Did you roll your eyes a bit before reading clicking through to read this article? Perhaps you think that this was just another marketer sensationalizing things for clicks.
Or did you gasp at the hidden truth that something almost apocalyptic was going to come pounding down your digital down like a Mobilegeddon all over again?
Well there is some truth to that.
Last January, Google released an article stating as much, saying: “...we plan to phase out support for third-party cookies in Chrome. Our intention is to do this within two years.”
Yes, that’s right.
Efforts are in motion to kill the third-party web cookies and cookie-based advertising.
Cookies are a simple concept: just save a little chunk of information on a browser so that a website can follow a user as they move between web pages. That was the original idea, but since then have become the way marketers know who a visitor is, where they came from, and who should get paid when they convert. They’ve become a critical part of the marketing information chain.
Without cookies, remarketing, data enhancement, attribution modeling, and all the other magical push-button services we’ve come to rely on are breaking. Your web analytics are also going to take a hit since you can’t tell one user from another, and you can absolutely forget about cross-device tracking!
As someone working in marketing and tech, it’s time to take this shift seriously because it’s going to affect more than you might think.
The Death of Cookies Shouldn’t Come As A Surprise
The decision by Google to sunset support for third party cookies shouldn’t come as a shock. Cookies have been under attack for years now.
Concerns about personal privacy have been in the news and a key part of legislation. New laws such as GDPR and the California Consumer Protection Act (CCPA) have popped up in recent years as consumers became more aware of how much personal data is collected about them and used against their knowledge.
Rather than wait for regulations to kick in, Apple added Intelligent Tracking Prevention (ITP) to Safari to “curtail companies’ abilities to monitor people’s browsing behavior when they visit other companies’ sites.” Fencing off companies in this way has been a strategic focus for Apple, so they can maintain high trust with their customers and maintain their loyalty.
Initially, ITP was aimed at third-party cookies and identifying people between your site and an advertiser or data aggregator. However, in 2019, Apple released ITP 2.2 and 2.3 which automatically deletes client-side cookies just 24 hours after they’re installed on the browser. That’s on all Macs, iPads, and iPhones.
And before you think, “But wait, that’s just Safari,” let me lean in a bit here.
All major browsers are now found among those disinfecting user’s browser cookies faster than ever before. Just how fast are we talking here?
As mentioned above Safari now deletes client-side cookies within 24 hours. And first-party cookies are purged in only 7 days — a major cut back from the original 14 day cookie shelf life. And Google is now making alterations to the life of cookies shortening them as we near their self-imposed shut down date which is less than two years away.
Firefox has taken its stand in the anti-tracking movement and implemented a feature called Enhanced Tracking Protection (ETP) which automatically blocks third-party cookies. Even up-and-coming browsers, Microsoft Edge and Brace are moving towards this.
And as mentioned earlier, Google has joined the march with Chrome’s Privacy Sandbox designed to make cookies entirely obsolete.
While Google states the goal in doing this is to make the web more private, the real intention for this move is to recognize that the global landscape of privacy is rapidly changing and cookies are a failed technology that just don’t work with where we’re at in both our world culture and tech timeline.
The other side of this issue though, is Google and other browsers are unsure as to what will replace cookies for tracking.
There’s a lot going into this and since we’re all at the mercy of Queen Google and King Apple. These changes will fundamentally shift how marketers and advertisers alike orchestrate key pieces of their funnel.
Whether you’ve been apathetic to the topic or you’re just hearing about it now, it’s time we all face facts: The world’s most used browser that accounts for 60-70% of all global traffic is officially sunsetting support for cookies, and the #2 browser is already speeding down that path.
What Does This Mean For You And Your Marketing?
Issues of user-data privacy are nothing new to those in the marketing space. Laws like GDPR and the newest CCPA are now in effect and taking aim at larger ad tech companies (Facebook, Google, etc.), how they manage user data and maintain user privacy.
These laws no doubt played a part in the changes web browsers have made to browser cookies with the aim for a more “private web.” The drawback here is that large ad tech companies aren’t the only ones to be affected. Much of modern marketing has relied heavily on the use of third-party cookies.
But, now, that’s all about to change with even first-party cookies taking a hit.
Cookies have never been 100% reliable, so the many attribution and analytics vendors have other techniques to identify traffic, such as looking at where the traffic originated from (the referrer), and adding some extra “decoration” to the URL to pass along useful information, such as Google’s omnipresent “gclid.”
Well, ITP’s hitting those methods as well. ITP 2.3 further deters link decorating, by downgrading the document.referrer and clipping it to so that it returns only to the domain and not the full referrer path. To explain the technical aspect of this, Webkit gives this example:
“ITP 2.3 counteracts this by downgrading document.referrer to the referrer’s eTLD+1 if the referrer has link decoration and the user was navigated from a classified domain. Say the user is navigated from social.example to website.example and the referrer is https://sub.social.example/some/path/?clickID=0123456789. When social.example’s script on website.example reads document.referrer to retrieve and store the click ID, ITP will make sure only https://social.example is returned.”
