based on actions they have taken across the digital universe.

Here are some other ways these changes will impact your campaigns:

Your analytics. If you are relying on a solution that uses third-party cookies to track return visitors, your analytics can be impacted. A user who visits a website twice using Safari may now be seen as two separate users in Google Analytics because the third-party cookie identifying them has been purged by the browser. As a result, they could be misinterpreted as newly acquired traffic when they are actually return visitors. 

Ad attribution. If the click time on an ad is separated from the purchase time by a few days, the attribution of the purchase to the original click may be lost. That’s because the mechanism relies on cookies to identify the user. This may negatively impact ROI calculations on the ad.

A/B testing. Many A/B testing solutions use cookies to identify users. Without that cookie in place, they may be unable to effectively prevent a single user from seeing the A test, and then the B test later on. 

Steps can you take now
So how can marketers pivot away from this reliance on cross-site data collection and still execute results-driven digital marketing strategies? Here are a few ways:

Examine how your website handles cookies. Tracking protection may purge all cookies set by Javascript after seven days. So even within your own site, cookie handling should be carefully examined and preferably sent by the server, not Javascript.

Return to contextual ads. One of the primary tactics deployed through programmatic is behavioral advertising, which relies on third-party cookie data. Although advertisers can still include programmatic strategies, they will need shift their focus away from behavioral and more to contextual advertising, which use content categories and/or keywords to target messaging against a prospective audience on various web pages.

Make site-direct media buys vs. programmatic. There’s no question, programmatic in its true form brought efficiency to buying display. However, with the focus on protecting privacy, site direct buys will move more to the forefront as an alternative strategy to replace audience-based display advertising.

Consider targeting strategies that do not rely on cookie data. Targeting specific audiences for campaigns will still be able to utilize first-party data, IP addresses, and other forms of offline data sources (e.g. voter registration, property records, surveys, purchase transactions, etc.) as these all do not rely on cookie data. Investment in capabilities, technologies, and partnerships will help spur innovation and creativity in this space.

Stay informed. It seems that with each passing month, another internet browser announces that it is limiting the ability to see who is engaging with online content to comply with privacy rules. So it’s important to remain up-to-date on any actions that could potentially impact your campaigns.

Part of executing successful digital marketing campaigns relies on accurately analyzing data.

Now more than ever, it’s important to partner with experts who understand the digital ad landscape, can analyze your strategy and results, and guide you on how to best structure your campaign moving forward.  

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Denis Gendreau
Connection Planning and Analytics Manager
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