Advertising Without Third-Party Cookies: Strategies for Success

Portrait of Melina Panitsidis
by Melina Panitsidis
Dec 3, 2020
Advertising without cookies illustration

The 90s gave the world so much—boy bands, rollerblades, Mrs. Doubtfire, and... web cookies.

But some trends just weren’t meant to last. By now, marketers know that third-party cookies will soon be a thing of the past— thanks to Google. And it’s safe to say most of them aren’t thrilled about the news.

In fact, 67% of marketers feel disappointed, frustrated, overwhelmed and confused about the whole thing.

But when it comes down to it, are third-party cookies worth all this hype?

In a constantly changing environment like advertising, cookies haven’t necessarily kept up. Growing privacy concerns, new data regulations, device preferences, among other things, have all contributed to the cookie’s inevitable demise. So it was never a matter of if, only a matter of when.

Third-party cookies have simply run their course.

Before we dive into how marketers can thrive in a post-cookie world, it’s important to understand the fundamentals of why cookies aren’t the be-all and end-all of advertising.

Third-party cookies: the honest truth

Third-party cookies have been used by marketers to track internet users’ every move. Age, location, gender, online behavior— no data point was left off the table. But has this data actually been that effective in ad targeting?

In short, not really.

Cookie-based advertising doesn’t hold the best track record for effectiveness. According to a series of studies, this kind of targeting is a weak indicator of accuracy. One study even found cookie-based targeting only performed marginally better than random guessing.

The truth is, cookies aren’t all that.

Cookies vs industry changes

To fuel the fire, significant industry changes have made third-party cookies even more unreliable in the last few years. Here’s why:

Browser updates

Last year Firefox made pro-privacy settings the default option— meaning a consumer is automatically opted out of third-party cookie tracking. However, consumers do have the option of opting in if they’re into that sort of thing. Safari, on the other hand, blocked third-party cookies altogether. Then came Google’s announcement to deprecate third-party cookies on the Chrome browser.

These changes negatively influence the amount of data collected by cookies. And less data means less targeting capabilities, which means less accuracy.

Consumer preferences

Consumers are concerned about their online privacy. Seriously. They’re sick of being tracked. According to Truata’s Global Consumer State of Mind Report, 61% of consumers no longer use brands that “stalk” them online.

So while you might be able to perfectly target your audience, you're also likely driving them away with your advertising practices.

Mobile device usage

Originally, web cookies were designed for desktop browsing. Desktop still contributes to a lot of website traffic, but mobile devices are quickly becoming the new norm. According to Statista, mobile now accounts for 50% of global website traffic. That number will only increase over time.

Tracking cookies on mobile devices is possible, but it's highly fragmented. The availability of cookies varies by mobile device, app, and browser, making it difficult to draw any real value.

Data privacy regulations

The introduction of new privacy regulations like GDPR and CCPA makes it clear that the industry—whether we like to or not— is changing to accommodate consumer data privacy. The invasive and creepy nature of third-party cookies don't belong in the privacy-focused version the world is moving toward.

Ad blockers

A report from the GlobalWebIndex found that 47% of internet users worldwide use an ad blocker. Of these ad block users, 44% of them cite invasive advertising practices for why they implemented an ad blocker in the first place. And since cookie-based advertising is easily intercepted by ad blockers, there's a good chance your ads aren't being seen as frequently as you think.

All of these factors contribute to one simple fact: cookies were not built to last.

Advertising strategies in a post-cookie world

So, what’s a marketer to do without the comfort of third-party cookies? Get creative with their advertising campaign strategy

Embrace new performance metrics

Most marketers put a lot of weight behind metrics like clicks and CTR. While these are valuable metrics to monitor, it's important to remember that click-based doesn't always tell a complete story.

Instead of holding on to cookie-based success metrics, why not reframe what success looks like for your advertising campaigns?

Marketers don't need to look to third-party cookie data to uncover valuable campaign insights. Campaign performance can be measured by analyzing your website data.

Paying attention to how campaigns influence branded search is one way to measure success. Or maybe, your metric is the effect advertising has on direct and organic website traffic. How about tracking the average time visitors spend on a landing page post-click? These are all great ways to measure your campaign value.

The key takeaway here is not to limit your success metrics.

Pro tip: always be testing, but keep in mind that running multiple advertising tests at once will make it difficult to measure and isolate what is or isn't influencing success.

Invest in quality platforms and ad placements

Before technology, brands were more hands-on when investing in advertising placements. A simple strategy that worked. Marketers should always be investing in advertising opportunities that best align with their brand. Actively exploring publishers with an established presence among your target audience will allow you to invest in the high-quality ad placements that actually reach them.

Consumers aren’t glued to their social accounts and search engines. They subscribe to engaging newsletters, they listen to podcasts, and they visit specific online publishers daily. These are all contextually-based opportunities for marketers to connect with consumers and share their message.

Finding an ad platform that can connect you with these different ad types and publishers directly will have a significant impact on your advertising strategy.

Retargeting with dedicated landing pages

Most marketers use third-party cookies for ad retargeting. The (obvious) bad news is that this won’t be possible for much longer. The good news, however, is that retargeting without cookies is still possible.

All you need is to create a dedicated landing page that is unique to your ad campaign. Once you’ve run your original campaign, you can then run a retargeting campaign against visitors of that dedicated landing page. This approach is an effective way to ensure you’re not retargeting irrelevant consumers. It’s also an excellent strategy for successfully moving users through the different stages of your funnel.

The beginning of the end

If third-party cookies have taught us anything, it’s that we should never become overly reliant on a technology that could disappear tomorrow. While this change might seem overwhelming, there are many consumer-approved and industry-friendly strategies that can help you achieve the same outcomes.

Advertising in a post-cookie world isn’t doomed. It’s just an opportunity for marketers to explore new channels, innovate, and create better relationships with their audience.