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Do you need to worry about cookies? A no-nonsense guide

Steven Clark of The Marketing Practice on a relaxed approach to cookie depracation / Ales Maze via Unsplash

Some commentators make the cull of third-party cookies sound like a coming apocalypse. As part of our Deep Dive on Data, Steven Clark, chief data officer at Drum Network member The Marketing Practice, urges restraint and lays out some practical steps for colleagues in the data game.

The discourse surrounding a third-party-cookie-free internet is reminiscent of the media buzz around Y2K in the 90s.

We can expect a similar outcome: a lot of nail-biting for the next 18 months followed by an industry-wide sigh of relief.

The world has already largely moved on from the use of these cookies. Apple, which owns more than half of the market for smartphone usage, has already banished third-party cookies. Almost every non-Chromium-based browser has followed suit.

Chrome doing the same in 2023 does mean a still-larger group will no longer be trackable using these technologies. But it doesn't mean the end of advertising as we know it.

There will likely be some changes in how we build audiences and personalize our day-to-day targeting. The channel and partner mix used in some campaign types may change. But, given the volume of solutions being concocted to overcome tracking limitations, most should come out unscathed.

Do you need to do anything?

Unless you're actively selling ad inventory or remarketing, you might already be making use of first-party cookies across the board. A quick review of your own cookies and privacy policy should show if you actually need to do anything (then continue to review both at frequent intervals).

If you are advertising based on tracking and segmentation, it’s worth asking if that's still the best approach in a post-third-party world. Contextual ads perform almost as well and are far less invasive, for example. If you rely heavily on remarketing, this might not be an option, but for many campaign types, it's worth taking the time to establish if you really need to be tracking users across the web to achieve your goals. If you don't, maybe it's worth trying a less invasive approach.

If you really need to track user data across the web…

While the means of tracking (third-party cookies) are out, the general approach (the ability to track across websites) isn’t. The major advertising networks are all developing tech for building anonymized audiences without cookies. Speak to your media partners and understand what technology (i.e., FLoC) is being developed to achieve this, what you need to do to prepare, and what implications there are for your data strategy.

There are countless articles and resources about Privacy Sandbox and its peers online, so read up on how this will impact your activity. Features will mostly remain the same.

Moving to a first-party-first data strategy

Data deprecation isn't necessarily a bad thing. It just requires that we move away from a convenient model that relies on insights from other organizations and move towards a first-party strategy with consent at its core.

It's not complicated in theory. Once users have given their permission, drop first-party cookies and begin collecting data on what people do on your websites, and use this to identify their intent and engagement. It's fairly trivial to understand the site activity and interactions you're interested in if you spend some time planning. The simplest way to do this is with a Customer Data Platform (CDP), which offsets any development outlay.

Most of this can be handled and automated by most CDPs and integrated with your CRM. By moving away from siloed, third-party tools to an owned data strategy, user profiles can be built against data that is unlikely to change: names, emails, contact numbers.

Enriching analytics

Google Analytics has always dominated the web analytics space, and for good reason. It's easy to use and powerful, without significant development requirements. Fortunately, Google Analytics also only sets first-party cookies, so in theory, there should be minimal changes needed.

However, the ICO has explicitly stated that analytics cookies are not necessary for site function, so consent is required to track data. Trends point to a significant reduction in the number of people accepting cookies, or even going out of their way to actively block GA specifically in their browsers. Owned alternatives are becoming increasingly attractive.

Log analysis has come a long way in recent years from fairly modest beginnings, and there are a variety of tools available to help automate this process. By using the data your servers already collect, you remove another silo. In theory (and again, with consent), you can merge the data from server logs with the data from other sources based on IP, providing new avenues for analysis. Google Analytics still provides valuable insights, but this analysis gives an added layer of granularity to your datasets, with the added benefit of 100% user coverage.

It's not a perfect drop-in replacement, though; it can tell you when and where the content was accessed and by whom, but not how it was engaged with.

The benefits of a first-party data strategy

This approach enables you to create a more personalized experience and build one-to-one relationships with customers that transcend channels, bridging the divide between digital and offline experiences.

Breaking down silos caused by the use of third-party platforms and taking ownership of your own data is the name of the game as we develop deeper, individual relationships with our customers.

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