A future without cookies is hard to imagine. For better or worse, users are used to seeing cookie consent notifications on the pages of their favorite brands — and organizations of all sizes rely on them to gain deep insights into audiences.
But cookies will soon be a thing of the past. The cookieless future is upon us. Users of browsers other than Google Chrome have already seen a glimpse of it.
The real shift will come in the second half of 2024, when Google Chrome deprecates all third-party cookies, ending the era of online tracking as we know it. But with advertisers in most industries still reliant on third-party cookies, many will have questions about the cookieless future. How can you successfully navigate a post-cookie world?
Here are some answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about cookie deprecation.
Cookieless Future: What’s Changing and When
While the prospects of a cookieless future have generated uncertainty for many, the move came to address user privacy concerns and tackle ad fraud. Digital security has become a pressing issue in the past few years. Most users aren’t always fully aware of who has their information and how it’s being used.
Apple Safari was the first browser to block cookies by default. The browser later introduced Intelligence Tracking Prevention (ITP) 1.0, a feature to “limit tracking while still enabling websites to function normally.” Later, Mozilla Firefox also enabled its version Enhanced Tracking Protection (ETP) by default, blocking 3.4 trillion tracking cookies initially.
In the cookieless future, customers will have more control over their data. Google’s Privacy Sandbox is an important step toward making this vision possible. The Privacy Sandbox will allow for more privacy-preserving experiences. It will also reduce cross-app and cross-site tracking while keeping digital services free for users.
The Privacy Sandbox and third-party browser cookies will work in tandem for now. But in the first quarter of 2024, Google will deprecate cookies for 1% of Chrome users.
It’s just the beginning, though. The deprecation will pick up speed, with 100% of Chrome users enjoying a cookieless experience by Q3 2024.
10 Key Insights on the Cookieless Future
1. How Could Alternative Addressable Platforms Like LiveRamp and The Trade Desk Impact The Shift To Cookieless?
Platforms like The Trade Desk and LiveRamp are impacting the shift to cookieless because they’re genuinely trying to participate and vet an acceptable addressable alternative — for example, The Trade Desk’s Unified ID 2.0 cookie alternative.
Part of the reason the cookie deprecation timeline has been extended and we didn’t have an immediate “sky-is-falling” situation is because of these alternative addressable platforms. That’s why competition in the paid space is really important. Buyers can support that competition by spending across multiple platforms.
2. How Can Marketers and Advertisers Gather All Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) Without Cookies?
Some KPIs are vanity metrics — they’re simply tied to the ecosystem we’re in. They don’t relate to or speak to any business KPIs we track. So, you may not be able to replicate every KPI that exists today.
With the phased approach Google is taking to cookies in 2024, you’ll have the ability to test new metrics without losing our old ones. You can use this time to compare the fluctuations in your current future-proof KPIs. For example, you can gauge the relationship between the changing KPIs and returns on investment (ROI), customer acquisition costs (CAC) or conversion rates.
Some KPIs will be recreated with offline customer data or clean room aggregated insights. So, it won’t be clear-cut where you can attribute a KPI. For instance, you might have your cost per action (CPA) or spend tracking, but how do you accurately attribute it?
The industry will have to say goodbye to the vanity KPIs, like impressions or clicks, that some programmatic buys have relied on for a long time. This allows marketers to acknowledge that programmatic buying isn’t a medium — it’s a way of buying things. So, the way you buy things shouldn’t have a KPI. The media you buy should have KPIs. Similarly, your business should have KPIs.
Many marketers most likely won’t have a 1×1 on all KPI metrics. But if you’re tracking existing KPIs with new future-proof KPIs, you’ll be able to know how to read the new signals before you lose the old ones.
First-Party Data Will Become Increasingly Vital
Also, marketers are only losing access to third-party data. First-party data is still there. Businesses can still use the data they collect from surveys, newsletters, community polls, email sign-up forms, etc. Since this data is exclusive — unlike third-party data open for sale in the market — it could be used to create better KPIs.
The cookieless future also demands more market research. A/B testing, buyer persona research and surveys will become even more important.
This could prove a welcome change because the industry often sees duplicated attributions. Now, we can resolve this issue. Meta is going to take the credit for the conversion. Google will take the credit on a last-ad-seen or last-click model, tracked on that cookie level.
