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What is the future of cookies or is it the end?

Privacy

What is a Cookie?

A cookie is a tracking file sent to your browser from the websites you visit. This file lets website owners track visitors’ browsing habits, for example:

  • How often someone visits a website

  • How many pages they visit on a website

  • Which UI elements they click

  • How long they spend on individual pages and the website overall

  • What items they add to their cart, whether they abandon that cart or complete a purchase

Cookies also allow websites and web applications to personalise your user experience, for example:

  • Displaying your recently viewed content/products

  • Recommendations based on your browsing/purchase history

  • Setting your language and currency preferences

  • Keeping you logged into your account by recognising your browser and device

The information collected by website owners is first-party data because they are the collectors and data owners.

You also get third-party cookies primarily from ad and affiliate marketing platforms. These platforms get website owners to add code to their sites for advertising and marketing purposes, but it also enables them to track visitors. These third-party platforms (i.e., Facebook Ads and Google Ads) use that data to sell ads to companies.

We’re not going to get too deep in the weeds regarding cookies. But the most important points for this article are:

  • Cookies allow companies to track website visitors

  • Cookies live in people’s browsers

Why are Cookies Going Away?

Now that we’ve introduced you to cookies, it’s time to say goodbye! Legislators worldwide have prioritised data privacy over the last decade, resulting in tighter restrictions on collecting and sharing user/customer information.

With the release of GDPR, websites must inform users that they use cookies to track them and consent to this tracking—usually via a popup like this one from the BBC.

Apple has led the way for big tech by restricting cookie tracking for Safari in 2020 with Intelligent Tracking Prevention and allowing iOS (iPhone/iPad) users to opt out of tracking, aka AppTrackingTransparency or ATT. Firefox has followed suit with Total Cookie Protection, a third-party cookie ban.

Google has announced similar cookie-blocking policies for Chrome but will only implement these in 2024.

While these changes haven’t killed cookies altogether, the trend is moving towards a cookie-less world. Marketers need a solution that gives them the entire pie rather than unreliable crumbs of data.

How are Marketers Currently Replacing Cookies?

These marketing techniques are not new, but organisations are shifting focus to these cookie-less mechanisms to future-proof their data analytics strategies.

Investing in first-party data

As of 2022, most cookie-banning policies relate to third-party cookies—meaning website owners can still use cookies, except when users opt out. 

Traditionally, marketers use a mix of first-party and third-party data for marketing. Third-party data is cheap. So, marketers can enrich campaigns with large volumes of third-party data at little cost.

Without this third-party data, marketers need to focus more on first-party data—i.e., nurturing and retention rather than acquisition. This marketing shift means investing in audiences within a brand’s sphere of influence, including social media, email lists, website traffic, customers, etc.

Brands must enrich first-party data, build better customer/user relationships, and incentivise people to share products and experiences with their networks. 

Server-side tracking

First-party data is great, but what about incognito mode, browser extensions, and privacy-first browsers like DuckDuckGo that block or remove all cookies for every session? Organisations cannot rely on browser tracking because there are too many roadblocks!

Server-side tracking is an alternative to browser tracking (or cookies), where organisations collect visitor data via a server rather than the user’s browser. The data collected is the same; only the mechanism for collecting, storing, and sharing user information changes.

Although server-to-server tracking is more expensive, the data is more consistent and reliable. Brands don’t have to contend with browser differences and cookie blocking/clearing. Brands also have 100% data ownership and can choose if and with whom they share data.

Contextual advertising

Contextual advertising isn’t new, but platforms prefer cookies because they’re more relevant and personalised to users. Contextual advertising uses a webpage’s content and keywords to decide what ads to display.

For example, if you’re reading a blog titled Best restaurants in Sydney, advertisers can deliver ads from Sydney restaurants to that page. They may also include related topics, like food-related products or sightseeing in Sydney. The ads might not be as personalised as they would with cookies, but they are still relevant to the website’s content and, therefore, likely someone will click.

One of the benefits for marketers and users with contextual advertising is that it doesn’t infringe on privacy because there is no data collection or tracking.

Cohort marketing or advertising

Cohorts are groups of people who share a connection, like downloading an app, attending an event, or sharing a hobby. Instead of using cookies, marketers target these audiences based on shared interests, usually from first-party research.

For example, let’s say your first-party data reveals that your most valuable customers are into hiking. You can create a cohort campaign to place ads on websites and apps related to hiking. You may also collaborate with hiking brands or partner with hiking influencers.

Like contextual advertising, there are no personal identifiers or trackers; marketers simply go to where their ideal customers hang out.

Moving to a Cookie-Free Data Strategy

The key takeaway from the four strategies above is that companies must invest in first-party data and customer relationship-building. Moving to cookie-less marketing campaigns like contextual advertising and cohorts means you must know who your customers are and their interests.

Start engaging your audiences and gathering feedback to enrich your first-party data. If you haven’t already, move to a server-side data model for clearer, more reliable information to make accurate data-driven decisions.

Not sure where to start? Metric Labs has helped many brands solve their data challenges, improve decision-making, and grow revenue with bespoke data strategies designed for their audiences and business needs—and we can do the same for you!

Contact Metric Labs, and one of our expert data consultants will get in touch to help you navigate a cookie-free future!

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