Illustration of cookie for article about cookie apocalypse

As consumers increasingly demand personalised experiences, the sunsetting of third-party cookies has shaken the digital marketing world.

But before you panic – this isn’t the end of the marketing as we know it. In fact, it’s a chance in disguise.

The Technology For Marketing conference revealed the salience of the cookie apocalypse and marketers’ concern about it. However, we believe that it actually presents a hidden opportunity to engage your customers more significantly than ever before.

The rise of privacy concerns and the phasing out of third-party cookies

Implicit reciprocity has always been at the core of Internet dynamics. Users get access to information in exchange for their personal data. Some researchers compare this to an online gift economy, a topic heavily scrutinised by academics and regulators alike.

People have always largely been aware of this exchange. But it wasn’t until the 2018 Cambridge Analytica scandal that they awoke to the reality that their data could be used maliciously. As the Cambridge Analytica consulting firm leveraged people’s Facebook data to interfere in the 2016 US presidential election, discourse on online privacy engulfed all mainstream and alternative media outlets. So, the use of third-party data and, implicitly, cookies, naturally came into question, with Forbes even going as far as to deem website cookies a form of surveillance in a 2021 article.

With tensions brewing, users have rightfully become increasingly concerned about the processing of their data. After all, we’ve all felt that eerie sensation of seeing the same ad for a new MarTech software everywhere we go on the internet as if our own devices are always a step ahead of us in knowing exactly what we want.

And this isn’t just a personal anecdote. According to statistics, a whopping 61% of users don’t understand how their data is processed, and 40% of them don’t believe they get enough value in return. This not only reflects concern about online privacy but also a demand for higher-quality content and experiences.

How did we get here?

The growing emphasis on user privacy, driven by both user concerns and regulations like the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) or the California Privacy Rights Act (CPRA), has prompted major tech giants, most notably Google, to phase out third-party cookies. In fact, even in the EU, where the GDPR rules over all data protection matters, some countries still take it a step further. For example, some notably strict countries are France and Italy, which have taken issue with Google Analytics in the past.

Thus, Google announced the phasing out of cookies in January 2020. While they initially set 2022 as the deadline, they’ve delayed it in a 2021 statement, presumably to better prepare for the transitions and give other websites time to adapt. Now it’s reported that in Q1 of 2024, Chrome will disable third-party cookies for 1% of its users, followed by a complete takedown in the second half of the year.

Even though other tech giants like Apple have already made a move against the use of third-party data, Google’s decision is particularly significant because it holds a monopoly over web browsing, with Chrome making up more than 60% of the web browser market.

Even more, Google isn’t replacing cookies with other individual user tracking methods either, as they don’t believe this tactic will stand up to users’ privacy standards going forward. They have, however, hinted at the need to consider the use of first-party data. This change won’t affect tech conglomerates already sitting on troves of this valuable information, but it can be detrimental to smaller organisations with scattered or siloed first-party data. HubSpot has even gone as far as criticising Google for using privacy as a means to gain further control over the advertising market.

But don’t despair just yet! Google is only retracting the use of third-party cookies, but there’s an even more potent form of data on the horizon. Keep reading to find out what that is.

A hidden opportunity for innovators

While the frenzy around the death of cookies might have some industry professionals in a panic, we believe that this will give agile and adaptable marketers a chance to shine through. This is your opportunity to better connect with your customer base, review and refine your use of data, and adapt your strategies into a more supple system.

And while the future is uncertain, one thing stands: companies need to adopt new methods of engaging online audiences while respecting their privacy. The key differentiator between organisations that will merely survive and those that will thrive is the ability to question their over-reliance on specific frameworks or technology. This is what ultimately sets innovators apart from the rest.

And if you’re one of those innovators looking for new solutions, worry not! We’ve done the fieldwork and are here to guide you. Here are the two best strategies to face the impending doom, based on expert advice and key insights from the recent Technology For Marketing conference.

The two best strategies to thrive

Before diving into the strategies, let’s get this out of the way first: preparation is key. The sunsetting of cookies is a fact that can no longer be ignored. To best face it, we marketers need to:

  • Stay up to date with the latest news and developments. The digital advertising landscape is constantly evolving, and it’s important to stay informed about the latest trends, regulations, and technologies. By keeping a pulse on the industry, you can make informed decisions and adapt your strategies accordingly.
  • Audit the extent to which we rely on third-party data. Take a close look at your current data sources and determine the extent to which you rely on third-party data. This will help you identify any potential vulnerabilities and gaps in your data strategy.
  • Re-evaluate our strategy if solely reliant on third-party data and consider adopting new AdTech solutions. If your current strategy heavily relies on third-party data, it’s time to re-evaluate and explore alternative solutions. Look for AdTech solutions that emphasise first-party data and offer more control over your campaigns.
  • Revisit basic targeting strategies that make us less vulnerable to seismic shifts in the landscape. While third-party cookies have been a popular tool for targeting online audiences, it’s important to revisit basic targeting strategies that can make your campaigns less vulnerable to catastrophic shifts. Focus on building direct relationships with your audience and utilising first-party data to inform your targeting efforts.