In short, third-party cookies have pretty much seen their last day and first-party cookies now have a new 7-day shelf life. And Apple’s closing down loopholes as fast as the adtech companies find them. No, browser fingerprinting isn’t going to save you, it’s also being undermined.
What does this 7-day limit mean in real terms? Here are just a few ways it affects you:
- It means a maximum of a 7-day lookback window on your remarketing program
- Unique user tracking in your analytics is only accurate for people who return in less than a week
- Your a/b test cohorts will clear after a week, so a user could be exposed to different content than they expect
- Personalization lasts for a week, too
- Convenient saved form fills, likewise, could be limited to only 7 days
- Depending on how your site handles things like logins and shopping carts, your users may have a really hard time coming back and picking up where they left off
This affects all businesses that rely heavily on third-party tools or even first-party cookies to do their heavy lifting in the marketing department.
Chances are, that probably means you.
But this isn’t all bad news.
Getting rid of cookies is aimed at curtailing the more undesirable third-party tracking that we’ve all come to know and that consumers have never really gotten on board with. Cookies were developed way back in 1994 and their purpose has changed and abused for far too long. They lack any ability to tell the difference between a “good” or “bad” use.
That means web analytics and your own campaign attribution aren’t the problems. Their collateral damage is an effort to provide better privacy to everyone on the Internet. Apple, Google, and all the rest understand that this is a necessary tool for everyone who runs a website.
So while browsers like Chrome and Safari are ridding the world of cookies one update at a time, they’re also working to create a better model for tracking that is more permission-based, and also more robust as well, so that you can keep providing essential marketing and communication functions without violating your visitors’ expectations for individual privacy.
As these new standards show up in your favorite browsers, you should see your own data improve. But that’s probably a couple years’ out.
In the meantime, your remarketing, attribution, and analytics are all untrustworthy, and whatever happens, it’s never going to work as well as it used to.
So what should you be doing?
Replace the Cookie with a Relationship
The great marketers will see this shift as an opportunity. This change to the web ecosystem means your focus can go to one place:
Owning your user’s first-party data.
Since the explosion of the cookie, we’ve gotten lazy about learning about our customers, or even nurturing their relationships. We’ve taken advantage of Google and Facebook using their massive data stores to optimize our campaigns and bring us great customers.
Sorry, that free lunch isn’t coming back. You’re going to have to go through the hard work of convincing a website visitor that it’s worthwhile for them to share some personal information, so you can start building that relationship.
If a person logs into your site, register for your emails, or otherwise consents to join your data family – you have access to their marketing information forever. While you may lose your cookie on them, as soon as you can re-identify that user, by having them click on one of your marketing system’s email links, or fill out a form with an already-known email address, you’re right back in business.
And this is on purpose. Apple and the rest have no desire to keep you from knowing your customers. They’re just trying to make sure that their users aren’t sharing data unintentionally.
So funnel your budget into the channels that are still going to work, and streamline your analytics by taking control of your own first-party tracking and attribution.
Time to break out your a/b testing toolkit and start optimizing your whole acquisition funnel, top to bottom, backwards and forwards. And make sure you’re getting your analytics in shape for the post-cookie world.
A game plan for success:
First and foremost, you need to capture your visitors’ email addresses – get leads early and often. Those lead forms and calls-to-action need to be spot-on, and well aligned with your ad messages.
Social acquisition, SMS, app downloads and push notifications and phone numbers are just as valuable. What you need is an open line of communication that you own. Once you have it, you have the opportunity to build your relationship and help drive them to see the value of your offerings and, ultimately, take action and convert.
Ad networks are certainly doing the same thing, so those platforms that already have first party data through their own logins and accounts (for example: Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Amazon) are going to happily accept your first party audience list so that they can help you market to your exact customers. Provided, of course, you’ve managed to obtain that prospect’s all-important email address and permission to use it.
Of course, to understand the success of your campaigns, you’ll need to take charge of tracking. That’s gotten harder too, so you need to handle more of the heavy lifting than you used to. Take advantage of your UTM tracking codes in all your marketing efforts. By keeping a robust and standardized categorization through your utm_campaign/source/medium URL strings, you can tell where every visitor came from and see which campaigns are driving traffic to your site. (That’s right, stop relying solely on AdWords auto-tagging – use both.)
Using a tool like UTM.io is a way to help enforce standardization and consistency to drive accurate analytics and segmentation. And you can get as fancy as you want with your own tracking structure without setting off red flags viewed as trying to “game the system.”
For things to run smoothly, you will need to have your data well integrated with your various tools sharing the right identifiers so once a user logs in or clicks a trackable link. You’ll want to be able to instantly bring together their data from all your tools and rebuild that rich profile on-the-fly, so you can provide a rich and personalized experience. And you’ll also need to be able to progressively ask questions and enhance the depth of your profile of each user, since you can’t rely on an omniscient ad network to handle all your targeting and segmentation.
Even though the tides are shifting as cookies finally fade from existence, the goal still remains the same — we need to find ways for better one-to-one customer experiences.
By focusing on methods that allow you to own user first-party data yourself, you have a chance to do that without relying on the failing browser cookie structure.
Cookies are dead.
Now the time to change our marketing efforts and grow in a world without them so that we’re not caught in the cookie extinction crosshairs.