Don’t Fall for the Cookieless Trap

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Ever since Google announced its intentions of sunsetting the cookie, the industry has scrambled to find ways to modify and future-proof its data practices. While there’s certainly some serious thought and product development underway, it’s important that we prioritize what’s actually important.

In the quest for future-proof advertising, effective and privacy-safe solutions should be the end goals. What we’ve stumbled upon, though, is chasing the need to declare a product or technique “cookieless,” as if that distinction alone will solve marketers’ issues going forward. 

The issue is that ‘going cookieless’ doesn’t necessarily make a solution consumer friendly and privacy compliant. In fact, the European Union’s Internal Market and Consumer Protection Committee seems to agree, moving towards requirements that may make it difficult to deliver any form of advertising based on tracked behavior, regardless of the identifier. It’s a clear sign that in all of this haste to prepare for a post-cookie future, doubling down on a solution that is intending to mimic the cookie will lead to repeating the data privacy sins of the past.

Technology vs. purpose

Google’s announcement sent shockwaves through the industry, setting off the flurry of new products, rebrands, and data partnerships of the past 18 months. With almost another year until the cookie finally goes away, this wave hasn’t even begun to crest.

The problem is that all of the talk around the loss of the cookie has scrambled goals and business needs. At this moment, it seems that the conversation has devolved into what we’re losing, rather than why we’re losing it and what practices are changing. While cookieless advances may be technologically noteworthy, they don’t ultimately solve the issue at hand. 

What has changed with consumer communication and controls? Does the data partnership let consumers opt out? Is the data handled in a privacy-sensitive way? These questions are more important than whether or not a product uses cookies — and even as important as whether or not the performance is comparable.

The market needs to focus less on the technical components and more on how technology treats consumers and their information as well as how well it notifies consumers about what’s going on.

Paying the price

Remember, the issue here isn’t using cookies. It’s using data to track and profile in ways that consumers don’t necessarily understand. GDPR and CCPA are here now and will remain after the cookie disappears. We’ve already seen Google regroup because its FLoC solution raised GDPR concerns. If the company that decided to kill off the cookie can’t quite get this equation right, the odds are that some other players will have growing pains, too.

This makes it all the more important that marketers don’t fall into the trap of buying something that’s “cookieless” but is actually just taking consumer data and doing whatever it wants. Solutions that avoid cookies can easily run afoul of other regulations.

New year, new future

In an ideal world, we’ll all look back at 2021 as the year that cookieless became a buzzword, and 2022 will mark the year that solutions started putting consent and data privacy on equal footing. This year is far more important than most marketers realize. Google’s longer timeline gives plenty of opportunity for innovation and testing, and marketers need to use as much of the clock as they can.

Success will require much more strategy and foresight than simply leveraging a product that is described as “cookieless” by its maker but yet still uses data in the same ways that advertising always has. With the gift of time, the ad industry can finally solve the issues of consumer privacy and create informative data policies and easy-to-understand products. It would be a shame if all we did was relabel products that create the same problems somewhere further down the line.

Mario Diez is CEO of Peer39.