Now, let’s delve into the two best strategies to thrive in this evolving landscape:

1. Contextual advertising: the comeback of the keyword

Remember keyword-based targeting? It’s an old tactic that might be worth revisiting.

Coming back to my analogy of the same ads that follow me everywhere I go: I’m a content marketer during my work hours and also a passionate reader in my free time. You can imagine the frustration I feel when I see yet another ad for SemRush pop up as I try to read a book review. But if the same pop-up instead told me about an Audible offer… well, consider me hooked!

This is essentially what contextual targeting means: displaying ads based on the context of the content being viewed. By analysing the keywords, topics, and themes of a webpage or platform, you can serve relevant ads that align with the user’s interests. This approach allows for a more organic integration of ads into the user experience, making it less intrusive and more likely to resonate with the audience.

You can take this a step further by offering content as ads. For example, you could place video ads for your company’s mobile payment service before clips in the personal finance niche on YouTube. This is a win-win because it provides information and entertainment, all while being far less invasive.

To implement contextual targeting, you can leverage technology platforms that offer keyword-based targeting capabilities, like GumGum, Eskimi or StackAdapt. These can analyse the content of webpages and match them with appropriate material from your inventory. So, by focusing on the context of the content, you can deliver relevant ads that enhance the user experience without relying on third-party cookies.

2. People-based advertising: harnessing the power of first-party data

This strategy uses first-party data instead of third-party data, but what’s the difference?

  • First-party data is data collected directly from your audience. When used correctly and ethically, it provides the most robust profile of your users without the need to circumvent regulations. It’s like having a gold mine of insights.
  • Third-party data is collected, aggregated, and owned by third-party entities. These are typically data brokers, data providers, or other third-party organisations that gather information from various sources and then sell or license it to businesses and organisations for various purposes. So, as an individual or company, you wouldn’t collect third-party data yourself. Instead, you’d have to buy it through marketplaces that aggregate it, usually provided by MarTech tools like the Adobe Audience Marketplace, Salesforce Lightning Data or Oracle Data Marketplace.

If you think you don’t have enough first-party data to conduct any meaningful marketing efforts, think again! There might be untapped or siloed sources already lurking within your organisation:

  • Call centre data: Collect valuable insights into what customers want and how they talk about it.
  • Survey data: Gain direct feedback from your audience.
  • Purchase history: Understand your customers’ preferences.
  • Customer feedback: Learn from the people who matter the most.
  • PoS data (online and offline): Real-world interactions that can inform your strategy.

First-party data strategies rely on segmenting how users interact with your brand across various touchpoints. This data is essential for predicting future user behaviour, nurturing existing customers, increasing Average Order Value (AOV), and boosting Lifetime Value (LTV).

By leveraging your first-party data, you can create more personalised and targeted campaigns that resonate with your audience. This approach allows you to build direct relationships with your customers, leading to increased trust and loyalty. Additionally, first-party data is not subject to the same privacy regulations and restrictions as third-party data, making it a more reliable and compliant source of information.

If you’re still sceptical about it, remember that David Temkin, the Director of Product Management, Ads Privacy and Trust at Google, encouraged us to look at first-party data in his 2021 blog.

In preparation for the imminent Cookie Doomsday, we are also working on an in-depth guide on first-party data strategies, so keep an eye out on our blog for that.

Conclusion: Thriving in a cookie-less world

So, how do you survive the cookie apocalypse? It’s all about staying agile and adapting to the changes. And the best time to take action is now. This way, you won’t just survive; you’ll thrive.

At Dusted, we always have one eye on the future of marketing, by tracking emerging trends and how they can be pragmatically implemented in a joined-up strategy. We work with some of the most ambitious and game-changing businesses in the world and deliver solutions that walk the fine line between human connection and technical innovation.

As a specialist brand activation and digital marketing consultancy, we offer a plethora of resources to help you hone your strategies wherever you are on the adoption curve, helping diverse teams implement change that delivers actual results.

If you want to dive deeper into marketing and brand-related topics, make sure to check out these articles:

And if you require expert help and guidance tailored to your business’s needs, don’t hesitate to reach out. Get in touch now to book a call!