The Cookieless Future: Implications of Third-Party Cookie Phase-Outs for Digital Marketers
It’s been known for a while that Google is phasing out third-party cookies in Chrome this year.
So, what changes are ahead for how digital marketers track users and target advertising online in 2024?
Major browsers like Chrome, Firefox, and Safari have already started restricting third-party cookies over growing privacy concerns around how user data is collected and shared without consent.
While first-party cookies used by sites to store login credentials and site preferences will remain largely unchanged, the fade-out of third-party cookies disrupts many common marketing activities. As the digital landscape shifts towards greater privacy, marketers must rethink their data strategies and explore emerging solutions to reach customers.
Let’s start with a primer…
What Are Cookies and How Are They Used in Digital Marketing?
Cookies are small data files stored on a user’s browser that remember information about their website visits and activity. They serve various purposes, from keeping users logged into sites to providing personalized experiences.
First-party cookies are created directly by the sites a user visits. They can only be accessed by the site that created them. For example, e-commerce sites use first-party cookies to store items in your shopping cart across pages.
Third-party cookies are added to sites by external parties, like advertisers and analytics tools. They allow third parties to collect data about your browsing behavior across multiple sites to target ads and marketing messages. Many popular marketing tools like Google Analytics rely heavily on third-party cookie data.
Why Are Third-Party Cookies Going Away?
Third-party cookies have faced growing backlash over user privacy concerns in recent years. By tracking individuals across sites, they can compile detailed browsing histories and online profiles without user knowledge or consent.
Strict data regulations like GDPR and CCPA give users more control over how their information gets collected and used. In response, major browsers have begun restricting non-essential third-party cookies by default. Safari and Firefox now block them entirely.
Chrome’s planned phase-out in 2024 deals a big blow, given its massive ~70% market share. With users granted more privacy controls, marketers can no longer rely on ubiquitous third-party tracking and targeting.
Impacts to Digital Marketing Strategies
Losing third-party cookies affects many common digital marketing activities, including:
- Cross-device tracking – Identifying and connecting user behavior across smartphones, desktops, tablets, and other devices.
- Retargeting – Serving targeted ads to users after they’ve left your website based on their site activity and intent signals.
- Personalization – Customizing content and product recommendations using browser behavior and user profiles.
- Attribution – Determining the influence of different touchpoints along the visitor journey and which are driving conversions.
Certain use cases will no longer be possible without third-party cookies or alternatives with similar functionality. Testing and optimizing campaigns will also grow more challenging if user-level insights are lacking.
Google and the “Privacy Sandbox”
Given how many tools rely on third-party cookie data, their deprecation threatens to impact Google’s digital advertising business severely. Google has proposed a “Privacy Sandbox” for replacing cookie functionality in Chrome without using personal identifiers.
Two main solutions include:
- FLoC (Federated Learning of Cohorts) – Groups users based on common behavioral interests into cohorts for ad targeting rather than individually tracking each user.
- Topics API – Allows sites to determine user interest topics derived from recent browsing activity for personalization.
These approaches keep data compartmentalized on user devices instead of sharing it externally. While details remain in flux, they aim to preserve cookie use cases within a privacy framework.
Embracing First-Party Data Strategies
Marketers should accelerate efforts to directly collect and leverage their own first-party data in a post-third-party cookie world, including:
- Website form fills and newsletter sign-ups collecting attributes like interests and role
- Customer login behaviors and site activity through technology like Google Tag Manager
- Loyalty programs, surveys, and other channels driving ongoing customer engagement
First-party data acts as the foundation for customer identity and personalized experiences in owned properties consumers trust. Marketers who own the primary customer relationship will hold the upper hand as third parties lose direct access to users.
Effects on Intent Data Providers
Many marketing technologies, like intent data platforms, rely at least partially on third-party cookies to power their tracking and targeting capabilities. Providers will need to shift to cookieless data sources.
Solutions like Bombora leverage first-party website signup intent data that will likely still fuel their models and services. However, they face challenges replacing any third-party cookie-dependent features. APIs may enable transfer of browser-based interest or cohort data to maintain functionality.
Specifically, Bombora collects visitor intent data directly from a co-op of over 5,000 leading B2B publishers. This first-party data sourcing from consenting business visitors sets Bombora apart from other potentially non-compliant third-party data that may violate user privacy laws.
Bombora also aggregates and anonymizes the data to the company/domain level, removing individual user identifiers. This still provides signals around levels of research and consideration topics that indicate sales readiness without needing individual tracking.
As laws and regulations continue to evolve, Bombora’s compliant and aggregated opt-in data collection methods position them strongly compared to other third-party data sources. Marketers can have confidence that Bombora intent data will remain available and effective for targeting qualified accounts even browsing becomes more private.
Preparing for the Cookieless Future
Google’s Privacy Sandbox developer portal outlines their vision and emerging capabilities to navigate the cookieless future. Marketers should monitor announcements from major browsers and advertising platforms as the situation continues evolving.
Testing new privacy-centric solutions once available will prove critical. Marketers who can adapt through valuable first-party data strategies and cookieless targeting will maintain an edge as competition for user attention and acquisition accelerates.
Steps You Can Take
Here are steps to consider in light of the changes around third-party cookies and privacy regulations:
- Review current tracking, analytics, and targeting approaches to understand reliance on third-party cookies. Identify capabilities most at risk.
- Closely monitor announcements and timelines from major browsers, regulators, and marketing platforms as changes roll out. Sign up for updates.
- Test emerging privacy-focused solutions from players like Google as they become available and provide feedback. Embed learnings into strategies.
- Build out first-party data collection through owned channels – website, mobile apps, surveys etc. Seek consent and be transparent.
- Form direct data partnerships based on trust and aligned privacy values to augment marketing capabilities.
- Pressure vendors and partners to address changes proactively through compliant data practices and new solutions.
- Educate internal stakeholders on forthcoming changes and rationale to align on approach.
- Adjust KPIs and plan tests to optimize performance as third-party targeting platforms evolve capabilities in the years ahead.
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