The “cookieless future” topic has been going on for years at this point and for many marketers, the resolution and impacts are still not clear. Amidst the sensationalist headlines, technical solutions still being worked out, and a lack of shared standards to get behind, the industry has not done a good job communicating what this means. Many continue to feel lost and increasingly nervous about how this new era will impact their day-to-day lives.
It is simply a matter of fact that regardless of position, as either a data analyst, implementation specialist, data scientist, media manager, or CMO, the cookieless future will impact you in some capacity, albeit each in its own distinct way. Some will get away relatively unscathed, while others will be forced to rethink fundamental strategies, tactics, and technologies. This is one of the reasons that the “cookieless future” continues to remain a point of confusion for many marketers. By adopting the rather vague label of “cookieless future”, in combination with the fear mongering headlines that have been shared nearly daily since 2020, it is easy to believe that all types of digital cookies are crumbling and we are about to enter into the full-scale cookiepocolypse.
However, that is not the reality we face together. It is this misunderstanding that continues to cause confusion across many organizations which, in turn, impacts their ability to identify who needs to be concerned, and who is ultimately responsible to prepare for this challenge. By understanding what the cookieless future actually means and who it will impact, future leaders will be better able to plan and adapt to the evolving challenges ahead.
Variations of cookies and their impact on the marketing ecosystem
First, to understand what and who the cookieless future will impact, it is essential to understand the differences between the types of cookies at play and their respective roles within the marketing ecosystem.
What are First-Party Cookies?
First-party cookies are cookies that are created and stored by the website you are visiting directly. These cookies allow website owners to collect analytics data, remember language settings, and perform other useful functions that help provide a cohesive experience. Google Analytics, for example, uses a first-party cookie for measuring onsite behavior.
These types of cookies are NOT going away. First-party cookies are essential to the workings of the internet. For example, without first-party cookies a user would not be able to log in to an ecommerce shop nor add items to his/her cart, as that status and cart item would be forgotten with each new page load.
That said, first-party cookies have not escaped the impact of the cookieless future entirely. With big tech’s pursuit of privacy, updates like Apple’s ITP (Intelligence Tracking Prevention) and Mozilla’s ETP (Enhanced Tracking Protection) have impacted the lifespan of first-party cookies by shortening them from a 7-day activity window to now a 1-day activity window. This impact is most notable for those whose responsibilities primarily focus on onsite behavioral measurement, conversion rate optimization, UX, and/or tag management. The shortened lifespan of first-party cookies directly impacts Google Analytics’ ability to recognize returning users, which in turn impacts user-level reporting and attribution models as each site visit more than 24 hours after the last visit is treated as a new user. For more information, check out this article about ITP and how it’s impacted Google Analytics.
Regardless of the impact felt by the changes made to first-party cookies, when the phrase “cookieless future” is referenced within the industry, it is more likely than not referring to the deprecation of third-party cookies, and more specifically the deprecation of third-party cookies in Google Chrome.
What are Third-Party Cookies?
Third-party cookies are created by websites other than those you are visiting directly, hence the name third-party. They are used for cross-site tracking, retargeting, and ad-serving. These tracking cookies are collected not by the website owner, but by advertisers. Examples of these tags can include social media retargeting, ad networks, ad servers, or demand-side platforms.
These types of cookies ARE disappearing once and for all, and are the primary cause for the widespread panic within the industry. This is because these types of cookies have been foundational in how the open web has monetized itself for the past 20+ years, and to take it away without a widespread and agreed-upon solution is seen as incredibly risky for both advertisers and publishers.
Originally announced in January 2020, Google stated that the end of third-party cookie support in the Chrome web browser would happen within two years. This has since been delayed to 2024. In contrast, Apple, Mozilla, and Microsoft have already blocked third-party cookies in their browsers and have done so for quite some time. Again, Apple’s ITP launched in June 2017 when it began blocking third-party cookies within the Safari browser. However, with Chrome’s dominant position (~65% market share), the deprecation of third-party cookies in Chrome has set fire to the marketing industry and, as a result, pushed the cookieless future topic front and center for many organizations. With the deadline of 2023 fast approaching, many organizations are still scrambling to understand the potential impact and risk to their business models and identify what they can do to mitigate the problem. To aid in this assessment, we have provided the below chart to guide where the greatest impact and risk is expected across the ecosystem.
As a result, it should come as no surprise that the impact stemming from the loss of third-party cookies will be felt across every aspect of the digital marketing ecosystem and across all levels within the organization.
How will the cookieless future impact media leaders?
The deprecation of third-party cookies will be felt the hardest within the media organization. The third-party cookie has long been the cornerstone of digital advertising and its disappearance will leave advertisers and publishers rethinking fundamental issues like identity, targeting, and attribution. Leaders must prioritize identifying targeting and media buying approaches that do not rely on third-party cookies, such as contextual advertising, connected TV, and addressable networks. Alternatively, they can work to identify data/audience partnerships that will enable the organization to target prospects and existing customers across the internet.
How will the cookieless future impact analytics leaders?
Analytic leaders must position themselves to be prepared for less data granularity, greater uncertainty, and increased use of modeled results. They must calibrate their measurement KPIs to more durable, non-third-party dependent metrics while also developing more sophisticated media mix models. They should also consider leveraging incrementality testing methodologies using solid aggregate metrics, proxy metrics, and statistical analysis to look at the large-scale contribution of marketing investments.
How will the cookieless future impact executive leadership?
Executive sponsorship will be essential moving into a cookieless future given the extent of the impact across the marketing ecosystem. People, platforms, and processes will need to be updated in order to operate within this new cookieless era and will require a top-down prioritization in order to meet the looming deadline.
The cookieless future will impact all organizations in some capacity, but it is up to leaders to be informed on what and who will be impacted in order for them to plan for the future. Chrome’s decision to remove third-party cookies is the final nail in the coffin for third-party tracking and requires organizations that have been slow to adapt to change quickly. Organizations that have not evaluated their risk and exposure to the deprecation of third-party cookies face a lengthy learning curve before any progress can be made. Executives through to managers across the organization must prepare themselves for that change and align their teams and resources to mitigate the challenges facing them. The cookieless future is impacting the entire organization, but those responsible for media and media analytics will be forced to bring forward solutions and develop new strategies, tactics, and technologies in order to deliver on business results.