How marketers should prepare for a future without cookies and more regulation

What Marketing in a Cookie-less and Regulated World Will Look Like 

February 19, 2021

Theresa Swiggum
Fearing the great cookie crumble? Is your Safari traffic dropping? Are your Facebook or Google ads getting disapproved? Major shifts in the ad tech industry are keeping marketers on their toes. Let's disseminate what's happening and what you can do about it.

What Marketing in a Cookie-less and Regulated World Will Look Like

How marketers should prepare for a future without cookies and more regulation

What’s driving data disruptions?

Major disruptions in how marketers collect, use and, measure data have been introduced in the last few years, the largest being suppression of third-party cookies. Safari has been dwindling the cookie shelf life gradually with ITP, while Chrome works toward their dissolvement by 2022. Mozilla and other browsers are following suit. Stated simply: the great extinction of the cookie is quickly approaching, and marketers who don’t have a plan B may find themselves in trouble when trying to reach the most relevant prospects and eliminate wasted spend.

If that weren’t enough, the industry is now also facing strict regulation of data usage, even identity-based data (think credit card information, census data, device ID, etc). This includes Europe’s GDPR as well as U.S. states like California (and 22 others) limiting data collection and sharing. As a result, targeting is restricted to broad parameters on search and social platforms for sensitive topics. Apple’s iOS 14 now requires apps, including Facebook, to get user permission before tracking them. And GoogleAds is limiting search term data available to advertisers.

Why is this happening? Ad technology has advanced so quickly that the laws and ethics cannot keep up. So, accelerated by the early days of ad blocking, the industry is now attempting to unite and self-regulate as demand increases for consumer data ownership, control, and transparency. And while most of these changes come under the guise of user privacy, it is worth noting that some are quite self-serving.

What can marketers expect?

Marketers will see clear data losses, in both volume and quality, which will ultimately limit their ability to understand audiences and what drives them to engage. This prompts both immediate and long-term impacts.

In the short term:
  • Data will fluctuate substantially. Retargeting pools or Safari traffic could decline as direct or attributable traffic increases. Click-through and engagement rates could drop as targeting becomes less relevant. Benchmarks are thus less powerful (which is further compounded, thanks to pandemic-driven shifts in consumer behavior).
  • Reliance on big tech will grow. We all have a stake in this game, but ad tech giants like Google and Amazon must pave the way, because they own ready-to-use, scalable data and inventory. They will leverage walled gardens, or clean rooms, with proprietary but isolated technology around their login data, such as with Chrome’s FloC. Rather than diversifying their media mix, advertisers may turn to big tech or other media giants like AT&T for a quick solve. This could also prompt more data modeling since platforms cannot talk to each other. Google has already indicated it may start modeling traffic and conversions from iOS users.
In the long term:
  • Big industry players like The Trade Desk (and friends) are working toward standardized solutions that provide advertisers large-scale, non-cookie, identity-based data and users single-sign-on experiences. Soon after, attribution platforms will also be more reliant on identity-based data (which is potentially less reliable). However, such solutions require mass adoption and raise big questions about industry self-governance within a utopian platform-agnostic internet. This won’t happen overnight.

What do we do in the meantime?

Marketers will need to embrace this industry shift, and pivot how they target, optimize, attribute, or measure success. The result will be a more positive consumer experience that reflects well on brands.

1. Act now to ramp up your data collection

The immediate first step is to take stock of your company’s cookie reliance and start supplementing with first-party (owned) and zero-party (explicitly given) audience data. One approach here is to ensure full and frequent company-wide CRM use to bridge sales and marketing data. You can also optimize your customer journey to creatively incentivize zero-party data. Encourage email sign-ups, reviews, loyalty programs, app/content downloads, prize giveaways, or quizzes.

Then go to the source with user interviews, keyword research, and evaluation of search demand. This first-hand audience data also is the foundation of a solid content strategy that tells you what questions need answering, what drives customers to engage with your brand or competitors. The sooner you work to diversify your dataset, the more competitive you’ll be in a cookieless future.

2. Diversify your targeting tactics

Several targeting tactics are less reliant on third party cookie data, including keyword-driven contextual targeting or direct-to-publisher content. Create scale through old-school network buys, leveraging industry entities that own and operate several publishers. Your programmatic platform also houses some third-party identity-based targeting segments. Ensure use of your first- and zero-party data match CRM emails in Facebook for example. And remember to target your content — incentivize traffic from “undeciders” by optimizing for the consideration phase to make your site a go-to resource for information in your category.

3. Don’t measure success in a silo

As agnostic as we think our analytics data is, it can also be self-serving and should not be your sole source of truth. Let media platform data guide testing and performance optimizations, while analytics guides cross-channel views. And never look at paid media performance without understanding its impact on owned channels. Get creative with cross-channel attribution, too. Sometimes the ‘eyeball’ method works in place of fancy tools — did organic traffic spike with TV in market, yes or no? Play with different attribution models or lookback windows to understand the full story.

Finally, now is the perfect time to test and test some more (because no data insight is forever), and set new benchmarks (because no data insight can compare to 2020, anyway). No entity has all the answers, but we do know a cookieless future forces us to be better marketers.