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The end of cookies: what does it mean and what comes next

Within 2 years, the end of cookies will happen. It’s time for marketers to figure out how to deepen customer relationships and drive growth.
end of cookies

The end of cookies is near. This might sound like some sort of apocalyptic announcement, but not quite that. Although, for some, this might have some quite bitter consequences if not approached properly while it’s time.

For years marketers and advertisers have relied on cookies to collect user data, to track website visitors, to target ads to specific audiences, and improve the user experience. Cookies are, in fact, a great tool, and their use has become widespread.

On paper, this might seem great, but due to the latest data privacy regulations, the end of cookies became a reality, and it’s happening soon. So it’s time to think about what will change and what solutions are on the horizon.

Marketers and advertisers now have two years to adjust to the internet without cookies and figure out how they will deepen their customer relationships and drive growth. But, first things first.

What exactly is a cookie?

For those who might have heard of cookies but don’t quite understand what these are, here’s the most common definition: cookies are small pieces of code (basically a small text file) that is stored in users’ browsers, that collect users’ data and preferences.

This means that these cookies can track – for instance – users’ shopping carts, to keep users logged in while switching through pages, or even, to keep a track of the users’ page history and interests.

Types of cookies

There are also two different types of cookies, those being first and third-party cookies. In short, first-party cookies are directly stored by the website (or domain) that the user is visiting, and these help website owners/developers to collect analytics data (such as language settings and data to improve user experience).

In its turn, third-party cookies go a bit further and are designed to collect marketing-relevant data (namely: age, location, gender, or user behavior). These differ from the previous ones, by the fact that they’re placed on a user’s computer, but are generated by a different website. So what happens is that when visiting a website, these third-party cookies track and gather information on the user and send it to a third party, which might be an advertiser.

In practice, through these cookies, advertisers and marketers collect data that allow them to get an overall vision of the user’s online behavior (such as: frequently visited websites, types of purchases, time spent on specific pages, or interests).

These third-party cookies get access to detailed data on the user, useful for marketers and advertisers, given that cookies help them to build solid visitors’ profiles and, hence, create a targeted list and redirect their ads.

So the main difference between first and third-party cookies is that, while the first ones are accepted automatically, when concerning third-party cookies, users must be
informed of their existence and must accept them (if they want to). This happens, due to the amount and relevance of the collected data.

Tracked behavior on a siteFirst-party cookieThird-party cookie
Accepting/ disallowing cookie usageCreated by site operatorCreated by a ‘third-party’, e.g. an ad server
Settings / preferencesImproves user experienceTracks user behavior across different websites
Language settingsSaves settings / preferencesEnables the ad server to create unique user profiles
Visited web pagesSaves preferred languageEnables many methods of online marketing, e.g. tracking, (re)targeting
Period of useOptimizes website for each individual visitorControversial in terms of data usage/abuse
Personal data: age, gender, locationEnables web applications like online shops‘Tracking cookie’, ‘targeting cookie’
Basically harmless in terms of data usage
Source: Business 2 Community

Why are we saying goodbye to third-party cookies?

Many will question ‘why is this happening?’ Fair question. Others, on the other hand, will just reply that this was kind of expected. The fact is that digital marketing and advertising have been working with massive audience segmentation and attribution achieved, largely, through enabling cookies (mainly third-party cookies). Remember, we’re talking about data collection and this has been a hot topic for quite some time and a huge digital trend.

For many consumers and privacy advocates, this has been a big issue. Many believed that these third-party cookies were collecting data and tracking users without transparency or declared consent. Consequently, this led to a few changes in the past few years.

Now, due to the recent data protection regulations (such as General Data Protection Regulation – GDPR) websites no longer leave just a notification stating that users accept the existing cookies. Now, visitors have to acknowledge the existence of third-party cookies and press an accept button.

Also, users have taken matters into their own hands and a growing number of people have been using ad blockers to reduce the targeted campaigns generated by cookies. Ultimately this represents a threat to the purpose and success of online marketing and advertising.

