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After years of talk, it’s finally happening. Google Chrome, the browser of choice for two out of every three people on earth, is gradually restricting the use of third-party cookies over the course of 2024.

Firefox and Safari already do it. Microsoft Edge is based on Chromium so will follow Google’s lead. In short, by the end of 2024, third-party cookies will be an opt-in option only for all major browser types, which is to say they’ll be dead in the water.

What does all this mean for digital marketers? Read on to find out.

Where are we at with third-party cookies?

As any marketing professional will know, third-party cookies offer invaluable information on everything from user behaviour to website performance, allowing you to better target and personalise your marketing materials and enhance your site.

Ultimately the power of third-party cookies became their downfall. Privacy concerns were voiced, and while it took some time for Google to act – they knew the value of these cookies better than anyone – the pressure from users eventually told, and the phase-out began in earnest.

On 4 January 2024, 1% of all Chrome users had Google’s new ‘Tracking Protection’ feature turned on, which restricts website access to third-party cookies by default. Over the course of the year it will gradually be added to every single browser.

What will happen to third-party cookies in the future?

First, a clarification: third-party cookies will not go extinct. If a user prefers to be served more personalised marketing materials – and according to research by Adlucent, 71% of consumers do – they can turn Chrome’s Tracking Protection feature off.

But in the real world, a vanishingly small number of people are likely to change this default setting. By the end of 2024, digital marketers will need to come to terms with the fact that we no longer have access to the insights we once did, and that many of our most effective strategies, such as retargeting, won’t work like they used to.

How will the deprecation of third-party cookies affect digital marketing?

As the third-party cookies begin to crumble, brands and marketing professionals will be faced with shallower audience insights.

What exactly do we stand to lose? Third-party cookies grant advertisers the ability to:

  • Track the online activities of users, such as their search behaviour, the websites they visit and the content they engage with.
  • Create audience segments based on behavioural and demographic data, then personalise marketing materials to each segment.
  • Retarget website visitors, displaying personalised advertising on third-party sites to audiences who have previously shown interest in a brand or offering.
  • Control the amount of times a specific ad is shown to a user over a given time frame.
  • Easily and accurately measure the effectiveness of a campaign, based on click-through rate, conversion rate and other KPIs.

The deprecation of third-party cookies doesn’t mean that advertisers and marketers instantly lose all this functionality. Much of the above will still be possible, but will require different strategies that may be less efficient and effective.

How Google will replace third-party cookies in Chrome

Until now Google’s advertising business has been heavily reliant on third-party cookies, so when it became obvious that the cookies had to go, the company worked hard to find replacements. The solution came in the form of Privacy Sandbox: a project that aims to strike a balance between the needs of advertisers and the privacy concerns of users.

As part of Privacy Sandbox, Google developed six APIs that could mitigate some of the issues of third-party cookie deprecation for marketers and advertisers. From Google:

  • TopicsGenerate signals for interest-based advertising without third-party cookies or other user identifiers that track individuals across sites.
  • Protected Audience: Select ads to serve remarketing and custom audience use cases, designed to mitigate third-party tracking across sites.
  • Attribution ReportingCorrelate ad clicks or ad views with conversions. Ad techs can generate event-level or summary reports.
  • Private AggregationGenerate aggregate data reports using data from Protected Audience and cross-site data from Shared Storage.
  • Shared Storage: Allow unlimited, cross-site storage write access with privacy-preserving read access.
  • Fenced Frames: Securely embed content onto a page without sharing cross-site data.

What do advertisers and digital marketers need to do?

In order to retain current levels of advertising effectiveness, brands and marketing professionals will need to change tack. Marketing will be slightly trickier, at least for a time, and certain things will no longer be possible, but there are ways and means to mitigate the effects of losing third-party cookies.

Understand how to use Google’s new APIs

The APIs listed above should help to mitigate the most acute effects of third-party cookie deprecation for marketers and advertisers, though they do represent a new way of doing things, so marketing professionals will need to invest time in understanding these new features and systems.

Maximise the collection and use of first-party data

First-party data is information collected directly from users as they interact with a website, app or service – the type automatically gathered as they take actions or willingly provided through form submissions. The value of this data will skyrocket as access to third-party cookies is lost.

Capitalise on enhanced conversion tracking

Conversion tracking is used to measure the effectiveness of a campaign by tracking specific actions (conversions) taken by a user after they interact with an ad. Strategies like granular tracking, cross-device tracking, attribution modelling and offline conversion tracking all fall under the first-party data umbrella, so they can be used to measure campaign effectiveness moving forward.

Contextual advertising

Contextual advertising works on the concept that brands should show up wherever their customers are, like Heineken ads in a pub, Porsche ads at the F1, or Louis Vuitton ads at Paris fashion week. Online it simply matches the content of a webpage with the content of an ad, ‘personalising’ marketing without the need for third-party cookies.

Consent-based tracking

When the European Union’s GDPR legislation came into effect on 25 May 2018, internet users across the globe began to be asked for tracking consent. This will continue after third-party cookies are deprecated, as first-party cookies will still be in play, and will be more valuable than ever. Remember: in order to earn a website visitor’s consent, you first need to earn their trust.

Traction’s new approach to retargeting

At Traction we’ve spent years using third-party cookies to drive marketing success for our customers, particularly through our remarketing efforts that target people who have previously visited a site.

We’ll continue to do so, just with a slightly different approach – one that no longer relies on third-party cookies.

Tracking consent

We are currently testing approaches to secure tracking consent from website visitors through Google’s consent mode – remembering that valuable first-party data will still be in play after third-party data is deprecated.

Contextual ads

This first-party data will power our contextual ad efforts, which will replace the retargeted ads that are currently personalised on an individual basis with third-party data. We’ll also be getting back to basics, building up email address lists to target specific customers in Google Ads.

Google APIs

We’re familiarising ourselves with Google’s new APIs, particularly the Protected Audience API, which allows us to offer up ads to relevant audiences based on the websites users have previously visited.

More relevant KPIs

We’re going to reimagine our KPIs. Measuring conversions will be more difficult in a post-third-party cookie world, as conversion tracking is built upon third-party data. But we see this as an opportunity to do away with vanity stats and refocus our efforts on quality metrics, such as the first-party data that captures direct website engagements.

Conversion tracking

Conversion tracking will be difficult but not impossible. Aggregated data will lack the precision of third-party data, but it will still allow us to get a useful estimate of conversion figures to guide and enhance our efforts.

Having developed a suite of strategies to mitigate the loss of third-party cookies, and having taken a couple of opportunities to improve our approach, we believe we can continue to drive the same remarketing results for our customers after third-party cookies are gone.

It will also give us an opportunity to address the privacy concerns of end users, and make us more responsible internet citizens. All in all, we believe we can turn the end of third-party cookies into a win for all parties.

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