Perspective: Consumer Privacy and the Death of 3rd Party Cookies

By: Jenn Miller, SVP, Director of Analytics
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For those of us in the digital marketing industry or marketing in general, this topic is everywhere at this point – “the death of 3rd party cookies.” If you’re like me, you’ve been trying to read and get up-to-speed on what it all really means and when the biggest changes will be felt. But the unfortunate truth is that it changes every day and in multiple ways, so yet again we must force ourselves to be comfortable with uncertainty. Many marketers are looking for a point of view on the topic, so I grappled with when to provide a written document given the ever-changing nature of the topic. What I realized this past week is that there will never be a right time to provide that.

Our industry continues its roller coaster ride through change. There are tech giants claiming to do what’s right for the user, but their counterparts claim these moves are self-serving. There are companies trying to create the new user tracking system or a new way of relevant marketing; some of which are already being criticized and blocked. There are changes to the analytics space with Google Analytics v4 rolling out and a risk of attribution dying. There are changes to many of the self-serve platforms we use, to new attribution windows, to alterations of the targeting parameters we’ll have access to. There are changes to Google’s search algorithm with the Core Website Vitals update this month, which will put an even greater emphasis on the user experience. And all of this has the industry drowning in new information.  

What I hope to do is to provide a glimpse into what we know so far and what we can do over the next few months to get smarter and thrive through this change, standing true to our Gatesman values. Expect this to be the first in a series of updates from me.

There are currently two major moves to monitor. So, here’s the breakdown:

  1. Browser Cookies. Google announced it will phase out the 3rd party cookie on Chrome browsers by 2022. Third party data is any data that's collected by a business or other entity that doesn't have any direct link to the visitor or customer.
    • Keep in mind that Google Chrome was reported to make up more than 56% of the web browser market and accounts for more than half of all global web traffic, so this is a huge impact.
    • Most everyone is aware that Firefox and Safari have already blocked 3rd party cookies as of March 2020. So, we see this as an opportunity to review those data points, help us understand the impact areas and learn from these rollouts.
  2. Apple iOS 14.5. App Tracking Transparency recently rolled out, allowing users to control which apps are allowed to track their activity across other companies' apps and websites for ads or sharing with data brokers. It’s only a month in and we already see an alarming 96% of users are opting out of tracking in the US.

So where will marketers feel the biggest impact?

As we see it, there are several key factors that will impact us:

  • Targeting: The obvious impact area will be the tools and datasets that us as advertisers have available to us to create our targeting rules.
    • Using 3rd party audiences: Oftentimes, we rely on audience details that are created and stored within an ad tech’s 3rd party cookie. These will be impacted, but all is not lost. While we leverage 3rd party audiences, just because it’s “3rd party” doesn’t mean it relies on a 3rd party cookie and we still have 1st party and 2nd party to rely on. Additionally, contextual marketing will most certainly be a stable approach. Further the industry is putting a lot of emphasis on what is the next, more compliant, solution. Our goal will be to test into these to find out what works best.
    • Retargeting: We’ve grown to depend on retargeting as part of the mix. And it’s a bit of a confusing topic because many folks believe retargeting should be 1st party because the user came to your site. The issue is that the ad is served on a separate domain and talking to the ad network who placed your cookie. We see this being the most unsolved to date. There will be a solution, but we just don’t know what it is yet. Our approach is to continue to use remarketing as is, while monitoring the most immediate impact of shrinking audience pool sizes, and keeping our head up to listen for new solutions being presented so that we’re ready to update as the industry is ready for us.
  • User awareness: Some of our hypothesized shifts are more about the user behavior. As cookie blocking is enabled or users are being asked to accept cookies, they become more aware of cookies and tracking. They will likely not accept cookies from just any website. This may impact who you are tracking - reducing down to building a trustworthy relationship with users and continuing to nurture that.
  • Outdated Benchmarks: Not only are browsers blocking 3rd party cookies, but they are also reducing the lifespan of 1st party cookies or reducing the attribution windows of your ads. This shift will impact your metrics. While Google Analytics is a 1st party cookie and web tracking will not be hugely impacted, we can expect to see user based metrics shift – many more users will be seen as “new” for example. Additionally, the frequency and lifespan of our ads will be more limited, altering the population making up your metrics like CTR – this may have a negative impact on those metrics. Essentially, our benchmarks may need to be redefined.

 What do we think? Well, it’s somewhat of a “We told you so…”

The reality is that many of these new changes impact the customer in a positive way, namely building better customer experiences. Over the past several years, marketers should have been adopting and shifting to a stronger user experience mindset already. Yes, our job is to sell the product or service we are marketing, but we have learned that by providing a good experience, we see better performance. But additionally, us marketers may see other benefits as well. For one, while we believe that some of these highly targeted initiatives are worthwhile, some research indicates that marketers have gotten too specific in their targeting and are not making an incremental impact. These shifts will cause us to revisit our strategies and maybe get back to engaging with users who need us versus targeting the same users again and again.

At Gatesman, we’ve been preparing for this inevitable move for more than four years. Our Hacking Human Behavior™ (HHB) approach keeps the end-user at the heart of our thinking and strategy. Through this approach, we focus on exploring the consumer through the lens of their psychological and behavioral traits, as well as through news media consumption and demographics. We use all data available to drive our insights and fuel our work. And that work isn’t just delivering a big, shiny campaign. It’s persona-building, journey mapping, keyword building and user-experience testing, too. Knowing the consumer inside and out means knowing what will enhance their experience and create a value-based relationship. We still have more to learn (who doesn’t) but we’re on our way to being best-prepared for what’s next.

And there’s a lot of talk about just exactly, what IS next? There have been several solutions proposed to replace 3rd party cookies. If you’re following the progression of Google’s Privacy Sandbox like we are, you may have seen there are a ton of different proposals out there including terms like Turtledove, FLoC and FLEDGE. All of these solutions require a deep dive to truly understand the details about how they will work, but also what the experience will be for marketers. So for now, we all read and wait until we are able to actually use any of these solutions. True to our approach, our plan is to test and learn – and ultimately share our experiences as we learn. We will take you through a mini-series over the course of the next year so that we can share out these learnings bit by bit; it’s really the only way to eat an elephant after all.

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