Life after cookies: are you prepared?

Victoria Brennan
By Victoria Brennan | 5 May 2020
Victoria Brennan

Victoria Brennan is national head of technology platforms, Wavemaker

We might all be a little distracted right now, but marketers and agencies shouldn’t drop the ball when it comes to preparing for a cookie-less world.

Before COVID-19 began marching on its global path of chaos, a common refrain in our industry was how fast paced the rate of change is. Now, of course, we’re all learning to deal with hourly changes in our daily lives, too.

Yes, there’s a lot going on, but that hasn’t altered our purpose of helping clients solve challenges to their business – but the key thing, is we should be looking at both current and future challenges.

It might be easy to write off the next few months in the name of stabilising, but it would be short-sighted to forget a pre- and post-COVID world.

If you cast your mind back just a few months to the start of the year, sensationalists were already talking about an imminent “doomsday” and this was when Corona Virus was just a twinkle in the tabloid’s eye. Yes, back in January this apocalyptic language was already in regular parlance in relation to Google’s plan to eliminate third-party cookies from Chrome.

There is no doubt it will have a huge impact on the online advertising ecosystem, but the reality is it’s simply just another change we have to adapt to. We’ve always been good at that – and we’ll continue to be.

While some changes we must adapt to don’t come with any warning, when it comes to Cookies, we must use the two-year head start we’ve been given by Google wisely and make sure we’re putting steps in place to get our affairs in order before the change is in place.

So, in case your attention has been directed elsewhere for the last few weeks, here is a refresher of the key take outs (sans sensationalism) and some steps you can start taking right away to prepare for this inevitable change.

What we know and what we don’t
Starting with the basics - because cookies are only used in browsers, their demise will not affect the use of mobile apps and Connected TV. And, despite some headlines you may have read, this is not the ‘death to programmatic’ because programmatic is simply a way of buying inventory.

We do know that there will be another way to identify online users, but we don’t yet know what that solution will be. It’s also too early to know what Google’s new standards for privacy on the web will be, as Google continues to engage with partners to gather feedback on possible solutions.

The impact on pricing and supply and demand changes is also unknown. There has been lots of speculation about how the market will shift but it really will depend on the value advertisers place on different strategies. Looking to a post DPR Europe may offer some clues but in a biddable world it will be up to us to define.

But despite the number of unknowns there’s plenty we could still be doing to prepare for life after cookies.

Here’s where to start

1. Review your current targeting strategies
Most digital targeting is built out of cookie-based third-party segments. Any site retargeting also needs cookies to work. So, ask yourselves what percentage of your current spend is going on these tactics, and start the process of weaning yourself off.

In a post-cookie world, there’s no question that we’ll see a return to contextual advertising. Something we forgot about for a while with the proliferation of behavioral targeting will be in vogue once again. It happens in fashion all the time.

Knowing this is on the horizon, it is our duty as advertisers to start the test and learn process to find out which strategies work best for our brands and can replace those segments which will cease to exist come 2022. That’s a pretty good lead-time, in my view - so use this time to test, test and test again. 

2. Look for new ways of working with old partners
Perhaps the most exciting thing to come out of this will be to see how publishers respond. We’ve seen over the last few weeks how quickly businesses have pivoted and innovated at break-neck speed, and this update promises to deliver much of the same.

As much as the demise of the cookie will take away, it will also force lots of innovation from traditional companies, and personally I’m looking forward to seeing what will come next.

We’ve been talking about the holy grail of first party data for what feels like forever, and unfortunately that narrative isn’t going to change. If anything, it will become more important now our data resources are more limited. The question will be how the publishers come to the table to monetise this. More second party data deals are a given, we also might see a few brands coming together to create data consortiums like their UK counterparts. But the most interesting from a consumer perspective will be observing how this change impacts how we use the internet as a whole. If ad revenues drop, then there’s a real chance we’ll see more and more authentications required in exchange for access to content. Whilst data has always been collected and sold, we are moving towards a frontier where the value to the user will be known. We all need to start
considering how we can adapt.

3. Consider the future of your tech stack
If you do currently use a data management platform (DMP) or have been planning on investing in the technology, you’re probably aware that in their current form they’re heavily reliant on third party cookies. Whilst customer data remains at the heart – DMPs are reliant on unknown identity, so the way you’re using them as a tool for insights and audience modelling will be impacted.

That’s not to say that this is a damning prognosis - the big players have deep pockets and are already working on adapting to a cookie-less world, but their solutions will ultimately come down to the rules that Google chooses to define. So, for now this time is best spent reviewing the volume, quality and structure of your first-party data and what you want to do with it to determine future value.

It takes new thinking and potentially the development of new skill sets but some businesses are already looking to a future where all data is combined and connected – customer, campaign and sales. Perhaps this new reality will force us into taking the DMP blinkers off and considering some future proofed alternative solutions which are more aligned with business goals.

4. Re-evaluate how you measure success

Perhaps most significantly, saying goodbye to third party cookies will mean we’re going to have to reassess our approach to cookie based measurement. This will mean a knock-on effect for campaign optimisation, any allocation of post view conversions and longer term, any multi-touch attribution work that you are doing.

Yes, Google’s Privacy Sandbox promises to offer some visibility on performance, but it will likely be batched data so without much of the detail that we have access to today. So once again, it is time to look at your current way of attributing success, capture previous learning and decide how you want to take that into a new world.

If our choice of measurement has always been done in good faith – whilst there are industry standards which have been widely adopted, the reality is some advertisers are happy with a 30-day window, some prefer 7 and some don’t believe in post-view contribution at all. So once again the optimistic outlook here is to say this change provides with us with the opportunity to re-start that conversation, decide what makes most sense for your products and category, and test how optimising to new goals impacts the bottom line.

So, what now?
Like the current pandemic we’re fighting, there are many unknowns about what a world without cookies will look like. But that doesn’t mean we should sit back and do nothing. Don’t write off this year amidst one crisis and leave yourself at the mercy of another. Take the time to re-open the conversation and ask some pertinent questions about what the future could look like for you.

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