It’s no secret that much of the internet is built on advertising. Online giants such as Google and Facebook rely largely upon advertisers for revenue, which they receive in return for highly customized and segmented access to internet users. This relationship was central to the emergence and later dominance of online advertisements. Television, radio, billboards, and print simply cannot compete with the accessibility of online ads.
An advertiser who purchases space on a television program or billboard cannot be sure how many people have seen his ad or even acted on them. Contrast this with an online advertiser on Google or Facebook who always knows exactly how many times her ad has been shown, how many times it has been viewed, and how many users have acted or been converted into a purchase or subscription. Combine this with the internet’s ability to collect data and accurate information about users and it’s no surprise that the internet has turned into the dominant medium for advertising.
The Battle for User Privacy
However, this has all come at a cost. As the web grew more targeted, more intrusive, and more specific in its collection of data, users responded with growing calls for greater privacy protections for users. 72% of internet users now feel that almost all of what they do online is being tracked by advertisers, technology firms, or other companies. A further 81% believe that online tracking causes greater potential risks than benefits.
Much of the pushback comes against cookies or snippets of code that allow sites to track your behavior around the web. Already, consumer responses have led major internet browsers such as Mozilla Firefox and Safari to announce that they will block third-party cookies by default. Removing cookies significantly diminishes the tracking data available for advertisers.
In March, a final blow against cookies arrived when Google announced that Chrome, by far the world’s most used web browser, would no longer support third-party cookies. Not only that, Google announced that they would no longer track individual web browsing altogether. Instead, users would be given greater control over the level of their tracking. Web histories and behavior patterns would be stored on individual browsers or devices, rather than an all-encompassing online profile. If users so desired, they could even opt-out of all tracking or choose to have their data sent to advertisers as part of a “cohort” of users rather than as an individual.
The End of Targeted Advertising?
The implications of these recent developments for advertisers are obvious. How will online advertisers respond when their most powerful digital weapon, user tracking through cookies, is taken offline?
First, it’s important that advertisers and marketers not panic over the recent announcement. For starters, many marketing leaders are not surprised by Google’s recent decision, nor are they convinced that Google will completely cease their tracking of users. It’s important to note that although Google is eliminating third-party cookies, they are still allowing first-party cookies or codes that are generated and stored on a website visitor’s computer by default after visiting your site. First-party cookies are used for storing user experience data such as passwords, and basic data such as how often a user visits a website when they visited and what they did on the site.
The important distinction is that a first-party cookie will not allow you to see data related to your visitor based on their behavior on other sites outside or not affiliated with your domain. In short, advertisers will track much less data on their users, but will still have access to basic analytics data for users on their site.
This plays into Google’s proposed future for advertisers, a “Privacy Sandbox” or platform that would allow advertisers to continue to send targeted ads to users, but with much less user tracking or data mining. Along with the Privacy Sandbox, Google also plans to roll out initiatives that allow advertisers to target users as part of “cohorts” of like-minded users.
Additionally, advertisers have already worked around cookie restrictions before. While cookies are allowed on mobile devices, user behavior on mobile devices is much more fragmented because it often takes place in native applications outside of the main browser. But this hasn’t stopped advertisers from successfully showing targeted ads on mobile. Alternative tracking markers such as ID-based tracking, Statistical ID, HTML5 cookie tracking, and universal login tracking have helped advertisers to target their ads despite significant restrictions of tracking cookies on mobile devices.
What’s Next for Marketers?
It’s important to point out that the end of third-party cookies doesn’t mean the end of digital advertising or even targeted advertising. The closing of one chapter can instead prompt the beginning of a new one of innovation and creativity for advertisers.
If your current advertising is heavily dependent upon targeting via third-party cookies, now is the perfect time to take a step back and view your advertising campaigns holistically. What is working, and what is overly reliant upon a single platform or tool. If you find that your campaigns are dependent upon a single ad platform, you know that you need to come up with new original alternatives.
Over the last decade, some digital marketers grew too reliant upon the use of technology to push marketing success. Hyper-targeted content and ads, automated campaigns, and other tools began to replace an emphasis on engaging customer experiences, original branding, and clever storytelling. The result was overly conservative approaches and creative stagnation. For marketers with the right mindset, the end of cookies is a perfect time to seize the initiative over competitors.
Having your teams take the current moment to reemphasize new approaches to targeted content, advertising and engagement could unleash a wave of imaginative, productive, and innovative campaigns. Could your marketing teams refocus on branding, storytelling, and the customer experience? Do older strategies such as contextual advertising make sense for your business? Or maybe now is a great time to reemphasize your current site and develop an entirely new inbound marketing strategy.
The digital space has always been an arena of constant change. Marketers need to be prepared for changes in policies, regulations, or the use of platforms. Inevitably, the end of third-party cookies will cause turbulence and disruption for many marketing teams. However, it’s important to note that while the sun sets on one internet era, it’s only beginning to rise in a new age of marketing innovation and initiative.