3rd Party Tracking Cookies Ending? What to Do & Why Great Marketers Are Not Worried

deer in headlight

AIMCLEAR recently attended the Programmatic I/O Conference at New York’s Marriott Marquis. There is little more entertaining than watching a fully grown, twelve-digit industry cry.  When the nearly inevitable end of tracking cookies finally hits Google’s popular Chrome browser, there is a strong possibility the change will gut the programmatic industry, like a deer caught in headlights, hit, and ground into sausage.

Google has delayed depreciating third-party tracking cookies in Chrome to an unspecified 2023 date. It is not public knowledge when the change will actually occur. That said, the regression has already commenced starting in other browsers so we know something of what to expect. Some players already feel pain and one would assume purveyors of third party data, vendors selling cross channel retargeting products, and marketers dependent on such technologies will follow in excruciating lockstep as their piece of the pie is diminished, they lead, or are forced to adapt.

This blog post offers insight as to why great marketers have little reason to worry about the loss of tracking cookies. Then, we’ll share suggestions for how to handle inevitable changes ahead.

At the Programmatic I/O conference session, “Ad Tech’s Cookieless Future – Is It Bright or Bleak,” IPONWEB CEO Boris Mouzykantskii, who played a key role building the foundational infrastructure still powering much of the online advertising industry today, summed up the future of cookieless ad tech as, “Bleak.”

Simply put, a third-party cookie means a snippet of data is placed in your web browser by one site, that can be read by another. Practically speaking third-party cookie tech powers most big data targeting marketers can access today.

The demise of third-party tracking cookies will force most digital marketers to change their strategies, some drastically.  While there are dozens of would-be ad tech replacements for third party cookies, most if not all are imperfect solutions for a nearly impossible problem. Some or many marketers won’t survive and poser agencies will be crushed.

Here’s why the best marketers in the world don’t need to worry about third party cookies ending, from mild to wild. The we’ll follow with what-to-do suggestions:

It’s better to have loved, learned, and lost than to never have loved. This may seem basic and we promise things will get more technical below.

Be grateful for the learnings we just experienced, a once-in-history era. As a result of the personal data we’ve been privy to for individual customers during the great twenty first century biddable media data bubble, marketers who have been paying attention past the x’s and o’s gained a much deeper understanding of the customer journey.

True, in the future we may not see as much data or have quite the targeting and analytics toolsets. However great marketers won’t unlearn the lessons and intuition acquired. Yes marketers, to some extent you may need to fall back on your intuition. Perhaps the situation will be difficult for some marketers who are mainly technologists but don’t know a lot about selling.

What data marketers experienced with readily available third party data targeting, especially since 2007, will be dismantled and likely never occur in such a visible form again. Such targeting will exist black-boxed in within the walls of huge data channels like Facebook, Microsoft, and Google. However, we likely won’t have access to to associate data with individual users.

To us the new reality is ironic and was fully predictable. AIMCLEAR has been advising clients to build lists of individuals mashing targeting data, site visitors, and customers acquired along with their personal qualities for 15 years, that such data would almost surely become unavailable or uncool, and not to miss the chance to gather priceless data about customers. Well, party’s OVER.

wooden platter of small and large deer sausage

The last 20 years were a one-off, persistent state enabled aberration of privacy-busting folly as regulations did not keep up with digital marketing innovation.  Ad tech moved so quickly that civilization simply could not keep up or even know to ask the most important questions.  Our government in America still comes off as practically illiterate in such matters, while Europe codified privacy as a fundamental human right with GDPR. The United States is slowly adopting consumer protection measures to embed privacy values in what marketers are allowed to do. Marketers, this is your new reality. Live with it because it’s going to get more intense.

As cliché as it sounds, first party data is a fine foundation, there’s lots of it, and first party is where plenty of innovation is flowing.  User data will still exist, managed by huge companies and/or partnerships which desperately want to earn your media spend. These companies hold or own data in a shotgun relationship with brands and users.  At the same time, media spend hungry entities must deal with governments, integrity, the public, and marketers to find the intersection of privacy and useful targeting. Where corporate scale does not exist amongst data purveyors and channels, look for companies to consolidate as data owners join forces (including brands) to try and sort this big mess.

About a month after the aforementioned “Bright or Bleak” Programmatic I/O session, panelist Criteo CEO Megan Clarken announced that Criteo had entered exclusive negotiations with co-panelist Boris Mouzykantskii to purchase IPONWEB for $380 million. Criteo’s focus in the acquisition is all about first party data solutions to innovate aside the impending loss third party tracking cookies. Interestingly during the “Bleak or Bright” session and contrary to Mouzykantskii, Clarken called the future, “Bright.” Now we know why- Criteo is betting on first party data solutions in acquiring programmatic pioneers, Mouzykantskii led, IPONWEB to help modernize ad tech in light of privacy concerns and thus rejig the paid Internet.

Intra channel first party data retargeting will likely survive in some form, especially within confined walls of platforms like Google sporting a multi-screen suite of apps and services where users have incentive to remain logged in. Think YouTube, Gmail, Google Search, etc.  In 2021 Google called brands’ first party relationships with customers, “Vital,” leaving the door open for brands to deepen, “Support for solutions that build on these direct relationships between consumers and the brands and publishers they engage with.”

