Concrete Steps to Prepare for a Cookieless Future

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Many digital advertisers breathed a huge sigh of relief when Google postponed its announced ban on third-party cookies from early 2022 to 2023, giving the industry more time to adapt.

But this was not a reprieve but a delay of the inevitable.

A largely cookieless digital future, at least on desktops, remains squarely on the horizon, and smart marketers should be using this gift of extra time to get a better handle on identity solutions and the other tools and strategies that will be needed to execute and measure campaigns without the real-time retargeting enabled by cookies. 

No one has to make dramatic changes just yet. But allocating a five-15% budget now for cookieless programs can enable advertisers to determine the best choice for them among the identity solutions providers looking to offer cookie replacements.

Identity solutions coming from LiveRamp, Lotame, and Parrable, and a host of emerging startups can do some heavy lifting currently done by cookies. These identity solutions essentially serve the same tracking function as a cookie but are based on a hashed email or other anonymized identifiers. 

Because they’ll almost certainly be opt-in, what these identity solutions won’t do, at least not initially, is scale. 

The biggest change for digital marketers who’ve grown comfortable with cookies is realizing that the future may not be nearly as automated as it is now. Executing campaigns without cookies will require more hands-on strategizing and monitoring of campaigns, and it will force marketers to be proactive when it comes to culling third-party data providers and ad-tech partners that rely too heavily on cookies for their data and analytics.  

Safari, Firefox, and CTV — The Cookieless Present

Every journey begins with a single step, and marketers looking to prepare for a cookieless world may find that small, time-limited campaigns, specifically for Safari and Firefox users, can be a relatively cost-effective way to gauge what kind of scale is possible once the cookie ban is in place.   

Partnering up with an identity solution provider such as Liveramp or Parrable should provide even better performance since identity solutions are linked to a known user.  With cookies, marketers can’t be sure if the cookie has somehow been deleted or is applicable across devices. 

The number of users will be fewer since these browsers don’t have the same ubiquity as Android and Chrome. But it could pave the way for creating a digital sign-in for individual users, perhaps one that is a user opted-in email and remains encrypted and can be used across the open web.

CTV is another good environment for testing because it is inherently cookieless. The measurability in CTV is similar to what the open web will be without cookies. Marketers can get a strong indication of future targeting and measurement capabilities by what they can do today in CTV. 

First-Party Data and Second-Party Vendors

Marketers who previously relied on the combined insights of dozens of third-party vendors who sourced their data from cookies will need to take a cold-eye view of which vendors will be valuable in a cookieless world. 

The good news for marketers: Plenty of vendors remain with good methodologies and data that is offline in nature, including household data, phone numbers, emails, and names. 

That data will be unaffected by the shift away from cookies, enabling marketing departments to take their own first-party data and then enrich it with the added data from vendors. That enriched data can then be onboarded to whatever identity solution provider the marketer has chosen with the result being a robust and targeted tracker.

The big unknown in all of this is how many consumers will opt-in to an identity solution. Initial opt-in rates, now required in the new Apple IOS 14.5, are anywhere from 4% to 29%, depending on the firm doing the measurement.

Along with better vetting of their data vendor partners — and building better relationships with key publishers to gain access to their internal data — marketers will also need to generate more robust first-party data. 

Asking visitors to visit a branded site to sign up and authenticate their log-in is a great first step, and compelling content can be a great motivator. Sponsoring relevant content from influencers and others on social media sites such as TikTok is another for marketers to encourage consumers to opt-in, provided those users feel what they’re getting in return is of real value. 

Modeling to Scale

Going forward, advertisers will not be able to generate the one-to-one marketing metrics or the scale that cookies currently provide.

Mixed media modeling is probabilistically measuring the effectiveness of your media efforts. It’s doing attribution via math. With cookies, you can do attribution at a user level 1:1. In the future, probabilistic methodologies and media mix modeling will be the prevailing way measurement is done. 

Though there is the remote chance that Google will reverse course on the planned cookie ban, or that identity solutions will eventually prove to be an effective and scalable replacement for retargeting and attribution, digital marketers need to be ready for a future that could be dramatically more challenging. 

Testing cookieless strategies, investing in robust first-party data aggregation, re-examining third-party data partnerships, and re-integrating modeling into analytics and targeting are small steps now that could leave marketers better prepared for however digital advertising evolves in the next few years. 

Wes Farris is VP of Product at Digilant.