By Josh Coon, Mike DiCaprio & Ken McVeagh
Let’s face it, as marketers we’ve had our hands in the digital cookie jar for a long time. For far too long, if we’re being honest. We’ve had unfettered access to some problematic consumer data for years. We’ve been able to target, retarget and track consumers without their consent. This nearly unlimited data collection that third-party cookies has offered both marketers and brands has made us both fat and happy.
The lid, however, is now snapping shut on the cookie jar, and we have to figure out what to do next.
Wait, what’s happening?
Google announced through its Chromium blog that it will be ending support for third-party cookies entirely in the Chrome web browser by the end of 2021, joining Apple’s Safari and Mozilla’s Firefox, which have already begun to block them. By some estimates this equals 85% to 90% of all internet traffic, so this is no small change. Before we dive into what this means and how things could change, let’s talk briefly about what a third-party cookie is.
What’s in these things, anyway?
A third-party cookie is a small crumb of data left behind on your browser by tracking and measurement platforms with help from the websites you visit. These crumbs provide a trail for those third-party platforms to create a larger picture of a user’s web behavior, used to target them with advertisements and optimize their experience. This has allowed brands to place ads in front of consumers wherever they go and drive activity within their owned properties. Later, this data is often packaged and sold to help marketers more easily target you, based on your demographic or psychographic profile. You look at a pair of sneakers on a site, and suddenly, like a specter, they seem to materialize everywhere — on Instagram, Facebook in digital ads, everywhere you look. You’re also likely to see that sneaker brand’s competitors’ products in your feed, with the same data being used by both sides. It’s been a powerful tool but one that has caused privacy concerns all over the world, leading to major restrictions in some countries. That’s why we’re all going on a digital diet.
When does our digital diet start?
The specific timing is still unknown, but soon. Google’s plan is to transition away from third-party cookies by the end of 2021. That is not a lot of time to make a seismic adjustment to how we reach our audiences. We’ve become so dependent on third-party cookies that weaning us off those delicious morsels of data is a necessity, but like any meaningful diet, it’s gonna hurt. We need to start adapting without turning to seductive and difficult-to-enforce fingerprinting methods.
Well, now what’s on the menu?!
Brands will need to start rethinking how they engage with consumers and what their goals are for marketing. There will still be advertising through a variety of different channels, but that advertising will likely be more splintered, with each platform having its own rules and its own tools. A value exchange will also be of greater importance. It’s time to rethink what we’re offering consumers and how we are engaging them. Brands need to decide what’s more important: a million, trillion impressions from strangers who aren’t that interested or 10,000 dedicated fans who have made you a part of their daily lives. Marketers will still have many options, but those options will be different and will need to work in new combinations to bring the parts and pieces into focus.
Will there be a healthy option?
It’s unclear what comes next, but make no mistake that Google, Apple and all the other tech giants are looking for a replacement for third-party cookies. Google, for example, has started to share a new recipe for what the future may hold, called “Trust Tokens.” These tokens are meant to replace the third-party cookies, although there will be significant changes and limitations to what marketers are accustomed to.
What little is known right now is that the Trust Tokens will verify human visitors (not a bot) and will let sites know who has come and if they clicked on ads. But they will not be able to track them across the web; all user data will remain anonymous.
The value exchange between brands and consumers will be the critical linchpin to future success; useful, entertaining, delightful content will be the table stakes for success.
These tokens are in development, but specifically how they work or what happens next is still unclear. What is clear is that by the end of 2021, third-party cookies will no longer be supported by the three most important web browsers in the world; after that will likely be a tangle of confusion. Either way, it’s likely that technology will protect privacy to a greater degree and favor consumers over brands and advertisers. What we’ve come to rely on as a critical tool for digital marketing will likely no longer be in our toolbox.
What should brands do now? We polled our team of specialists to get additional thoughts to help prepare your brand …
Joshua Coon, Experience & Content Director: We’re heading into a new era. Something different, something harder, but likely something better. Now more than ever, investing in your owned channels and building an audience is critical to the long-term health of a brand. It’s harder work to build an audience than to buy one, but it’s a better investment.
The value exchange between brands and consumers will be the critical linchpin to future success; useful, entertaining, delightful content will be the table stakes for success. Because it’s likely that people will have to self-select and will have to be part of your club, if you don’t make it worth their while, they’ll go somewhere else. It’s just that now you won’t know where they went. Now more than ever it’s important to focus on the audience and what your brand can uniquely deliver to that audience on its terms.
Ken McVeagh, Brand & Engagement Strategist: As marketers it’s in our blood to face change head-on, and as people we must protect and respect the privacy of others. These changes will force us to adapt to a more responsible method of delivering personalized experiences. Yes, with any change there comes a challenge, but each challenge has a solution! Google’s shift is just a tipping point, and one we should celebrate. We’re being afforded an opportunity to move to less invasive methods of interacting with consumers, methods that will ultimately contribute to more valuable interactions.
If Google’s Trust Tokens take a page from Brave’s book, we may be on the precipice of a mass opt-in scenario with a built-in value exchange. Brave’s solution gives users something akin to loyalty points, or frequent-flyer miles, in return for viewing privacy-respecting ads. Users are able to set the number of ads they see per hour — and only hear from brands and creators they want to hear from. This ensures that advertisers are reaching an audience with interest baked in. With a model like this, I can already think of fun and novel ways to reward and entice validated ad-viewers, nurturing them down to conversion while building brand loyalty and equity. The future of digital advertising might look different, but in my opinion it doesn’t look bleak.
Mike DiCaprio, Director of Comms Planning: While marketers are rightfully freaking out over Google’s announcement, the change may actually benefit them. In his book, How Brands Grow, Byron Sharp argues that brands experience growth when they market to the largest possible consumer base. With digital marketing, we are tempted to narrow our audience to the smallest possible segments because, well … we can. Cookies have enabled us to reach very narrow slices of the population. Whatever follows cookies may force us to take a broader approach to targeting in the digital space, which may in turn lead to more brand growth.
While Google and the other tech companies are playing down the ramifications of the coming changes, it’s impossible to predict the true outcome. But if the future behaves anything like the past, a technology shift like this, with change of this magnitude, will be messy and confusing and cause a level of disruption no one needs on top of a year of disruptions. Ask yourself if your brand is ready to lose this tool. Have you begun cultivating an alternative? If the answer is no, it’s time to get to work. Focus on your audience and give them a reason to do more than just engage, comment or like. Give them a reason to love. Because real emotion will always surpass the technology gimmick of the moment and give your brand a future built on a connection no digital platform can replicate.