Get ready to stop using cookies: marketing strategies for a permanent return on investment


The other day I answered a phone call from a local Mazda dealership asking if I was still interested in a CX-5. I told them the same story: Maybe one day I will need a new car, but that day is not today.

Then the salesman asked me something that still makes me feel weird: “So, how did you like your trip to SeaWorld?” I had clicked on a Mazda offer shortly after using my company’s discount site to purchase tickets. For quite a while after that, I thought I saw Mazda ads on every site I visited. His question made me wonder what else is done with my information.

My story is not unique: you click on a product or visit a website, and now you see ads everywhere. Data tracking is becoming more and more intrusive (in some cases bordering on Big Brother), so the deprecation of cookie tracking seems like a refreshing change.

As a consumer, I live for the large phase-out of third-party cookies. As a marketer, I fear losing the data that helps me do my job and pave the way to a “cookie-free” (but only partially cookie-free) future. The bright side ? Everyone in the industry understands that a stagnant strategy ends engagement.

A future without cookies is not a marketing data apocalypse. This is a great opportunity for businesses to build a more organic form of trust (and better metrics of engagement) with their customers.

So let’s see how you can prepare your marketing strategy today for a cookie-free future.

The cookies that define our digital experience

Before we can dive deeper into opting out of cookies, it is important that we take a look at the cookies currently on the market. To understand exactly what we do, you need to understand the difference between first-party and third-party cookies.

Proprietary cookies

First-party cookies are data that is collected when you are on a website. Think about when you visit an e-commerce website: when you land on the site, your browser sends a message to the website’s server, indicating that you are the direct source that the site should interact with. This is why you can stay logged into your account and why the items in your shopping cart are waiting for you when you return to a site.

First-party cookies only collect the data necessary to provide a good user experience. Once you leave the website, your data is no longer tracked by first-party cookies. First-party cookie tracking does not disappear.

Third-party cookies

Third-party cookies collect user data, but they are not hosted on this website’s server. They are used on any site that loads third party code. Think about when you click on an ad on Instagram or a seller’s item on Amazon. Amazon and Instagram may not track you once you log out, but third-party cookies associated with what you clicked on continue to track you after you log out.

This is why you receive the same advertisements on all your devices and searches: third-party cookies continue to follow you. They’ve determined where you are and where you’ll be, and they’re constantly retargeting in an effort to keep their brand in your brain. Third-party cookies are what will go away once Google joins the cookie deprecation train.

The value of tracking data

I’m going to address the elephant in the room and say that third-party cookies aren’t necessarily a bad thing. They exist to create a richer image of a user which, in turn, allows a business to retarget messaging in a way that is convenient for the consumer. They provide deterministic data that tells businesses exactly where their buyers are going and what their interests are, so they see a message that’s perfectly tailored to them.

On the other hand, third party advertising has become quite scary and intrusive, if not done tactfully. Some companies have come to rely on third-party data to continue injecting their message into a consumer’s day, whether they like it or not. Plus, it’s sparked a wave of lazy marketing strategies – why try to connect with your buyer when you already know where they are?

Laws like the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the California Consumer Privacy Act are setting the stage for protecting user privacy, and ditching third-party cookies is another way for companies to protect user data from exploitation. Users are looking for connection, not targeting. They want to build trust, not be stuffed with a message.

So is this the end? Are we going to have to scrap and replace our marketing strategy to live with a cookie-free future?

Not really. It is important to remember that targeting gets you nowhere. On the contrary, our approach to targeting our audience will be a little different. Without the deterministic data provided by third-party targeting, we will instead rely on probabilistic data.

Let’s look at a few ways businesses can prepare for the abandonment of third-party cookies.

How can you prepare your marketing strategy for a cookie-free future?

Industry professionals should begin by addressing the fundamentals of marketing. Get to know your audience, segment them, and target users who are likely to get the most out of what you offer.

It sounds really basic, and that’s because it is – before using third-party tracking to find consumers, we created brand profiles based on research and understanding. We can always measure, test, adjust, and iterate on a continuous cycle to raise awareness, drive consideration, drive decision, and build following.

1. Account-Based Marketing

Businesses should already be creating more personalized messages to build trust by gaining trust. Which brings me to another strategy to look into: account-based marketing (ABM).

ABM kicks off the flywheel by finding the specific audience you want to target and channeling your efforts to create and deliver highly personalized messages that appeal to your target audience. You break down the data silos between sales and marketing and align to create the ideal buyer from the ideal company and tailor your messaging accordingly. No cookies, just a login.

2. Contextual Marketing

Another marketing strategy to try is contextual marketing. Build your website for your audience and use dynamic modules to show each visitor content relevant to them. Buyers like to feel heard, so when you deliver offers in the context of the stage they’re in or the probabilistic cohort they represent, your ability to reach and captivate your audience feels more organic than forced.

If you are going to try contextual marketing, the key is to start slowly. Remember that buyers appreciate customization to some degree. Therefore, it’s nice for a returning user to see a “welcome” banner, but if this is their first time visiting your site, their experience should convey a “nice to meet you” message.

3. Optimize your tech stack

Your marketing technology (MarTech) stack should work like a symphony orchestra: each section has its own role to play, but the real music happens when they work together. Audit your current tech stack to determine which tools work and how they work together.

Start with your Content Management System (CMS) and remember that your CMS is not a content repository. This should tie into your marketing process. Make sure the user data you have on your customer relationship management (CRM) platform is clean and up to date.

Your advertising technology is going to be more important than ever. Find out how third-party cookies are used so you can adapt your advertising strategy accordingly.

Finally, your user experience (UX) is going to be much more important than it has ever been. Using your UX and User Interface (UI) tools to make sure you understand your users’ experience and figure out where you can add value is another way to optimize your UX.

4. Make the most of what you have now

We still have time with third-party cookies, so use the data before you lose it. Find out where you already use third-party data tracking and develop a first-party data strategy to mitigate the effects of losing that data. Be responsible and remember third-party tracking is a powerful tool for marketers and the public. This isn’t jarring customization; it’s about getting relevant information about your target audience.

How to deal without cookies

There is no silver bullet – no way to fully explain what it takes to prepare for a cookie-free future – because no one has the right answers on how to approach a cookie-free future in this moment. Remember that everyone will be affected by this in some way, so you are not alone. Indeed, during theHow to prepare for a cookie-free future with targeted advertising” webinar by SmartBug® (now available on demand), 69% of respondents said they were somewhat prepared, while 24% admitted they were unaware that cookie tracking was going away.

Therefore, the best thing to do is to inform yourself about the status of cookies. Even though Google will do away with third-party cookies, you will be able to reach targeted audiences one way or another. By simply being a good marketer with an ethical marketing strategy, you can begin to lay the foundation for success despite all the changes that will be thrown at you.

Also, for the record: my trip to SeaWorld was fantastic.


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