Cookieless Tracking


Quick definition: Cookieless describes a way of marketing in which marketers are less reliant on cookies – bits of data that contain personal identifiers. Recent policy shifts by web browsers include the deprecation of 3rd party cookies in the name of consumer privacy.

Key takeaways:

The following information was provided during an interview with Asa Whillock, head of product operations and strategy for Adobe Digital Experience.

What does cookieless mean?
Are cookies actually going away completely?
How will a cookieless future affect marketers?
How can marketers prepare for a cookieless world?
What other types of data can brands use besides third-party cookies?
How will going cookieless affect consumers?

What does cookieless mean?

Cookieless  describes a way of marketing in which marketers are less reliant on  cookies, which are bits of data that contain consumer personal identifiers. When we talk about the idea of a cookieless world, it’s best understood by examining three different tiers of people involved in this large ecosystem shift.

At the base, tier is the consumers. Consumers have always been bothered by various invasive digital marketing behaviors, such as aggressive marketing and irrelevant targeting. But in the past, they weren’t able to do anything about it.

Companies, understanding consumers’ frustrations, have started considering consumer expectations when building customer experiences.

At the same time, legislation has passed, allowing consumers to have more insight into — and control of — how their own data is used, rather than brands having complete control of it.

The second tier is technology companies that operate web browsers, like Apple and Google, which have implemented cookie restrictions that impact the technological underpinning of all digital marketing activities.

The final tier of the ecosystem is the marketers who inherit these technological changes. For them, preparing for a cookieless world means finding new approaches to engage in marketing activities that can transform unknown users into known customers.

This will allow marketing teams to conduct personalization based on durable identifiers tied to known customer profiles.

Are cookies actually going away completely?

Cookies are not completely disappearing — and consumers don’t necessarily want cookies to go away, but they want their privacy concerns respected, and there will be some significant changes.

Third-party cookies will undergo the most changes, which will impact personalization and new customer acquisition use cases.

How will a cookieless future affect marketers?

Marketers are tasked with a lot of different responsibilities. They are responsible for nurturing consumers across several stages of their relationship with a brand — from brand discovery, to engagement, to conversion, to the building of a long-term relationship between the brand and the consumer.

The stages that will be most impacted by the cookie changes are the beginning stages — during these early interactions with a brand, users have not provided contact information.

Today, marketers depend on cookies to identify these unknown users when they browse through a website, interact with digital  advertising, and return to the website.

Marketers have endured technological shifts before, but this one happens to be more disruptive because of the stages it impacts — the stages before a user have converted from prospect to customer.

To understand this better, let’s say you have a popular home improvement company, and you want to start marketing your home and garden products through digital advertising.

To figure out who to market to, maybe you purchase data from an external vendor to identify users who engage with DIY content and who might be most interested in your products. This data is often attached to third-party cookies and can be used to build a  user segment  with this information.

Then, based on this segment, you can give a personalized offer to visitors to your site to these users who engage with DIY content.

As it stands now, if a user happens to browse your site on their Google Chrome browser and wanders away, you could spend some extra budget to use marketing technology to retarget them based on third-party cookies. This essentially means following them across social media and web sites to encourage them to re-engage with your brand.

This approach is one that some consumers are frustrated with, and one that will be more difficult to execute for prospects or unknown site visitors in the future.

Without third-party cookies, if a user engages with a brand’s website and leaves without making a purchase or providing contact information (e.g. subscribing to a newsletter), that prospect cannot be  targeted  for 1:1 retargeting.

This is worrisome for marketers who have built a lot of their strategy around data-driven segments designed using third-party cookies for  personalization  and optimization. Without these cookies, marketers won’t be able to make the same types of segments for potential customers.

How can marketers prepare for a cookieless world?

The biggest question that marketers are asking is, “How do we restore tracking capabilities for users?”

Many are hoping for a replacement for third party cookies, but they should focus on how they’re going to be more effective at  delivering content  tailored to their unknown prospects based on a smaller set of information in a narrower window of time.

Being able to do this is extremely important, and Adobe has done a lot of work to build capabilities for real-time  machine learning  and personalization that are not dependent on third-party cookies, so marketers can engage visitors based on limited information.

To prepare, marketers must develop first-party data strategies that reduce their dependencies on third-party cookies.

Marketing teams need the ability to build complete  customer profiles  containing durable identifiers - like email addresses and mobile phone numbers - that are collected with customer consent and do not face browser restrictions.

What other types of data can brands use besides third-party cookies?

At Adobe, we think brands are going to begin to prioritize their first- and zero-party data relationships with customers.  Zero-party data  is data that's been explicitly provided by the consumer to the brand to optimize  customer experience.

For example, a video streaming site might present you with a checklist asking about your viewing interests, such as comedy, cooking, fashion, etc., before watching a video. You’re prompted to check what you’re interested in, knowing full well that the site will start showing you content based on the zero-party data you provided.

Brands have to do a bit more inferring from first-party data. To use our video site example, instead of showing you the checkboxes, the site might use first-party cookies to track the type of content you’re watching and use that information to show you similar content even though you haven’t expressly stated it’s your preference.

Brands need to find the right balance with how they use first-party data. If they use it too quickly, it could make their customers uncomfortable.

To use a real-world example, let’s say you go to a local coffee shop for the first time and the barista already knows your name and your favorite coffee order. This could raise alarms for you, and you’d probably leave and never come back.

But if you’re a recurring customer and the barista knows your “usual” after a few visits, you wouldn’t be uncomfortable. In fact, it would probably build trust between you and that shop.

The goal is for first-party data to become the driving function of marketing and advertising. But before this is achieved, brands need to learn how to keep consumers comfortable.

How will going cookieless affect consumers?

The biggest and most obvious benefit is improved consumer data privacy - this is the guiding reason behind the changes announced by web browsers.

Marketers should not try to find loopholes and reassemble the very thing consumers are trying to avoid —and call it something else. There will not be a compliant direct replacement for third-party cookies.

Consumers can also expect less aggressive marketing — or at least less noticeable marketing — from the brands they interact with. Marketers need to determine the best time to ask for an email address or other zero-or-first-party data in a way that’s comfortable for the user, which is another consumer benefit.

Overall, the relationships between users and brands will transform from third party to first party. This is already a common thing, but there are still many big-name brands that don’t have very direct relationships with their customers.

First-party data will help brands of all sizes build improved relationships with their customers and deliver great customer experiences.

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