For most of history, marketers did just fine marketing without the Internet, let alone tracking cookies, LOL 😂.  I come from a broadcast radio and television background beginning in the early 80s.  We had no Internet, let alone tracking cookies. Yet somehow, we managed to sell Chia Pet Heads, put human heads in hotel beds, sell insurance B2B and B2C, dispatch users into grocery stores who became loyal customers with high LTV,  sold concert tickets, and so much more.  The tracking we had was a toolkit including unique offers or products in certain channels, coupons with bar codes, correlation, and gut feelings about a sales push we perceived in response to untraceable media.

“Integrated” media meant developing relationships between newspapers and radio stations. Research meant hotel room focus groups, written and phone surveys. Ad tech meant printing presses, delivery trucks, transmitters, and outdoor billboards by the freeway. Targeting meant choosing a TV show to advertise on by Neilson ratings or putting a billboard on the northbound side of 35W for visitors headed to Duluth. We figured visitors would need to eat at restaurants or might not have a hotel yet. Contextual meant ads on hockey boards at NCAA stadiums. SERPs meant Yellow Page placements.

Yet somehow, we earned our livings as creators, working at ad agencies, publishers and channels. Marketers held jobs as national sales managers, and media buyers. Honestly, I think it was a more skilled generation.

Marketers sold with guile, heart, perspective, and verve because we had no idea what tech hadn’t been invented while we had to sell shit.  We used to quip, “State of the art is what you do with what you have.” Lessons from the past indicate we will get by- no matter what changes. The question is who will make money and who won’t. When the music stops, who will have have a chair.

Third party cookies are partially gone already, and the sky has not fallen, thanks to Apple Safari and FireFox which comprised 23.13% of browser market share worldwide as of November 2021. They’ve already disabled third party cookies by default. So, to a significant extent, marketers are already dealing with the incremental loss of third party tracking cookies.

If you’re not a good enough marketer absent third party cookies to create a branding halo with top of funnel frequency in generally targeted space by geo, might as well give up anyway. We’ve always known that creative is at least as important as distribution systems and put a high value in craftiness, emotion, understanding our customers, intuition, and dynamism.

The depreciation of tracking cookies will separate poser tech-only marketers grumbling from the martech department from actual marketers who know WTF to do and say to sell stuff. The transformation to a cookiless world has already begun. Some poser marketers are gone. Real marketers can do even better if they keep their cool.

What to Do About Losing Third Party Tracking Cookies

  • Don’t panic. The only constant in tech is that everything changes, and it’s been like that forever. How many printing presses and fax machines (previously prerequisites to being in business) do you have in your office these days? You’re still in business, right? Embrace change.
  • Making your business about what comes next means you’re less likely to become obsolete. There will be an entire generation of marketers whose job it is to consult and teach shell-shocked medium sized brands what to do. Stay current on emergent products and company consolidation, especially first party data solutions by reading every day, listening to podcasts, etc. Mouzykantskii said that looking at the seemingly hundreds of identity solutions on the market today, “I think about half a dozen will survive with scale and be privacy-friendly enough to actually be relevant.” Your job as a technical marketer is to know the solution before others, use those tools or make a living teaching them.
  • Keep track of first party data to the greatest extend any channel allows you to do so- within Facebook, Google, Twitter, Programmatic, etc. Use third party data now, anywhere it’s available and helps your business.
  • Don’t wait until third party cookies are gone for solutions.  Test other methods and emergent vendors now that are not dependent on cross-channel persistent state. Experiment with mass branding halos by saturating smaller, broader audiences top of funnel. Find your unicorn methodology that will already work in the next generation. Measure the results by correlating direct traffic, integrated conversation rates, new brand search frequency as indicated by Google Trends and daily paid search inventory at 100% frequency share.
  • Step up your creative game. Creative success is the great ad tech regression neutralizer. Fabulous text, video, images, and well-crafted creative is kryptonite against those who would eat your cheese.
  • Check the value of and evaluate your current role.  Staffing requirements tend to change with technology shifts.  Some skills will be in great demand into the foreseeable future, like stakeholders’ management, brand development, and digital PR. Even with the the onslaught of imperfect AI content creation tools, humans will still be needed for advertising campaign creative. Finally, no matter what the machines are, humans will be needed to feed the beast input. Be brutally honest with yourself and take steps to cross train now.
  • Get real about the products and/or services you are marketing. You can’t wrap poop up in a bow and expect a high LTV, no matter fancy your data targeting is. If what you sell is substandard or junk, find another job. The best martech is a product that doesn’t suck. If what you are marketing does not have legs, tracking cookies probably won’t matter a lick.
  • Segment campaigns by data capabilities in platforms, channels, networks, handsets, and other differences that affect how data is handled. Especially since Apple weaponized identity in iOS 14, it’s insane to not segment any channel possible by Android and iPhones, Chrome and Safari, etc. It’s going to take a while for third party tracking cookies to die all the way. Build your lists now while capabilities are still available in a large, albeit incomplete, data set.

AIMCLEAR has heavy paid performance marketing clients in our agency portfolio. Slow degradation of focused targeting reach has wrought limited mayhem in what we can easily see- but certainly not our ability to move products and services. We make up for the data loss with timeless marketing values, early adoption, testing, and leadership.

Chrome held 64.06% market share as of November. The chaos that will ensue once Google does the cookie nasty by removing third party tracking from Chrome will be entertaining as hell. We’re not worried. Stay tuned and be strong.

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