The ease with which performance marketers can track users around the web has long been taken for granted. In fact, with Google Ads launching over 20 years ago many modern marketers have never experienced marketing without being able to directly link an ad to a sale.
Fear of change, fear of the unknown and a lack of clarity on what is happening to cookies is leading to both doom-mongering and the inevitable reaction of marketers burying their heads in the sand. And, though there have been many a collective sigh of relief as Google continues to delay the date at which they are getting rid of cookies (at time of publishing this piece, they have moved the date back to 2024), the end is coming and marketers would be well-served by not ignoring the inevitable. Moreover, Chrome is not the only browser in use across the internet, meaning that Google’s timeline is not the only relevant deadline. So what should you be doing?
First it's important to clarify that a 'cookie-less world' is specific to third-party cookies. First party cookies will remain, meaning your site will still function, Google Analytics will still operate, as will any other on-site tracking solution.
What will change is the simplicity of serving ads directly to an individual, something that we have become oh so accustomed to. The approach that we can serve ads one-to-one, which retargeting is built around, needs to be fundamentally recalibrated. Rather than dynamically targeting a user based on what they did on our site, we'll be targeting a group of users based on what actions they took. Much of which we can expect to be handled by the browser, which is where Google has a major advantage.
The other major shift will be in reporting, particularly effectiveness and incrementality. View through conversions, as with much of attribution modelling, will no longer be reliably measured. A replacement will need to be found for any cross platform and multi-touch conversion reporting; and expect that granular audience insights will be a thing of the past.
This means we’ll have to start using new methods of measuring performance - and some from the past that have so far been less utilised in the digital era. There will be a temptation to fall back to softer metrics to show performance - those such as views, likes and engagement rate - as these are easy to track along with being easily understandable. But to continue to be successful it will be necessary to utilise more specialist methods of showing performance, such as Media Mix Modelling.
The change is inevitable, the only thing unknown is the timeline. To prepare for this coming change, there are several things to consider, start planning for and actions we can take immediately.
Understand how reporting will change.
Identify what metrics you currently use that will be going away, either through lack of accuracy or just no longer available. Other metrics will change in method of calculation meaning that your reported numbers will look different, with the perception that year-on-year performance has shifted.
Understanding this now will give you time to move your reporting to the new model, running this alongside your existing reporting.
Metrics that will see a change in performance include any conversion related metric, whether that’s total conversions, conversion rate, ROI or ROAS. Consider implementing a server based tracking solution such as Facebook’s Conversions API to maintain the accuracy of these metrics.
View Through Conversions is one metric that will disappear altogether. If this is a key part of your reporting we recommend transitioning away from this as soon as possible.
Start defining your contextual audiences.
Contextual advertising will be the new buzzword (if it isn’t already so), though not without good reason. Targeting will become contextual, rather than individual, therefore learning about the available contextual audiences and mapping your customer groups to these will give you a head start on the competition.
Also expect to start buying more ad spots directly with publishers and platforms. The advantages of large programmatic buys will diminish when targeting contextually.
The upside of this is the greater oversight of where your ads are appearing and the control this brings in favour of brand safety.
Review your dependence on third-party cookies.
Finally in our list, but the activity to undertake first, is to review where you are currently reliant on third-party cookies across your marketing operations.
For each dependency start to plan and implement a new solution now and run it alongside your existing set up. This will help with the transition to a new way of thinking and doing, allowing you to mitigate the impact on effectiveness and efficiency.
While this may seem daunting right now, the advertising platforms - Google, Facebook, etc - have a vested interest in finding solutions to the more complex problems, such as retargeting. Their revenue is afterall intrinsically linked to how successful ads appear which dictates what percentage of budgets advertisers are willing to put into these platforms.
This isn’t to say that it can be left entirely to the ad platforms, it's not entirely “their problem to solve”. Maintaining continuity of your marketing performance will require an adapted approach, built on an understanding of your business, the problem at hand and potential solutions.
The first step in this is accepting that change is happening, and choosing to get ahead of it.
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