Google is already waving its goodbyes

Last January, Google announced its plans to end support for third-party cookies. According to the company, Google Chrome intends to phase out the third-party cookies within two years.

This follows the similar moves also announced by Apple and Mozilla. Apple implemented on its browser (Safari) an anti-tracking tool, called Intelligent Tracking Prevention. On its turns, Mozilla’s Firefox also installed a tool that blocks third-party tracking cookies by default. In the same way, also Microsoft set the recent Edge browser with tracking prevention enabled by default.

These measures came out as a response to cookie restrictions and new privacy regulations, as a way to respect consumers’ privacy.

In short, browser developers are putting an end to cookies, leading the industry to find new solutions, while providing users greater transparency and consent approval.

What does the end of cookies mean for marketers

At this point, it’s no secret that both marketers and advertisers deeply rely on data for online marketing and advertising, as well as pop-up ads or pinpointed online audience targeting strategies. And this also goes for data collected through third-party cookies, as they are a massive tool for user tracking.

Although the end of cookies envisages some big changes underway, this also means that new data-driven solutions might also follow. Some of the possibilities might be:

The Google Privacy Sandbox

This is a tool developed by Google that allows marketers to continue to publish and circulate ads to the right audiences without collecting too much user data. The idea is that this sandbox targets relevant ads to users, but the data shared tends to be minimized by anonymously aggregating user information, and keeping data on the user’s device while being privacy compliant.

Bet on emotion-driven engagement

This is one of the ways out of the cookies’ prison. Consumers prefer contextually sensitive and coherent brand experiences. This means that brands need to master first-party customer data.

As mentioned before, first-party cookies are directly stored by the website and intend to gather the user’s analytics data (such as language settings and data to improve user experience). This is kind of related to the idea of the Google Sandbox. The general idea that advertisers and marketers need to focus the information that users leave imprinted while navigating on their website.

It’s all about their interactions. Plus, some studies show that a huge percentage of consumers won’t mind providing some behavioral data given that they might benefit from that (to have access to easier or cheaper shopping experiences, for instance).

Use contextual advertising

The end of cookies is not synonymous with the end of data, or the end of the marketing/ advertising. It is far away from that. This configures an opportunity to reinvent some of the existing strategies, like contextual advertising. This strategy allows marketers and advertisers to spread Pay Per Click (PPC) ads on websites with similar keywords.

Make a safer brand

That is to say: brands need to make sure they’re freed (as much as possible) from future governance or monopoly-related policies. They need to have a strategy that allows them to reach targeted audiences without depending as much on technological solutions.

Reinforce the user consent

As stated by Deloitte Digital, having consumer trust is the most powerful asset for any business. So, brands need to invest in consent management solutions. This will allow brands to reach valued first- party data while respecting the customers’ privacy and preferences.

Pedro Barbosa, CEO from Wise Pirates mentioned in the beginning of 2021 that first-party data is more important than ever, and lead generation on B2C to impact consumers via first-party data on an automated and hyper-personalized way is part of the solution.

Invest in advanced customer data platforms

It’s also important for companies to understand and connect customer data across touchpoints, to get a wide view of the customers’ profiles. The solution is to invest in platforms that can connect the dots.

The future of cookies – Hello, to a new world!

It’s a farewell to third-party cookies, but hello to a new world of possibilities. From here, brands just need to get used to new tools that, along with the first-party cookies (which will stay among us), will be able to reinvent the navigation experience, while earning customer trust and creating a long-term relationship.

Plus, it’s also important for companies to invest in their staff (the more expert, the better). A little bit of human talent never killed anybody.

This is, of course, a process and it takes time to achieve effectiveness. But one thing is for sure: companies and brands who became able to work without relying fully on third-party cookies will also be able to get a more direct and fulfilled understanding of their customers and how to relate and connect with them and, even, to raise the game and users’ experience and build a long-term (and trustworthy) relation.

Júlia de Sousa

Graduated in Journalism, she went to the other side and have been working as a communication manager and content producer for the past years. She’s all about communication, marketing, social media, events and tech trends. Books, photography and music are some of the things she’ll happily talk you about.

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