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What does the end of third-party cookies mean for digital marketers?

Rachael Sherman
Rachael Sherman

(If you're here for the cookie recipe, keep scrolling.)

Perhaps you’ve heard: Third-party cookies will be eliminated from Chrome by the end of 2021. When Google announced its cookie phaseout earlier this year, the marketing community responded in dramatic fashion, dubbing the initiative “Cookie Apocalypse.” 

Is it really so scary? Let’s take a closer look.

What are third-party cookies?

Third-party cookies are little trackers that get stored in your browser. They follow you around the internet, and can be accessed over time to serve you ads that are likely to be relevant to your interests. That’s why, if you look at some sneakers on a shoe website, you’ll see ads for those sneakers on other websites later. Third-party cookies can also capture demographic and geographic information, and advertisers use that data to target, retarget, and display ads. 

Why is Chrome killing them?

Because so much personal data gets packed into these little cookies, they’ve become a serious privacy concern. Safari and Firefox already block third-party cookies by default; this move lets Chrome keep up with its competitors. However, getting rid of third-party cookies doesn’t mean that Google will stop tracking you—advertisers just won’t have access to all your data anymore. 

Will this change digital marketing?

Yes. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing! The end of third-party cookies does spell the end of hyper-specific targeting and retargeting as we know it. Meaning, we won’t have access to data about what people search for and look at on websites and apps other than our own (aka first-party data). That should motivate marketers to innovate and develop new strategies that rely on other tools and data.

Strategy #1: Go deep with first-party data

The data you need may be sitting on your own servers right now. Digging into first-party data will provide insights about your customers, allowing for retargeting and building lookalike audiences on other platforms. First-party data can also help evaluate user experience and identify areas for improvement. For our business, which is a service firm, we use Google Analytics, Hotjar and Mailchimp to collect first-party data. Businesses with proprietary software are able to collect more robust first-party data by tracking user IDs and behaviors on their owned tech.

You're probably collecting first party data already, but now is the time to make it a higher priority, take stock of what you’re tracking (and where and how), and most importantly, how you’re bringing that data together to arrive at insights. 

Strategy #2: Get into the walled gardens

Walled-garden platforms like Google, Facebook, Pinterest, and Amazon use their vast amounts of first-party data to become ad platforms that target and retarget consumers with precision. While you’re at their mercy in terms of what you can learn, these data sources can be used strategically to compensate for the loss of third-party cookies. To find your target audience fit, you can experiment directly on the platforms or use what you know from your own first-party data.

Customer data platforms, like Segment, can pull your first-party data and performance data from walled garden platforms into one place, allowing you to organize and analyze data from multiple sources. Removing the data silos gives you the opportunity to look at everything as a whole, rather than in bits and pieces. Then, you can store this data long term in a cloud data warehouse like Snowflake.

Strategy #3: Put things in context 

Publishers are particularly concerned about the new cookieless world, and with good reason. A Google study of 500 major publishers found that cookieless traffic delivered an average of 52% less revenue than traffic with cookies. It’s not clear how Google will address this issue. For now, they’ve just said they’re exploring different technologies aimed at meeting privacy standards and publishers’ needs. 

In the meantime, marketers and publishers should consider contextual advertising, an old-school idea backed by cutting-edge technology. Contextual advertising is all around us: Dior runs ads in Vogue, and PetSmart advertises in Dog Fancy. The reverse wouldn’t make sense. These days, contextual advertising tools use natural language processing to scan content for keywords and topics that are relevant to your brand, and target ads accordingly.

Bottom line

Yes, there are unanswered questions about the upcoming changes to Chrome. We don’t know exactly how the cookie phaseout will work, or who will be impacted first. Every digital marketer will have to adapt, but by thinking creatively about your own data and other tools, you can turn the “apocalypse” into a big opportunity.

To cheer up the cookie doomsday spirits:

EXCLUSIVE: Secret sugar cookies

This recipe was created by a team member’s aunt, a locally renowned baker. It’s been a family secret for decades—until now. Enjoy!

Auntie Ree’s Amazing Sugar Cookies

1 1/2 c. sugar
1 c. butter
1 large egg
1 tsp. vanilla
1/2 tsp. almond extract
2 1/2 c. flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. cream of tartar
1/4 tsp. salt

Cream sugar and butter until fluffy. Add egg, vanilla, and almond extract and beat well.

Sift together dry ingredients. Add to creamed mixture in three parts, mixing until fully combined.

Cover and refrigerate for 2 hours.

After dough has chilled, preheat oven to 375. Line baking sheets with parchment.

Roll dough ⅛” thick on a lightly floured surface. Use cookie cutters to cut into desired shapes. Arrange on baking sheet and bake for about 7-9 minutes (very small shapes will bake quickly, larger shapes may take an extra minute). Transfer cookies to wire racks to cool.

Store in airtight containers. These freeze well, if for some reason they don’t get devoured right away.