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Digital advertising in a cookieless world: the impact on personalization and targeting

What does digital marketing look like when personalization and targeting can no longer be based on cookies? What does it mean for audience selection when website visitors aren’t tracked by third-party cookies anymore? In a post-cookie world with firm boundaries, you should focus on alternatives to recognize and target your audience. In this article, you discover which ones you can apply for your business. You can also decide to go one step further and join our webinar on May 11 to discuss the main important blocks of your marketing strategy

To understand the future of digital marketing, it’s key to know what a cookie is and how it is used to gain insights into your customers’ behaviors.

What is a cookie?

A cookie is a script that’s installed on a website visitor’s computer. This script serves as an identifier, so the site recognizes when the visitor returns. In addition, it collects language and location (if provided), as well as behavioral data. Think of the pages the user consulted, the order in which they browsed through those pages, and how long they stuck around. This data improves their future experience and is used to target them with ads of products they looked at before.

There’s a difference between first-party and third-party cookies:

A first-party cookie collects data about your visitor’s behavior on your website. Hosted by your own site, this cookie provides smoother access by remembering logins, preferences or shopping cart items. This type of cookie remains relevant in the future.

As its name suggests, a third-party cookie is a script that comes from another server or domain than the one the user visits. This type of cookies is stored much longer and provides an enriched profile of your visitor. You can use this data to retarget them across domains and platforms, such as social media channels. In the near future, third-party cookies will disappear altogether.

Why go cookieless?

In recent years, privacy has become increasingly important. Within the European Union, the GDPR regulation has shifted personal data control from companies to customers. This transition has empowered the public to manage what organizations can or can’t know about them. As a result, companies are held accountable if they can’t share a clear view of the personal data they store.

In addition to the public sector, private companies such as Apple have made it their top priority to protect the privacy of their customers. As a major tech company, Apple has played a part in transforming and accelerating the data privacy market.

This shift in the importance of privacy has led to Apple blocking third-party cookies – and Mozilla Firefox and other browsers following in their footsteps. Together, those browsers represent close to 50% of the market.

But while we’re transitioning to a post-cookie world, we’re not there yet. Market leader Google Chrome has postponed the fade-out of third-party cookies on their browser until the second half of 2024 – and Microsoft Edge is expected to do the same. Both companies hugely depend on their advertising incomes.

How can you protect your digital marketing strategy?

As a digital marketer, it is important to keep this change in mind. Many, however, still heavily rely on third-party cookies for various purposes – think of setting up in-market or interest-based audiences, or retargeting. But with new boundaries put in place, visitors who use the browsers of Apple, Safari or Firefox can no longer be reached through this digital marketing approach.

While this shift will disrupt ‘classic’ digital strategies even more, going cookieless doesn’t mean you won’t be able to effectively reach your customer. In the future, both first-party data and contextual data will replace third-party cookies.

Alternatives for third-party cookies

First-party data provides high-quality insights, since it indicates who your customers are, what they bought and when. But because they have a limited scale, you should transform this data into contextual insights (sometimes referred to as a “lookalike audience”). See it like this: if your customer purchased a specific product, you can assume they’re interested in relatable items. For example, if they bought a car, you can presume they’re interested in car cleaning equipment. The principle applies the other way around too: if you run a car cleaning equipment business, you could advertize on car-related websites.

Another alternative to collect data without third-party cookies is an independent identifier. Facebook has already adopted this: their ‘Sign in with Facebook’ login provides them with data outside of their platform. These independent identifiers resemble first-party cookies, since the information submitted after the initial login acts like first-party data.

In modern advertising techniques, personalization is the secret to bringing a product closer to its potential customer. Cookies are used to enable personalized ads, because they collect the necessary information. In such an ad, you could show the exact same product that your potential customer searched for in the past. Or you could adapt your messaging depending on their age, gender or interests.

While third-party cookies will disappear, contextual data will help you to remain relevant by sharing the right message at the right place.

Conclusion

Within these new boundaries of digital media, a visitor will be recognized by their device’s fingerprint (including their mobile phone), browser configuration, location, apps installed on their device and independent identifiers (such as logins).

Times are changing for you as a digital marketer. Keeping track of new developments and what they mean for your business is key. Not only to maintain a steady performance, but also to stay ahead of the competition. Those changes might be challenging, but see them as opportunities to think outside of the box and innovate.