3. How Can Businesses Reset Performance Expectations Moving Forward? Which New Benchmarks Can Be Set?
Businesses must reset their performance expectations as we transition to a cookieless future. They can no longer piggyback off cookie-based user data. Benchmarks will also need tweaking to accommodate new approaches prioritizing first-party data, which focus on customer engagement and contact rather than raw analytics.
It’s time to push toward incrementality models — i.e., looking at brand, sales and cross-channel lifts in a certain setting where you can compare apples to apples versus apples to oranges.
Many in the industry have moved away from click-through rates and clicks as vanity metrics. You need to look at the entire attribution process, which involves engagement, time spent with content and how that drives people down the funnel.
One place marketers might still get stuck would be measuring total sales and conversions from Facebook or Google, for example. For that, you need to look at the incrementality models.
How do you look at overall sales? How do you look at the overall lift and impact from advertising as a whole versus trying to get ticky-tacky within the specific channels and buying methods?
Many advertisers see the cookieless future as a step back — a setback for their investments. But it’s important to keep perspective. Advertisers already adapted to changes brought by both private initiatives — i.e.., Apple third-party cookie blocking— and policy changes like the GDPR. Moreover, this is an opportunity to think holistically about how they can approach their customers — especially with the advanced technology we now have.
4. Does the Goal of 1×1 Addressable Media Contradict the Consumer’s Desire for Enhanced Privacy?
Marketers aren’t looking for addressability at 100% scale — something cookies falsely gave us with recognizing individuals.
It’s where the consumer values the relationship to allow for the addressability we seek, so that will be a smaller percentage of how marketers execute media. What the industry is looking to do is remove consumer concerns like: “How did they know I put those shoes in that cart?” and “Why is that dress I looked at yesterday following me around the internet today?”
Markets can solve that by increasing the relationship that advertising has. If the advertising experience is worthwhile, fulfilling and respectful, consumers don’t have an issue with sharing their privacy.
It’s when the experience is annoying and downright intrusive that it can cause problems. On the one hand, you’re invading the user’s privacy by collecting their data. On the other hand, you’re not giving them anything of value in return. These experiences highlight why 64% percent of users say they mistrust companies to protect their personal data and privacy online.
But they will likely be willing to share their data if you can provide something in return, like a personalized experience.
Moving from Imperfect Addressability to Valuable Personalization
One of the benefits you see from Instagram or Facebook content, and now even TikTok, is that it’s a really good advertising experience. Part of the reason TikTok has seen a 215% growth rate in its brand value over the past year is that it offers an engaging and not-so-salesy way for brands to approach their customers.
Businesses like Microsoft and Duolingo are top-tier in this game. They hop on every TikTok trend and create a sense of relatability with their target audience. If the industry can work on increasing the advertising experience so consumers value it, we can get more addressable.
So, in short: Your goal shouldn’t be to recreate 100% addressability. Focus on respecting consumer privacy preferences and building trust — and after they opt in, provide your audiences with a relevant ad experience that warrants the personally identifiable information (PII) they’ve given. That’s the shift the industry is looking for — not just to create an alternative that does exactly what a third-party cookie does.
5. Are Tracking Pixels Effective?
Right now, it’s a little bit of a dance. The information marketers are getting from the pixels is being affected. The pixels themselves are still being placed. They’re still driving data and giving marketers information and tracking certain things.
However, the data pixels are giving back is changing, especially with the impact of Intelligent Tracking Prevention (ITP). Previously, marketers could see which device the visitor is using or the email they’ve used. You could also track a visitor’s web activity and IP address during a session.
But things are changing now. Marketers are gaining learnings from them to understand how to apply them in future campaigns. Our hunch is that pixels will be very different in the future. Where can you place them? Which activity will they track? Which information will you get back? All of this will be different.
That has yet to be set in stone, but it’s something Goodway’s identity team has a pulse on.
The key is that first-party pixels aren’t going away. So, if you place the pixels on your owned and operated property, you can still gather that information.
It’s the information you used to be able to gather across domains that has and will be impacted by privacy measures. For instance, Apple’s ITP protocol blocks the ability to tell l where someone had come from or where someone went, which cookies used to enable. When cookies go away, this information will eventually be disabled.
The bottom line is that if it’s happening within your website and is your own, it still exists. On the contrary, the insights you had outside of your area will get more deprecated with the cookie phase-out.
