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And that's how the browser cookie crumbles

February 5, 2020

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Do you remember the last time you got a pop-up saying “this site uses cookies. Do you accept?”

Cookies have been the mainstay of any digital marketer for ages now for tracking customer behaviour and data. Now browsers and policy makers are blocking these natively with Apple and Mozilla leading the charge and Chrome looming like a tidal wave behind. 
 
Perhaps you’re like me and when you hear things like this you tend to want to bury your head in the sand and wait for other, smarter people to figure this out. For some reason though this doesn’t look like something to ignore. Especially with publications like Adweek heralding it as a fundamental change. 
 
So how do we get ahead of this? Let's dig in.
 
First off. What’s a cookie besides a delicious flat muffin?

Also known as browser cookies, cookies are data set by a website or third party that is stored in the form of a text file or code snippet in web browsers. Cookies use the users IP address as a unique ID containing information like user ID, browsing history, session ID, etc. Cookies are created once any website is accessed that uses cookies where the user allows them through an "I accept" permission button. When returning to the same site, the browser sends the cookie script to the server and bam, we know who you are.
 
What's the difference between first party and third party cookies?

First-party cookies are the soft, mint chocolate covered girl guide cookies that we all know and love. They are the ones that originate on the site you intentionally went to (key point there) and help to remember stuff like what’s in your basket, have you logged in within the past 3 hours, remembering your billing address, etc. For the most part, we’re not too worried about these guys.
 
Third-party cookies are the blond and brown, hard, gross creme-filled, girl guide cookies that you buy just because you have to (and then try to pawn off on your fellow coworkers). These generally don’t originate from the site you went to. They are there to inform software where you are going so you can be retargeted. Have you ever gone to a site and seen an ad for a product you were just looking at from Amazon? That’s what I’m talking about. 
 
Third part cookies are the blond and brown hard, gross, creme-filled, girl guide cookies that you buy just because you have to"

 

How are browsers stopping cookies?

Both Firefox and Apple have had blockers for these second rate cookies for awhile now but there have been known loopholes around these. But now Apple is getting serious rolling out their "Intelligent Tracking Prevention 2.2" (ITP) to plug their fingers into these holes and Mozilla (Firefox) is not far behind with its "Enhanced Tracking Protection (ETP)". (Originally named Firefox)
 
Essentially, these initiatives will stop third party cookies from being recorded as first party cookies and in some cases even reducing first part sessions from 7 days to 1 day. 
 
So there’s that. And then Google weighs in. 
 
With Google Chrome owning a whopping 60% of the browser battle, when their opt-in versions of ITP kicks in, the cookies will be all but a few crumbs on the plate. Now Google is running a bit of a balancing act here as cookies aren’t comparable with mobile apps so Advertising IDs and location data are how they get around that. With them creating their own essential version of cookies in a browser ID system, and given their dominance with browsers and the display advertising markets, they are in position to monopolize the market. We are all waiting to see what Google will do as they may determine (as they can) the fate of tracking for marketers. Will they create a replacement for cookies? Will they continue on for awhile? 
 
So what does this mean if cookies are no longer accepted?

 The biggest impact is on programmatic advertising. That’s because it relies heavily on third party cookies to target us saps and measure the campaigns. We lose the ability to hone in on those demographics as tight as we used to and we loose our attribution as we won’t know where we went after seeing the ad. Given that in the US digital ad spend is expected to hit over 130 Billion this year, this is big. Huge I would say. 
 
Fundamentally we loose our insight into how our campaigns are doing. Tracking will be a bitch. 
 
For the meantime, there seems to be a bit of a reprieve.
 
Chrome (patch no.80) released in early February 2020 will ensure that 3rd party cookies update their labels to ensure that they are not being written as first-party cookies. Any cookies without these updates will be blocked. So there will be a period of securing and fixing up cookies so that they can all play in this space. This is likely underway with most suppliers and if they haven’t already told you of the plan, you can (and probably should) reach out to them.
 
What is the Privacy Sandbox?

Privacy Sandbox is Google’s perhaps answer to all this. In the future all cookies would be replaced by a series of APIs. Advertisers could use these to receive data about things like conversion and attribution on campaigns. This would all happen in the Chrome browser but would perhaps set the standard for everyone else. Moving towards and elusive universal ID. Worried a bit about that? I think I am. 
 
On the surface, this seems like we would get a bit of a stripped-down version of the data we enjoy now but at least it something. 
 
So what do we do?

  • Behavioral targeting vs contextual targeting
    Behavioral targeting - you may get ads that are relevant to your profile regardless where you go. So you may be looking at a bike website and getting ads for HubSpot because you are a marketer when you actually want to look at bikes.
    Contextual targeting means the ads are based on where you are in that moment of time. So if you are on a bike site, you get bike ads. Brought in by Facebook, this unique ID is on people not devices and does not rely on cookies. You are meeting them at the time and the place they want to meet you. 
  • Keep focusing on content
    By stopping marketers from finding the "exact" target based on behaviors online, we'll need to look at other key indicators to target our buyers. One tried and true (and often overlooked) area is content. Content has always been important but with the advertising industry caught up in behavioral targeting it's been forgotten for the most part. Inbound marketing may play a bigger role moving forward as we will be eager to discover different ways to to understand our customers.
 
Targeting isn’t going anywhere but cookies will be nothing but crumbs.

Most suppliers have already started moving away from a cookie-based world and developing plans to invest in solutions which leverage context through things like location & TV data, as well as mobile, audio, connected TV, among other things and none of which rely on cookies. There has alway been a danger in relying on cookies too much. We are complex human beings and we do a million things online. Were we being lumped into buckets that didn't always make sense?  Likely.
 
The future of digital media is contextual, and while targeting is not going anywhere, the cookie foundation is crumbling.
 
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