SUMMER 2021 UPDATE:
Big news! In June, Google officially pushed out the date Chrome will end support for third-party cookies in its Chrome browser from early 2022 (as originally announced in January 2020) to the second half of 2023.
For many, the delay is welcome news. After all, it gives nonprofit marketers more time to adapt and develop privacy-focused alternatives in key areas like ad measurement, delivering relevant ads and content, and fraud detection. However, while the timeline has shifted, make no mistake that the end of third-party cookies still represents the seismic shift to the mechanics of the digital marketing landscape that we’ve been expecting. Like before the delay was announced, digital marketers and fundraisers need to prepare their organizations for these shifts.
But we at THD have your back! Below are our current thoughts on how you might approach evolving your marketing efforts to be ready for the new 2023 deadline.
How will the Cookie Crumble?
You’re probably aware of the data privacy concerns regarding how individual users’ information is stored and shared across the internet.
As a consumer, the actions being taken by the government and some of the tech giants to regulate and protect individuals’ information make me feel good. As a digital marketer, this makes me furrow my brow.
I rely on the ability to efficiently and accurately target my audie
nce in order to drive donations for my clients. So, I’ve been closely monitoring recent developments and considering how they might impact our work. I wanted to share some of my findings with you now.
Here is a quick history of what has happened/what is planned, along with an explanation of why, overall, there is NO reason to pull your hair out yet. I’ll also detail some actions you can take to prepare for the upcoming shifts.
First, let’s get on the same page about first-party and third-party cookies.
You’ve probably heard these terms used a bunch. In many ways, they are the crux of a lot of the privacy debates.
Cookies are usually small text snippets in a site’s HTML code, which are stored on your computer or device to keep track of your movements within a website. They are currently the most common method of identifying users online and providing a personalized browsing experience.
There are essentially two types of cookies:
- First-party cookies: These are stored directly with the website you are visiting. They allow website owners to collect analytics data, remember language settings, and perform other useful functions that help provide a good user experience (e.g., storing donor profile info, storing cart info on e-commerce sites, etc.).
- Third-party cookies: These are created by domains other than the one you are visiting directly. They are used for cross-site tracking and are thus the drivers for lots of ad-serving technology, for both retargeting an audience and serving as the building block for lookalike audiences.
Much of the debate surrounds third-party cookies, as they are what tracks a user’s behavior across the web. A third-party cookie is uniquely identifiable to your IP, so advertisers know exactly what you have been browsing and can thus serve more targeted ads. Third-party cookies are what causes the creepy Big Brother feeling when you see that pair of sunglasses (which you probably don’t need but want!) following you around the web.
So, what is happening? Here’s a quick summary of recent developments impacting online privacy.
Following the passage of the GDPR in the EU in 2016 and the CCPA in California in 2018, the private sector has jumped into the ring, reacting to public concerns about privacy:
- Safari (17% of users across mobile and desktop) announces it will block third-party cookies.
- Mozilla (4% of users across mobile and desktop) switches to blocking third-party cookies as a browser default.
- In June 2021, Apple continues to increase pressure on advertisers to find alternative tracking methods with the rollout of iOS 14, which requires app developers get opt-in consent from their customers to access the Identifier for Advertisers (IDFA), a unique ID assigned to every Apple device. This in particular has had a large impact on platforms like Facebook, Snapchat, and TikTok, where the majority of users (and thus ads) are being served in a mobile app environment.
- Also in June 2021, Google officially pushes out the date Chrome will end support for third-party cookies in its Chrome browser from early 2022 (as originally announced in Jan 2020) to the second half of 2023. While the 20% market share from Safari and Mozilla is already significant, the sunsetting of cookies on Chrome is the real “Oh, crud” moment, as Chrome has a global market share of 65% of users across desktop and mobile devices.
So, taken together, what does all this mean?
Well, essentially it means an end to third-party cookies as we know them. It’s clear both the government and the private sector are finally starting to come to terms with how the business model for a free internet has been exposing individuals’ personal information — and taking action to protect that personal information.
Are you inclined to throw out your digital ad program now?
Wait, don’t do that! In actuality, it’s NOT time to hit the panic button…
While removing third-party cookies from the advertiser's toolkit affects how measurement and targeting is performed, it does not mean that the digital marketing landscape is going to stop being one of the most effective ways to deliver your message to your audience.
Here is a quick list of some of the tactics that we think will still work like gangbusters to market your brand after the end of cookies:
- Contextual targeting: Non-cookie targeting options are already available and, in many cases, already yielding better results than third-party audience targeting for advertisers. We have had particular success with contextual targeting, which places ads on pages containing the keywords and phrases of your choice related to your brand or campaign.
- Paid social advertising will remain overpowered: Since most of the ads that are run through the Facebook/Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, Twitter, and LinkedIn ad networks run within those platforms, they have continued to be very effective, since they rely on the first-party data each platform collects. The main issues we have seen with the rollout of iOS 14 relate to conversion reporting in platforms. However, you can leverage Google Analytics to get a similar level of transparency since it is reporting on activity on your site. Make sure to check out our guide on best practices for social media for when you’re planning to launch new campaigns and also our recommended best practices for Google Analytics.
- The continued rise of online video: Video has long been known to make very strong emotional connections with an audience. Online platforms like YouTube and, with a recent rise in popularity, Connected TV allow you to serve those ads to a more targeted audience and don’t require the massive budgets of traditional TV campaigns. Again, both YouTube and many CTV providers operate in first-party settings, so this channel should continue to drive results.
- Tried and true #1: Search engine marketing (SEM): Your Google and Bing ad campaigns will still drive results. While some of the display and analytics measurement capabilities within Google Ads will likely be impacted, search functions will be largely unchanged since that data is first-party data. Here are some of our tips on how to set yourself up for paid search success.
- Tried and true #2: Search engine optimization (SEO): It’s an investment to organically rank on the top of the results page, but it remains the best way to ensure steady long-term growth.
- Zero-party data collection: Zero-party data is data that a customer intentionally and proactively shares with a brand. It is much cheaper to retain existing donors than acquire new ones, so make sure you are giving your existing donors the attention they deserve and the experience they want. You can look to capture this info through strategies like a questionnaire, poll, quiz, or interactive social story.
On top of these tactics, it’s worth noting that the digital advertising market is big. Like REALLY BIG. In 2019, spending in “digital” media surpassed “traditional” media sources like TV, radio, OOH, direct mail, etc.
That means there are a lot of smart people (with a lot of revenue at stake) who have a very strong incentive to come up with advertising alternatives that protect an individual’s information, while still delivering a product that can accurately market to the correct audience and drive results. There are several replacement models already well into development, from providers like Google (who will be testing FLoC IDs in March 2021 as an alternative to cookies), as well as major industry programmatic partners coming together to coordinate across the industry (unified ID 2.0).
The feel-good takeaway:
Ultimately, these privacy changes are for the good of consumers, which is for the good of everyone. If you focus on making your brand and your service as strong as possible, support for your organization should fall into place, regardless of the medium through which you broadcast that brand and message out into the world.
It is good to be prepared for some growing pains in the short term as the digital marketplace continues to evolve, but the worst thing you could do would be to run from it now because digital marketing is not going anywhere.
We would love to hear your thoughts on how you’re approaching a cookie-less future or if there’s anything else you want to hear about. Drop us a line and stay hungry, my friends!