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28 Feb 2024
Marketing | 5 min read

What the End of Third-Party Cookies Means for Marketing + Attribution

Rockerbox - Isaac Uloko Written by Isaac Uloko
on February 28, 2024

Guest Contributor: Isaac Uloko, Director Of Measurement and Attribution, Accelerated Digital Media

About Isaac: Isaac Uloko is the Director of Measurement and Attribution at Accelerated Digital Media (ADM), a performance marketing agency focused on fostering growth for healthcare and eCommerce companies. ADM's clients include Talkspace, johnnie-O, Nurx, and more.

In the first quarter of 2024, Google has introduced an important change for exactly 1% of Chrome users: their browsers no longer support third-party cookies. By the end of the year, the tech giant will have removed them across all of Chrome—the browser of choice for more than two-thirds of web users. All of the other major browser options have already implemented this change, meaning that their disappearance from Chrome will mark the unofficial end of third-party cookies.

The industry has always employed a variety of tools to build audiences and gauge user behavior, but these cookies have long been a key asset. Their removal will make it that much harder for many brands to understand their customers’ behavior. While first-party data has always been a sought-after commodity in advertising, its value only rises in the absence of those cookies.

As performance marketers, good data is vital to every aspect of our work at ADM. We’ve been closely following the path to cookie deprecation since it was first announced—and delayed—by Google years ago. Now that it’s finally happening, let’s discuss the role of first-party data in marketing and why the ability to collect and analyze that data will become even more essential to a successful marketing strategy.

Third-Party vs. First-Party Data, and Why It Matters

Third-party cookie depreciation means the loss of a substantial amount of third-party data. That’s a loss that many brands today still are not fully prepared for. The alternative is first-party data, which we call that because users must actively opt to share it with you. Third-party data relies on passive collection from another source that the user has previously interacted with, like a Meta pixel that tracks what users are shopping for on other sites and then reports back to the social giant to help it better target ads at that person.

Even though third-party cookies have already been removed from the leading browsers other than Chrome, they are still the basis of many companies’ marketing and data strategies. Those brands could be in trouble if they find themselves approaching this change reactively instead of proactively.

It’s important to note that only third-party cookies are being removed. Brands can still use first-party cookies to collect data on their own sites. But without cookies that compile user data across the sites they visit, understanding the buyer journey now depends more heavily on compiling and reconciling data points from a variety of sources.

How Data Supports Attribution and Maximizes Your Marketing

Attribution is essential to marketers because it shows them how their current strategy is working and points them towards their next move. If you can’t understand what channels are contributing what results, you can’t build a stable and scalable marketing program for the long term. Good attribution allows marketers to:

  • Get a holistic look at their entire marketing funnel
  • Understand pain points in the customer journey that can be resolved
  • Identify which ad channels are underperforming and need to be optimized or deprioritized
  • Identify areas of opportunity and allocate budgets accordingly

Third-party cookies have long been a straightforward way to learn about these user trends. Without them, brands are now forced to seek out new sources of truth.

Fortunately for advertisers, there is a growing market of increasingly-sophisticated attribution platforms that can help (you’re reading a blog on one of their sites right now). But to get the most out of a new attribution solution, you need to collect a wide variety of good first-party data.

Brands with a robust and reliable source of truth will be best-positioned to take advantage of new attribution models and continually improve upon their marketing outcomes.

First-Party Data Collection Along the User Journey

With an array of accurate, safely-collected first-party data, brands can build user identifiers that can attribute marketing success. They can learn how users found their site and what actions they took once there, and even sometimes contribute off-line interactions.

Here are what that journey might look like:

  • First contact: A user comes to your site from one of your ads. Using UTM parameters, click ID data and (for entrants), you can easily determine where that user entered your site from: A specific social media campaign, a search campaign, or a link from a programmatic ad, for instance.
  • User consent: If you’re electing to use first-party cookies on your site to track user behavior, users need to opt-in for you to collect anything identifying. Typically, websites use a pop-up upon first entrance to prompt this consent. If the user declines, trackers on the website are denied storage space—which essentially invalidates user tracking.
  • Identifier created: During this process, users are assigned random identifiers, unique data points used to identify and recognize individual users across the internet. The created identifiers conceal Personally Identifiable Information (PII) from online trackers.
  • Additional data collection: Beyond how a user got on to your site, you can ask users to submit additional data to help you understand user behavior or incorporate it into your marketing funnel. That can be done through things like on-site forms and gated content.
  • Conversion: It may be some time between a user’s first visit and their eventual conversion. Their conversion can even happen offline: if a user previously provided their phone number through a form fill and then later called your customer service, for example, you could put those pieces together under the identifier you have established to trace the credit all the way back to the Google Ad they clicked months before.

While the benefits the brands can reap from first-party data are numerous, it can also be a challenging thing to manage. Part of what made third-party cookies so easy for brands to use was that it not only left the collection of that data in someone else’s hands, but it also outsourced the storage and risk.

First-party data comes with costs and responsibilities. It must be collected and stored in compliance with the law, and the entity storing it is responsible for damages should that data be breached. Server space, cybersecurity, and additional tech staffing costs must be considered.

Smarter Marketing With Better Data

As marketing continues to evolve, it will also continue to get more complicated. Good marketers will need to adapt. Google plans to replace its third-party cookies with a series of APIs, called its Privacy Sandbox. While these tools may help to offset some of the marketing functionality that the cookies once provided, it remains to be seen how much.

What is clear is that data still reigns supreme, and the brands that control more of their own data will control their marketing destiny. As we count down the final months of the third-party cookie era, it’s important to be planning your data, attribution, and marketing approaches going forward. And if you’re uncertain about how to navigate this ever-changing landscape, an expert marketing partner can help steer the way.

No more confusion. Just real marketing insights.

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