Blocking Third-Party Cookies Will Not Mean the End of Marketing Attribution

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As many marketers are quickly finding out, Google Chrome will follow Apple Safari and Firefox with the eventual blocking of third-party cookies within the Google Chrome browser. Safari and Firefox have already made the move, but Google, in its desire to take a more measured approach, has determined it will phase out third-party cookies over a two-year period.

For context, Apple released Intelligent Tracking Prevention (ITP) in 2017 to protect user privacy by limiting the ability of marketers and online businesses to track users across domains via its Safari browser. The focus was on third-party cookies and decreasing tracking of those cookies to 30 days. ITP 2.1 raises the bar even higher, capping the lifetime of cookies set client-side to seven days, instead of the possible two years.

Although Google is not usually a follower in matters like this – Google Chrome represents 56% of the web browser market and more than 50% of all global web traffic – the company is in no hurry to dive into a post-third-party cookie environment. This is likely due to Google’s desire to address concerns from advertisers and advertising platforms that heavily rely on third-party cookies to provide visitor data. Nevertheless, the transition away from third-party cookies is causing brands to look at new ways to track visitor online behavior while also maintaining privacy.

First-party vs third-party 

It should be noted that the move away from third-party cookies by the three major web browsers does not mean an end to cookies. First-party cookies, those cookies that are placed on a person’s browser when they visit a website owned by a primary company or organization, will still be in place. Companies will be able to track visitor behavior in terms of where they entered the site, how long they stayed, pages visited, and where they exited. This remains a core and central part of any organization’s data gathering practice and helps them determine how their sites and product offerings should be configured.

What’s being phased out are third-party cookies, those cookies that are used by advertisers to track visitor moves as they navigate to multiple sites. The third-party cookies enable advertising platforms, and the companies that use them, to build a comprehensive visitor profile – all based on their online activity. 

Impact on advertising platforms

One of the reasons why Google may be taking a go-slow approach to its phasing out of third-party cookies is the fact that much of the online advertising industry is based on this methodology. Some believe the worst-case scenario of phasing out third-party cookies is the eventual death of digital advertising. It really depends on whom you talk to, but the likelihood of digital advertising going away completely is pretty far-fetched.

One camp believes there are technologies out there that will enable similar tracking of visitor behavior by advertisers without the invasiveness of third-party cookies. While this technology may not necessarily exist or at least be currently available for commercial use, many believe it’s only a matter of time before a solution is fully developed and made available.

The other camp believes that it would be difficult to get all browsers, advertising platforms, and privacy advocates on the same page in order to develop an approach that pleases everyone. Plus, there is a perception that Google may maneuver to implement its own ubiquitous digital advertising platform that could monopolize online advertising altogether.

Privacy for the individual

The demise of third-party cookies is the result of online privacy advocacy and organizations that believe the status quo was compromising the right individuals have to not be tracked so intrusively. While some Internet users like the fact that ads pop up on their favorite website after visiting a retailer, others feel violated and wonder what additional information is being recorded.

For any brand, increased restrictions on the collection of customer information has a huge impact on their ability to find consumer insight, optimize ad spend, and deploy any kind of personalized or intent-based marketing efforts. Cookie restrictions could create a situation where a brand’s website doesn’t remember its customers and their preferences, leading to pitching products/services they already have or don’t care about. That erodes trust and hinders efficiency.

In response to increasing limitations, the advertising industry has formed a new governing group, the Partnership for Responsible Addressable Media. It is made up of representatives from major industry organizations (including the Association of National Advertisers, American Association of Advertising Agencies, Interactive Advertising Bureau, and Network Advertising Initiative), advertisers (including Ford, General Motors, IBM, Procter & Gamble, and Unilever), agencies (IPG Mediabrands’ UM and Publicis Media), NBC Universal and ad-tech companies (Adobe, MediaMath, The Trade Desk).

The new organization aims to protect ad companies’ ability to serve personalized digital ads and collect data used for analytics, while still safeguarding privacy and improving the consumer experience.

Regardless of how the privacy challenge is ultimately resolved, the real question is whether consumers surfing the web might feel more at ease if companies are not able to track and target them so effectively. 

Marketing attribution in a post-third-party-cookie world

The demise of third-party cookies will not mean the end of digital advertising and the ability to assign proper attribution to individuals engaging in various touchpoints along the buyer journey. Several entities are currently hashing out other methodologies brands can leverage to retrieve audience analytics.

Marketing attribution providers will continue to provide reliable data to enterprise marketers on consumers and their customer journeys through the sales funnel. Attribution providers worth their salt will not only make sure they are compliant with the tightened rules around cookies but also ensure their clients are following the letter of the law.

There are three requirements to be ITP-compliant:

  1. Cookies must be first-party (they cannot come from a third-party domain, such as an attribution firm) and should not be placed by the browser.
  2. Destination URLs cannot contain any tracking parameters or fragment tags (no utm_source).
  3. The site hosting the advertisement, and thereby referring customer traffic to a company site, can’t collect data for cross-domain tracking.

To be compliant with these three requirements, attribution providers suggest:

  1. First-party cookies should be placed by the server and not the browser (meets requirement No. 1).
  2. Most marketers use tracking parameters of some sort. Of course it is not practical to omit UTM tracking parameters, so passing the test of requirement No. 2 is not likely. Keep in mind, not passing this parameter isn’t the end of the world; it just means that the cookies created, in the instances where tracking parameters are used, will have a shorter lifespan.
  3. This depends on the ad server or the traffic source. Google and Facebook claim they are ITP-compliant, meaning they are not collecting data for cross-domain purposes (i.e., to see what different websites a person visited). However, other ad servers could have their own policies. Click-trackers represent an intermediary step, and if it is collecting third-party data, you may want to consider another click-tracker (to meet requirement No. 3).

Ultimately, brands must be committed to testing and validating ways to get the most accurate data from several measurement strategies. Much of this will result in a shift toward, and a heavier reliance on, first-party data. This reliance may result in a blended approach where multi-touch analysis is derived from partnerships and other collaborative ways of obtaining first-party data.

Another option that is being currently discussed as a way to gather audience data is the use of a unified ID solution, which would mean a universal ID that’s shared across demand-side platforms (DSP), supply-side platforms (SSP), and data management platforms (DMP). While this solution has some merit, it requires agreement from various web consortiums and bureaus in order for that process – currently being promoted by The Trade Desk – to be universally accepted and used.

Another proposal suggests the integration between publishers and measurement partners to facilitate the transfer of first-party data. Methodology around this approach would need to be built, tested, and refined as brands and advertisers assess whether the resulting solution will provide them with what they need in a privacy-compliant world.

In addition to alternative ways of assigning online attribution, offline attribution could also gain in prominence as a result of reduced third-party cookie use. Linking ad exposures to specific outcomes and having it done accurately could play a significant role in the future of marketing attribution. While digital attribution has always had its limits, it’s possible that the more prominent role offline attribution offers could deliver a more mature and reliable attribution model, even if and when third-party cookies go the way of the dinosaur.

The blocking of third-party cookies is coming, but it’s not completely here yet. The slow crawl to a complete phase-out may seem like a temporary reprieve. In the meantime, companies should devote themselves to building a more mature, robust, and accurate attribution methodology that takes into account the multiple ways customers engage with brands. 

Lucas Sommer is the director of marketing for LeadsRx.