End of the Cookie Monster

Stephen DeAngelis

February 12, 2021

Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster once stated, “Sometimes me think, what is friend? And then me say: a friend is someone to share last cookie with.” Websites are getting close to sharing their last cookie with consumers. Just over a year ago, Google announced it will stop the use of third-party cookies in Chrome before 2022. The announcement made some privacy advocates happy; however, as the staff at Cookiebots notes, “Let’s make it very clear: the end of third-party cookies is not the end of tracking. Google ending Chrome’s support of third-party cookies is also not the end of tracking in Chrome. Third-party cookies are far from the only technology used today for persistent and pervasive tracking of users across the Internet, and it won’t be the last either.”[1] The staff goes on to note, “Existing technologies that can track users just like third-party cookies include: Local Storage; IndexedDB; Web SQL; and any other technology that makes it possible to save data on a user’s device from browsers (as cookies do). Other browsers (like Safari) have been blocking third-party cookies for years, and we’ve seen repeatedly that trackers simply resort to workarounds, other methods and new technologies that make them able to track users just the same.”


What does the end of cookies mean for targeted marketing?


Michael Fuchs, Senior Vice President at Merkury Solutions, writes, “The death of the cookie may not rank in your top five stressors going into 2021, but if you don’t already have a strategy in place, it might be.”[2] He continues, “First off, let’s get on the same page about what ‘the death of the cookie’ means. In January 2020, Google announced that the Chrome browser will expire third-party cookies after 24 hours at some point in 2021. Basically, third-party cookies will become unusable, or ‘die,’ after one day.” His reaction to this announcement: “So what? Apple did this with the Safari browser in 2017 with Internet Tracking Prevention (ITP), and the world didn’t end then.” He explains, “At that time Apple’s Safari browser represented about 15% of all browser traffic, and marketers just shrugged it off. Today, Google’s Chrome represents about 60% of all browser traffic, and the smaller browsers are rapidly following Apple and Google’s lead. If you do the math, that’s the rest of them.”


Unlike the experts cited above, Carolyn Corda, Chief Marketing Officer at ADARA, believes the death of the cookie will strike a blow at targeted marketing. She explains, “The ability to send the right message at the right time is key to the success of many businesses and without personalizing ads, companies will lose ground to competitors that have put the groundwork in to ensure they no longer rely on a cookie-based model. Research has found that 42% of consumers are annoyed when content isn’t personalized — with or without cookies, it is now the baseline expectation for businesses.”[3] Raquel Rosenthal (@RRosenthal2018), CEO of Digilant, observes, “Google’s move to delete third-party cookies from the Chrome browser … will likely impact everything from attribution modeling to personalization initiatives and conversion analytics.”[4] She adds, “These changes will present challenges for digital advertisers, but there are steps that many in the space can take to ensure they’re more prepared than their competitors when the ground starts to shift underneath the industry.” She recommends five steps marketers can take to be well-positioned when Google’s cookieless tracking restrictions are finally in place. They are:


1. Embrace media mix modeling. Rosenthal explains, “Though it lacks the post-view granularity that comes with cookie-based targeting, media mix modeling is the next best option, capable of delivering a solid way for advertisers to optimize their digital media buying while factoring in offline media, seasonality and other variables.”


2. Build your own Customer Data Platform. Another way of stating this is building your own first-party database. Fuchs explains, “You have one thing they can never take away from you: your relationship with your consumers and the data that this creates. You can rebuild and restore many of the capabilities that will degrade when the Chrome change occurs by building your own private identity based on your first-party data signals (a cookie from your website domain which will not expire in 24 hours).” Rosenthal adds, “Beginning with their own data sets, companies can, during the next 12 to 24 months, build and centralize all of the consumer data they have within their organization, including legacy and third-party data, into a single go-to internal repository.” Even Google executives are touting the value of first-party data. Jonathan Meltzer (@meltzerj), Director of Ads Marketing, Measurement and Platforms at Google, writes, “As digital advertising is reshaped by a number of significant, privacy-driven changes, investment in first-party data is emerging as a key strategy that can help marketers and publishers adapt.”[5]


3. Be at the forefront of cookie-alternatives. “Given what’s at stake for digital advertising,” Rosenthal writes, “it’s more than likely that new tools to identify and track users (while providing additional privacy protections) will come to the marketplace either before or shortly after Google’s purge of third-party cookies.” One of those new tools, according to the Cookiebot staff, is trust tokens. The staff explains, “New technologies (like trust tokens) will ensure an even greater level of certainty around reidentification of users, and thereby only fix issues in tracking precision and ad fraud by bots that remain two major headaches for the adtech industry today.”


4. Strengthen your relationship with Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon. Rosenthal notes, “Brands are going to be even more reliant on the data provided by these dominant publishers — and one way to make sure to get the most of that data is to figure out ways to consolidate some digital spending to ensure that major platforms like Google peel back the curtain and share additional insights.”


5. Educate your entire organization. Rosenthal writes, “Most departments may be vaguely aware of the Google announcement regarding cookies, but not every part of an organization will understand the implications it could have on everything from ad spends to new business development initiatives. … Keeping everyone on the same page ensures the resources for cookieless analytics/data science are in place when the change does occur and why, for example, programmatic metrics will have to be adjusted to account for the loss of cookies.”


Concluding thoughts


Meltzer concludes, “People prefer ads that are relevant and helpful, but they also want more transparency into how their data is being used online and more control over their experiences with digital advertising. Regulations like the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), and Brazil’s Lei Geral de Proteção de Dados (LGPD) have provided people with new ways to manage how businesses use their data. At the same time, web browsers and mobile operating systems have begun restricting the use of third-party cookies and mobile identifiers, which have been used for years to deliver relevant ads and enable critical measurement use cases. This can put marketers and publishers in a tough spot.” Following Rosenthal’s five steps can help marketers and publishers continue effective targeted marketing in a cookieless future. Companies should specifically develop first-party databases created by acknowledging openly that their data will used for advertising purposes. Corda explains, “Ethical data is data obtained using transparent means; collected from consumers with the consent that it will be used for marketing purposes and with the understanding that they will receive value in exchange for sharing their data. This gives consumers confidence that their data is being held and used securely and ensures the relationship is transparent and morally sound.”


[1] Staff, “Google ending third-party cookies in Chrome,” Cookiebot Blog, 23 September 2020.
[2] Michael Fuchs, “First-Party Identity Is a Strategic Imperative in the Cookieless World,” AdWeek, 19 January 2021.
[3] Carolyn Corda, “The cookie is dead: Long live identity graphs,” Marketing Tech, 4 December 2020.
[4] Raquel Rosenthal, “A 5-step path to cookieless digital marketing,” Smart Brief, 8 May 2020.
[5] Jonathan Meltzer, “First-party data offers a solution for privacy and performance,” Think with Google, December 2020.