Third-party cookies are living on borrowed time.
For many years they’ve been an internet staple, albeit a mostly invisible one (unless you were really interested in the technical side of things). As the default technology that enabled many of the reporting and marketing tactics that we’ve grown accustomed to, they became quietly ubiquitous.
But that’s all about to change.
And this change has major implications for marketers. We know that can seem a little bit scary. What is about to be an absence might contrarily appear like a massive obstruction. The path ahead may suddenly seem like it’s blocked by a formidable obstacle.
In this article we’ll show you why you don’t need to think of it that way.
Concentrating particularly on what third-party deprecation means for fundraising team within not-for-profit organisations, we’ll provides some tips for what you can do to prepare for the end of third-party cookies. And to turn that big barrier into nothing more than a minor detour.
What are cookies?
Before we get on to how you can adapt to a digital marketing world that’s about to shift quite significantly, let’s start with some basics. A quick definition.
A cookie is a package of information that a server creates and then sends to a web browser. There’s nothing inherently ‘wrong’ with them; in fact, for more than 30 years, cookies have been essential in tracking website visitors and their behaviour.
As handy as they’ve been for anyone interested in knowing more about the way users navigate and interact with a website, a certain kind of cookie, known as a third-party cookie, presents problems for user privacy.
What are third-party cookies?
A third-party cookie is simply a cookie created by a website outside the one you’re currently browsing. They’re employed by advertising networks, analytics companies, and social media platforms, to name just a few.
If you, as someone who uses the internet, don’t want your browsing activity to be tracked across multiple websites, third-party cookies are a worry. And as data privacy has become more and more prevalent as a serious public concern, third-party cookies have come under enormous scrutiny.
The scrutiny has been so intense, in fact, that many of the largest technology companies in the world—Google, Apple and Mozilla among them—have decided to phase out support for third-party cookies.
Apple’s browser, Safari, for example, already blocks them by default.
Google has said it will have completely deprecated third-party cookies by the second half of 2024.
Why do third-party cookies matter to marketers?
It goes without saying that this phase out is a spanner in the works for organisations that have until now been reliant on third-party cookies.
But where has this reliance come from? Why have third-party cookies become so useful?
Mainly it’s because marketers working in the digital space are always aiming to optimise for particular measurable outcomes. It might be completion of a lead form, a donation, a purchase, a subscription, or many other things.
In order to drive the desired outcomes, most marketers use channels and platforms that they themselves don’t own. Google Analytics, for example. Or advertising platforms like Meta Ads.
For many years, it’s been third-party cookies that have allowed these platforms to tag site visitors. And this has enabled reliable targeting, reporting, and optimisation. But when Google stops supporting third-party cookies, that reliability will basically evaporate.
Third-party cookies will no longer be a tracking mechanism that marketers can trust.
What can you do to prepare for the phase out?
There are two main ways you should get ready for the death of third-party cookies:
- Adapt your strategy.
You should start by moving away from targeting that focuses on the individual, to advertising that targets larger audience groupings and has less of a focus on specific behaviours as trigger-points.
This means accepting a degree of ambiguity in the data, but it’s an absolutely valid approach.
In fact, Byron Sharp, a Professor of Marketing Science and Director of the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute, which is the the world’s largest centre for research into marketing, has said that ‘the traditional view that brands need to go out of their way to appeal to a sliver of their market’ is flawed.
‘Sophisticated mass marketing doesn’t mean targeting everyone, nor does it mean treating everyone the same. It means understanding the heterogeneity in your market, and then catering for only the differences that matter in order to maximise reach while not eliminating the benefits of scale.’
- Find third-party cookie alternatives.
The second option is to find a way to support your current suite of marketing activity without relying on third-party cookies.
Remember earlier we mentioned that cookies themselves aren’t the problem? In fact, first-party cookies remain a perfectly legitimate way of acquiring useful data; they have nowhere near the effect on individual privacy as their third-party cousins.
How do you use them?
Well, as Animals Australia have demonstrated, server-side technology enables fundraising organisations to use first-party cookies as a stand-in for third-party cookies. There are several options in this space, the most notable of which would be Google’s Server-Side Tag Manager and Meta’s Facebook Conversions API.
Digital marketing is changing, but there’s no need to panic.
The world of online marketing is undergoing a significant transformation. It’s not the first time. In fact, it’s not uncommon. Neither, for that matter, is change likely to stop or decelerate any time in the near future.
And it’s worth remembering that this particular change is for the greater good. User privacy is getting the attention it deserves; the best brands will accept and adapt to this largely positive societal movement. They will understand that most people want to know that their privacy is being taken seriously, and third-party cookies are a necessary casualty.
Yes, it’s true that technological change can be tricky to navigate. It might be tempting to look ahead to the inevitable extinction of third-party cookies as a way of tracking users and see an impassable wall just a little way up the road.
But if you begin to take action now, to shift your strategy and consider alternative options, you’ll discover that the obstacle is far from insurmountable. In fact, it may prepare you for a new and better approach to your digital fundraising activity.
If you’d like to know more about third-party cookies, server-side analytics, or anything marketing data related, we’re always happy to help. Get in touch!