6. What Factors Prevent Clients from Conducting Transactions Using New Ids in Browsers Like Safari And Firefox, Which Restrict Third-Party Cookies? Is It Primarily Due to the Low Adoption and Reach of These New Identification Methods?
There’s been low adoption because historically, cookies have been the fuel of many demand-side platforms (DSPs). When a DSP can recognize someone — and the most prominent way to recognize someone is a third-party cookie — that gets prioritized in the sense of impressions that go out for bid.
Cookies have been the most revenue-driving for the buy side and the sell side. If you know who you’re advertising to or think you know who you’re advertising to, you know what interests them. As a result, that drives better targeting and better bids. So, cookies have been more important to DSPs because the whole business has been based on them.
The buy side — the advertiser — puts more value on what they can know about the user. They bid higher for something more valuable to them. Seeing this demand, the sell side — the publishers — prioritize this over other forms of identification. That’s probably what’s slowing down adoption with marketers, though DSPs have been making strides to offer alternatives to cookies. For instance, The Trade Desk’s aforementioned cookie alternative, Unified ID 2.0 (UID2), has proven a successful solution in the space.
Leveraging Non-Chrome Platforms for Experimentation and Differentiation
Regarding using other platforms outside of Chrome, the other truth is if you’re not intentionally buying Safari and Firefox, you’re probably not buying Safari and Firefox. It’s because they don’t have an identifier. Most platforms are just deprioritizing their impressions. Chrome is the uncrowned king of all browsers, and most DSPs are not targeting Firefox and Safari.
But there’s a huge opportunity. It’s already a smaller ecosystem and an addressable universe. It’s worth testing and learning.
That can be the A/B test for marketers: Safari and Firefox versus Chrome. Some advertisers are pursuing that — using Safari and Firefox and learning about the differences in user engagement and conversions. That can be part of a testing strategy in the future, too.
The key is the expectation of scale is not there. But it’s better than nothing, and you’re not advertising there right now unless you’re intentionally advertising there.
Plus, it can be a way to differentiate from competitors. If you’re one of the few that takes advantage of targeting Safari and Firefox users, you can be one of the few that stands out. You might gain market share if you can outperform your competitors who are not advertising there.
7. Will Google Analytics (GA4) Still Be Able to Track Some Information Like Demographics or Devices People Are Viewing From?
Yes and no. It depends on the browser and device you’re using. Plus, which information goes back to Google? That’s also a determinant. Again, Google does control the largest browser-based consumption on both mobile and desktop.
Having said that, you’ll notice a few new things. If you’re an active Chrome user, Google now asks you to log in with your Gmail account. It will help them know who you are.
Think of Chrome as an owned and operated property of Google. GA4 is fueled with signals in the owned and operated ecosystem that Google has from the browser if they really treat it like an owned and operated property. Bu, there will be blind spots because Safari and Firefox aren’t sending those signals.
Overall, that doesn’t change much from what’s happening today.
8. How Can Brands Prepare for This Identity Transition? What Does a Conversation Between a Marketer and a Business Look Like With Regard to the Cookieless Future?
It’s smart to be very proactive right now. We still have third-party data segments to put into campaigns and use as targeting. We still have cookies today. But this is changing. You don’t want to be caught not prepared for this.
So, every client, prospect and marketer should know what’s coming down the pipe. They should know what that will look like if you take them on as a new client. That relationship will change, and you want to grow with them and pull them up.
It’s time to rebuild ad targeting and measurement strategies from the ground up. A renewed focus on contextual targeting and audience segmentation is paramount. Brands must be open to new tactics.
Framing Agency-Client Expectations in a New Landscape
These conversations can look something like this. As a marketer at an advertising agency, let’s say you’re given an RFP. You return it and say what your company is doing in the cookieless space, your identity alternatives, and how you’re addressing it.
It’s very possible that your prospective client has no idea about the emergence of a cookieless future. That’s when you have to give the prospective client a high-level overview of what’s happening in the industry. Then, go on to explain how you can address that.
For example, you can say something along the lines of: “Five years down the line, here’s where I think you need to be based on your business, goals, audience and where you’re running media.”
Being proactive will benefit both now and in the long run, as brands adjust to the changing digital landscape. Now that you have tangible things you can test and use, it’s also about presenting those opportunities plainly to brands and advertisers.
It doesn’t have to be a fully-baked client experience. There are ways to test one-off capabilities with new providers or advertising agencies. That’s where many marketers have started to transition.
