Accept the cookie-free reality, even if it bites

In light of the looming loss of third-party cookies for targeted behavioural advertising, change is a reality. James McDonald and Ron Ramaiya write about the need for better first-party data strategies – and ask marketers to stop calling it an ‘apocalypse’.

If marketers think of losing third-party cookies as an ‘apocalypse’, they might not do anything about it.

Apocalypse implies the kind of catastrophic destruction that many people don’t believe will actually happen. They might worry about it, but will they take action? Positioning it this way may leave some taking a defeatist attitude that it is a foregone conclusion, and they’ll just have to put up with and pay for whatever else takes its place.

We’ll call it ‘a cookie-free reality’ to encourage acceptance, so marketers can proactively make the necessary changes to marketing, advertising and media strategies and insist that agency partners do the same.

So far, we don’t know what the likes of Google, Facebook and Amazon are going to offer in lieu of cookies, but why wait for them? Why rely on whatever products publishers and technology behemoths see fit to sell you?

Instead, take control and find more value in your first-party data.

You cannot accept that which you do not understand

Many have left dealing with third-party cookies to their media agencies. That makes sense, but these marketers may not anticipate the likely impact of losing cookie syncing and cookie matching, because they are not aware of the precise role cookies have been playing in media strategies and budgets.

It’s worth spelling out. This change will impact on planning, tactics and even costs involved to achieve the objectives marketers are setting out for themselves and their supporting agencies.

How much is that cookie in the window?

With behavioural advertising, you – the advertiser – pay more to a website because of the information that it uses to better target your ad to the site visitors that matter most to you. That data, which has been powering your advertising campaign’s targeting, measurement, analytics, optimisation and retargeting efforts, comes in the form of third-party cookies. There is a cost to access that data, whether or not it has been called out as a specific line item on budgets you’ve approved.

Let’s use a simplistic example. A publisher has an advertising space to sell. It costs them $2.00 to deliver that advertising space. If they sell that space at $2.00, they break even. If you give them a data set that tells them ‘these are the kinds of customers we have/want’, and they can match cookies to that data set, they can sell that space at $4.50. They make a profit on the ad space by showing your ad to a more targeted audience, based on your targeting information.

In fact, in anticipation of a cookie-free reality, some niche sites have been tripling their prices. They are taking the opportunity, now, to give them a buffer because, without third-party cookies, they won’t have the audience insights with which to bulk up their ad prices.

Without cookies, you should expect to pay less for ad space. But you should also expect there to be costs associated with a new cookie-free approach that uses other data matching services, data sets and targeting methods.

Why do you need a cookie workaround?

Think of the cookie as the most commonly used and cheapest third-party data set, used to minimise advertising wastage by tagging people that have a high propensity to do what you need them to do, i.e. buy your product or service, respond a certain way, etc.

Sooner than later, these cookies will no longer be available so the task of marketing, advertising and media strategists is to find new data sets and new ways to reach your target audiences.

The way forward is deeper into your own organisation’s data, then sourcing suitable second- and third-party data suppliers to combine with your relevant first-party data, to rebuild what you were able to achieve with third-party cookies.

Have you been giving away more than you’ve been getting?

When you give publishers your data and put their pixels on your site to engage ad tracking (often mandated), YOU are the ones doing the targeting work. They are simply finding similar people within their site visitors. But they can – and do – package up your targeted audience and sell it to your competitors. They don’t specifically say ‘this is [your company name’s] data’, but they sell it as an audience, for example an audience of auto intenders or one interested in child care services.

Third-party data cookies exist as a product for publishers to sell to advertisers. So, how much can you trust this data? What if the ‘auto intender’ data set the publisher sells you (and three other advertisers like you) is really a bunch of people who read one story about new tires? Or who will read anything car related, but rarely buy new cars? How are you to know?

You could look at this as an opportunity for a smart advertiser with a clever agency to stop relying on publishers’ cookies.

Linking identifying data without cookies

Most big publishers with logged-in audiences are rubbing their hands together with glee, as they figure out how to monetise their premium inventory. But you have your own first-party data. And, if you provide the right customer value and experience, people will identify themselves to you.

You’re still going to have email addresses and mobile numbers linked to individual IDs within your CRM. You’re going to use that to profile your customers, and look for a third-party data service (don’t worry, they will present themselves) that can match it with other profiles on publisher sites.

A cookie-free reality is a good thing

The idea is to future-proof by relying on your own observations of your data and finding new ways to complete data led acquisition tasks. If your trusted advisors and media agencies are not helping you to proactively build this change into your data strategy, there’s a problem

You might see some hard costs go up, in terms of data acquisition, aggregation and matching, to accomplish what the cookies used to accomplish. But, as you develop a first-party-centric data strategy with cookie workarounds and reach for new second- and third-party data connectors, you could make some interesting data discoveries and find new value.

Breaking free of the third-party cookie will make marketers understand the value of first-party data and structure their data in more usable ways. It’s going to make people who think that they don’t have a lot of useful data, figure out how to capture and use the data they could or should be capturing.

We’ve all been over-reliant on cookies. It’s time to stop being such cookie monsters, anyway.

James McDonald is a co-founder of independent, fast-growing, full-service media agency Audience Group and Ron Ramaiya heads up audience analytics.

Photo by Matthew T Rader on Unsplash.