Facing Down the “Cookie Apocalypse”

Google shocked many late in June when it announced it would postpone phasing out third-party cookies until 2023. Leading up to this news, we all saw the headlines:

“Cookiepocolypse,” “Death of the Cookie,” and “Surviving in a Post-Cookie World.” It was pretty bleak, but now there is more time to prepare for the eventual “Cookie apocalypse.” What do you need to know and what should your organization be doing to be ready for the impending changes?

How the Cookies Crumble

It might be surprising to hear, but this has been in progress for years–and it’s not really a bad thing. Apple began eliminating third-party cookies in the Safari web browser in 2017, followed by Mozilla’s Firefox in 2019.

In response to increasing privacy concerns and an erosion of trust in online data collection, Google announced that they would be phasing out third-party cookies in Google Chrome early in 2022, and then revised that timeline to 2023. This is a big deal, as third-party cookies have been used by advertisers to track users across the web, collecting data about users based on their online activity and the websites they visit. Third-party cookies can be used to build audiences (e.g. retargeting users who have visited your website while they navigate elsewhere on the web) and help measure performance of digital ads.

Unlike The Trade Desk and LiveRamp, Google is not replacing third-party cookies with another user-level identifier. Its main concern is user privacy. Instead, Google is developing multiple ways to track entire audiences rather than one individual user. Advertisers will have multiple solutions to choose from and implement. Hence the many guides intended to help advertisers “Survive in a Post-Cookie World.”

Below we dive into the new tracking solutions popping up, and how this will impact health-related advertising in 2023 and beyond. We will also cover the importance of first-party data in the midst of this “cookiepocolypse” so that advertisers can prepare to thrive, not just survive, in a post-cookie world.

Evolving beyond third-party cookies

As we mentioned, Google is developing multiple solutions to replace third-party cookies in advertising. They are using the extended timeline to continue developing the following

  • FLoC: “Federated Learning of Cohorts,” which are audiences defined by users’ internet viewing habits. FLoC allows advertisers to target audiences based on their interests, while protecting individual privacy by clustering large groups of people into each cohort. FLoC works to resolve the loss of cookie-based interest targeting.
  • FLEDGE/TURTLEDOVE: Google’s API proposal to allow advertisers to remarket users that have engaged on advertisers’ sites, without relying on cookies to track users across the other websites they visit.
  • Google Conversion Measurement API: Uses techniques like aggregating information, adding noise, and limiting the amount of data that gets sent from a user’s device to report on conversions while maintaining user privacy.

Other leading tracking solutions that are emerging include:

  • Unified ID 2.0: An alternative identification framework spearheaded by The Trade Desk based on anonymized email addresses gathered when users log into a website or app.
  • LiveRamp ATS/Ramp ID: Another alternative identifier system, which allows advertisers and platforms to use first-party data to enable retargeting and build addressable audiences and connect with publishers with a LiveRamp ID, rather than cookies.
  • Facebook’s Conversions API: The Conversion API tool lets advertisers send events from their server directly to Facebook so they can track what people do across multiple devices after they click on a Facebook ad, without having to rely on cookies or browser-based pixels. The Conversion API will work in conjunction with the Facebook Pixel to capture data that would be lost due to the deprecation of cookies, as well as Apple’s recent iOS updates

Google has also rolled out additional data analysis tools that are designed for a future without third-party cookies:

  • Ads Data Hub: Acts as a ‘Privacy Sandbox’ which will allow for individual privacy protection but should allow advertisers to measure, optimize, target and retarget groups of customers. The tool allows advertisers to continue targeting, but will limit the preciseness of data. Marketers will be able to utilize Ads Data Hub in the future as a way of automating data between what is currently captured by ad servers for media campaigns, and first-party data gathered by advertisers
  • Google Analytics 4: Google also rolled out the release of GA4 with new data controls and management features to help adhere to data privacy regulations and adapt to new changes in the privacy landscape.
    • GA4 also might use 3 different ID’s to identify a user: User ID, Google Signals and Device ID/Client ID.
    • While Google Signals has been around since 2018, GA 4 will be incorporating this feature into more reports (in comparison to Universal Analytics).
    • Google Signals uses the Google account of those users who have enabled ad personalization.
    • This also reveals Google’s plan to build an Analytics product that respects the privacy of users who choose it, while using machine learning to infer how these users are likely behaving by observing the behavior of those users who opt-in to personalization.

What about first-party cookies?
First-party cookies are code sent to a web browser that are owned by the site being visited. These cookies are not in the timeline to be phased out by Google Chrome, so, for example, an online retailer will still be able to remember your store login, or what was in your cart when you last visited. Additional privacy shifts will make all first-party data (not just from first-party cookies, but also CRM and email lists) more valuable, as privacy protection measures will limit the amount of data that can be gathered from third parties. However, first-party data will not be the only tool accessible to advertisers as the industry is continuing to develop new solutions for a privacy-protected world

Okay, so what does this mean for me?
Programmatic targeting will be affected by the deprecation of third-party cookies in Google Chrome, and it is not yet clear the degree to which reach or CPMs will be affected.

“Walled gardens” such as Facebook Ads will not be immune to the death of the cookie either, as the Facebook pixel will capture less data from web events and smaller retargetable audiences. The recent delay from Google buys more time for alternatives to roll out, but also is a reminder that the future is uncertain when the industry is largely driven by the decisions of a few giants like Google or Apple (not to mention potential government regulation).

Health advertisers are in a stronger position to adapt than other verticals, because the field has already been operating under stricter privacy rules (e.g. HIPAA). Digital media plans for 2023 and beyond will have to rely on strategies without third-party cookies, forcing the industry leaders, such as Google, Facebook, publishers, and DSPs to continue developing more sustainable and privacy-conscious solutions.

There are a few key steps to take now to prepare for the eventual death of third-party cookies:

  1. Brands should prioritize collecting first-party data, such as with a CRM, to better understand their audiences and foster deeper relationships with existing consumers. First-party data can also be applied to build new audiences, such as lookalikes, and predict future trends that can be used to target campaigns.
  2. If they have not done so already, advertisers should implement site-wide tagging (i.e. Google Tag Manager) on their websites to allow for first-party data collection from their websites. Additionally, to be prepared to make the most out of Google Analytics tools, brands should set up GA4 for their websites so they can use Google’s updated modeling to fill in the data gaps from the loss of third-party cookies.
  3. Begin to adopt new cookie-less targeting solutions such as alternative unified identifiers and continue to utilize existing tactics that do not rely on cookies, including contextual placements, geofencing, and direct buys with publishers.

Learn more about what SPM can do for your brand by contacting tourlas@spmmarketing.com.