They’re attempting to bring that solution into the pre-relationship conversation. It’s not worth waiting for until they’ve solidified their relationship. So, they are starting these conversations early. Now that they have more tangible things to test and utilize, it’s getting easier than a few years ago, when the cookieless future was still relatively speculative and hypothetical.
9. How Do Clean Rooms Work?
Here’s one way to think about it: data clean rooms are basically a neutral zone.
Think of it as a play-for-all playground, or an even playing field for different entities to share and exchange data without conflict. The big guns like Amazon and Google share their aggregated data in the clean room.
Advertisers then share first-party data in the same space and see how it compares to the aggregated data. For instance, if advertisers see an inconsistency in how their data matches that from Facebook or Google, they can fix the issue in their advertising strategy.
For example, they may be over-serving certain demographic groups with their campaigns. Since data clean rooms have strict security and user privacy controls, advertisers cannot see or access customer-level data. As an advertiser, you have first-party data that you can contribute to the neutral zone, but you’re never allowed to take data out of the clean room you don’t own.
Let’s say a hotel chain and an airline collaborate to create a clean room because they serve the same customers differently. These companies believe they can get more accurate insights about their audience if they understand how they overlap. So, they share anonymized data in the clean room.
They can then meld it together and play around with it. The aggregate learnings they get from the data can help them create better marketing campaigns. For example, they can’t see that a customer named X went to Booking.com and then to the hotel’s website.
But they can see the subset of customers who followed a pattern like this, which can prove incredibly useful in understanding their target market.
So the key is it’s 1×1 information in, but never 1×1 information out. So, each party maintains its data privacy and consent mechanisms with the user, but insights can be derived, and aggregated actions can happen from it.
It’s a bit magical for non-technical folks. But clean rooms are usually SQL-based. It’s usually about playing with data at high aggregate levels instead of line-by-line levels.
10. Google Is Promoting Interest-Based Targeting As an Alternative to Cookie Targeting. How Does It Work, and Is It Effective?
Now that it’s planning to eliminate cookies, Google is also proposing an alternative: interest-based targeting. Google Topics is the company’s recently proposed interest-based targeting tool.
Here’s the idea — as people use it to surf the web, Google learns about their interests. It then shares these top interests or “topics’” with advertisers, who can use them to target relevant ads.
Google does this by creating nearly 350 topics in which it categorizes visitors based on the websites they visit. The topics may include hair care, makeup, cars, apparel, tech, etc. They do not include sensitive subjects like sexual orientation or race.
Let’s say User A visits a website that has the Topics API. Google Chrome will select three topics from the list that best match User A’s interests based on the past three weeks of surfing. It will then share these three topics with the website User A is currently visiting.
Now the website can use these topics to see which ads to present to User A. The ads will be more relevant and personalized because these interests are based on their surfing history.
According to Google, Topics will be more transparent and private. However, it’s still unclear whether it will satisfy everyone in the wake of the so-called cookie ban.
The Bottom Line
With the cookieless future right around the corner, marketers and businesses will have to learn to rethink how they approach online advertising and analytics. The post-cookie world will combine contextual and engagement-based targeting along with other technologies like deterministic matching.
As data privacy regulations evolve, marketers must shift to new digital marketing strategies that are compliant and sustainable in the long run.
Eager for more?
- Check out Goodway’s modern marketing tool kit to find marketing solutions for the post-cookie era.
- Learn how to measure incremental lift — which will be all the more important when cookies go away.
- Dive into everything you need to know about first-party data.
Alex Bloore is the VP of product and data at Goodway Group. He has 13+ years of experience in software and product leadership in many industries from medical software to PropTech to adtech and marketing. As a subject matter expert for data clean rooms and identity solutions, Alex has presented at various events including Programmatic I/O and been featured in publications such as AdExchanger. An executive leader of award-winning cross-functional product and data teams, he’s driven strategic technical innovation across Goodway Group’s diverse client base. Alex currently lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife and three sons.
Jason Lett is a solutions architect at Goodway Group, where he is dedicated to the advancement of digital marketing through the development and adoption of operational standards, thought leadership and innovation. His penchant for process and execution details — as well as his vast digital experience — amplifies his ability to help a wide variety of clients and brands maximize the impact of cross-platform marketing and advertising solutions. He currently lives in Athens, Georgia, with his husband.