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How to explain the loss of the cookie to your family and friends (and why you should)

By Cadi Jones

February 11, 2020 | 9 min read

Since Google’s announcement last month that starting in early 2022, third-party cookies will no longer be allowed in Chrome, the industry has been up in arms. While third party cookies have been outlawed in Firefox and Safari for some time now, 30% of the market wasn’t enough for us to fret about - it’s only now that Chrome has set a 'Time To Live' that hysteria has set in.


How to explain the loss of the cookie to a lay person

Most commentary so far has focused on what it will mean for our industry - but we all have friends, family, acquaintances outside of our little media bubble, and the following might help you explain to them why you may be feeling elated/vulnerable at the moment.

Before I start it’s worth noting that this is the worst-case scenario, where third party cookies go away entirely and nothing replaces them. There are many clever people working on what may be viable alternatives, but whatever happens, the world as we know it is changing.

Frequency capping

Most advertisers make a plan for who they want to target their ads to and how many times they want that audience to each to see their ad. This counting is done by using third party cookies that ping back a signal each time their ad plays to you, and those signals stop the advertising campaign for you, once it reaches their target level of exposures.

So, in a world without third-party cookies, you may see the same annoying advert a thousand times while someone else in their target category doesn’t see that ad at all.

This doesn’t sound that bad until you realise how bad ads are. For every great ad, there are 1000 mediocre ones. And you might just be the person who only ever sees that mediocre ad. Over and over again. Until you are singing the jingle to your loved ones over and over.

Creative agencies need to get ready and make ads less annoying.

Re-targeting goes away

Those ads that follow you around the internet? You know the ones. You look at a jacket on a department store website and suddenly, you only ever see ads for that jacket. You click one of those ads and gaze lustily at the jacket. You try to hold firm, you leave the site and go to a serious website to read some news about how bad fast-fashion is for the environment and then... Bam! There’s another ad for that jacket right there. It’s a sign! It’s meant to be! So... you buy that bloody jacket!

It seems almost impossible that re-targeting will work in a post-third-party-cookie world. Right now, the advertiser works with a partner who drops a cookie in your browser when you first visit that product page. That partner can then use that signal to know it should try to serve you an ad, as you visit other websites. This relies on them being able to see their cookie on other people’s websites.

Will anyone miss these ads? Only the die-hards who hold-out for free-postage after the thousandth ad. Conference attendees can certainly rejoice in the lack of people moaning about re-targeting.

Exclusion of converters

So, in that last scenario, you know when you finally buy something you suddenly stop seeing ads for that thing? That’s also third party cookies. Most advertising campaigns currently rely on third-party cookies not only to help them to better target who to serve ads to - but also who to not serve ads to. So if you’ve recently signed up to their service or bought their product, they would often make sure they were not still paying money to serve you ads. However, just as in the above example, now there will be no ability to target, there will also be no ability to not target. That means no possibility of switching off the campaign for folks who’ve purchased.

Did you ever see that your bank/bookmaker/florist gives better deals to new customers than existing ones? In recent years, you probably only spotted this if you were reading through the small print Terms and Conditions.

Brands, please figure out how to offer enticing incentives to both existing customers as well as new ones, or maybe just make the Ts and Cs longer.

Post-view conversion tracking

Getting into the weeds of things, when advertisers set up a performance advertising campaign, optimising towards online conversions, the trading desks operating these campaigns often work on a post-click and post-view conversion window. When you view an ad, the ad drops a cookie in your browser to say you have seen it. If you then go on to make a conversion (purchase, download, etc) then you see a 'thank you' page which also drops a cookie in your browser. The company that served you the ad you viewed thereby gets a credit for the sale, even if you didn’t click the ad (no one clicks ads).

Without third party cookies, it will be impossible to count these post-view conversions.

Performance focussed brands - you’d better swat up on this - you’ll need to explain to the chief executive why your budgets need to go up.

Interest and demographic targeting

Many companies trade data around your age, gender, and interests. Terms you are searching for, websites and the subsections that you visit, and the keywords that are included on those pages. These companies can then help advertisers to serve more relevant ads based on the things you are interested in. Say you are researching a holiday and read a number of travel articles on various websites. When you check your email / read the news / visit a non-travel related website, you are more likely to see a travel ad based on your recent activity.

Similarly, sites that you have shared your age and gender with might package this information about you together with the same information for many other people, and include you in a segment that advertisers are able to use to target ads.

With the death of third party cookies this will no longer be a possibility. There’s a lot of talk about advertisers moving to more contextual targeting (seeing a travel ad when you’re reading a travel article). However, topical content is limited, and a significant amount of content that you consume on the internet is not easily categorized (email, news etc) and so it’s difficult to know what will happen in these environments. My guess might be more ads in topic-specific content, and fewer quality ads in harder to categorize environments.

I’m not sure that real people care about the level of relevance of the ad, they care more about how intrusive it is. Contextual targeting companies will need to sharpen up their pitch decks and get round those media agencies!

What stays the same?

First party cookies! First party cookies enable websites that you visit to remember who you are when you go back to them. So if you always click the button to save your password, or the website optimizes their content to make sure you see more relevant items, that should stay.

In the same way, this means that if a brand is using Google’s software (DV360) to buy ads on Google-owned YouTube - they should be able to cap the frequency of the ads that you are seeing. Same if you self-serve ads on Facebook through their self-service platform.

If you’re a media buyer happy to go back to an IO, then buying contextual ads on a publisher’s site directly from that publisher will still be fine.

We’re seeing some smart media owners who are ahead of the curve, investigating and even running tests to transact based on their own first-party data. Publishers that we work with are already investigating delivering their current offering in full without using cookies. However, the two years will pass very quickly.

But realistically, there is very little that will stay the same. This is why so many people are up in arms. Very few programmatic platforms are ready for cookie-less buying - whether that’s driven by GDPR enforcement or the removal of third party cookies from Chrome scheduled for early 2022. Most platforms across both the buy-and-sell were built 10-15 years ago, where the only conceivable way for adverts to work was with cookies as the cornerstone technology.

Newer Demand-Side-Platforms (DSPs), such as Beeswax was built on a single-tenant infrastructure, and in an identity (‘ID’) agnostic way that does not rely on legacy cookie technology, and enables buyers to buy based on their own IDs or against their own objectives, through custom algorithms using signals based on the inventory under consideration. Other DSPs may be able to go back and re-factor this work, but it's a fundamental architectural shift. I’m glad we’re not racing against the clock to get this done here.

Cadi Jones is the commercial director EMEA at Beeswax.

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