Data Debates and the Cookie Conundrum

Ty Kiser
January 27, 2021

If you’re an internet user, there’s no way you haven’t gotten a pop up informing you about the presence of cookies. What the word “cookies” brings to mind usually varies from person to person, but in this instance, we are talking about that little piece of code that is tracking your online usage.

Cookie-based tracking is not anything new, but it might not be around forever. The ever-changing landscape of digital marketing will require new ways of tracking and gathering information, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning.

What are cookies, and where did they come from? 

According to the Institute for Brand Marketing, the year was 1994 when Lou Montulli developed the “cookie.” The purpose was basically to create a way to help publishers remember when a visitor placed items in their shopping cart, left the site, then returned. This work continued, and then it started getting more complex. More information was collected and was used to track users.

These days, this piece of code is used to help advertisers send more relevant ads to their users. This happens in one of two ways:

  1. First-party cookies: These are created and stored on the same domain that a user visits. Website owners can collect analytics and data so they can provide a positive user experience. 
  2. Third-party cookies: These are created on a different domain than the one the user is on. This is set up so advertisers can view website uses across domains, which is known as cross-tracking. This is what is used to build profiles on users (containing information like their interests) so messages can be targeted to an engaged user. 

For digital advertisers, cookies are essential. They are how we can attribute conversions to a specific ad. They are also how we know which channel is yielding the best results for conversions. 

Back in the day, this wasn’t a super complex process. Typically, people used a single browser with one family computer. But things are very different now. With multiple browsers and devices, third-party cookies have become essential for advertisers so that they can track across devices.

Advertisers have pivoted and now use a practice called “cookie syncing” to collect cookies across devices and browsers. Cookie syncing is basically when a unique ID is shared among platforms to track a user’s journey. With this addition, advertisers’ lives have been much better—tracking was done across devices and platforms and everybody was happy. Well, kind of.

The problem with cookies

Cookies might seem like a miracle, but they also pose significant problems for advertisers. First, they can slow down your website. With the addition of both cookie syncing and additional tags on websites, loading speed started to take a major hit. 

There is an ever-growing concern for privacy as well. With data syncing, data is shared from platform to platform and users are now concerned about whether their data is actually being protected. This is not a new issue. According to Statista, it is recorded that an estimated 26% of users have ad blockers installed on their computers and browsers. A lot of people also worry about their privacy because they are not sure where their data is going.

Though some browsers and websites do give the user a chance to opt-out of cookie use, many users are not sure how to do so or find it difficult to find the correct settings. This leads to mistrust and discomfort, causing more people to use ad blockers or switch to browsers that don’t track any information about you such as DuckDuckGo

That’s not the only issue—according to a study from the Institute for Brand Marketing, website browsers are cracking down on cookies, especially useful third-party versions. Safari was the first to do so, using what they called Intelligent Tracking Prevention (ITP) to crack down on the use of third-party cookies. Firefox followed suit and created the Enhanced Tracking Protection (ETP), and Google Chrome, which accounts for 65% of internet users, will be phasing out the use of 3rd party cookies in 2022. This means that all that useful third-party cookie data will be useless.

So if you haven’t throw your computer in the trash yet, you might be feeling like this:

But don’t worry: the world isn’t ending. As marketers, this is where we pivot and find new, innovative ways to reach our target audiences. 

A world without cookies

Don’t worry—a cookie-less world won’t bring the end of it. There are several different ways to navigate and pivot.

The first one option is pretty simple, actually: ask politely. I know that seems a little strange, but asking for first-party information such as email addresses, phone numbers, names, and addresses are all ways you can create first-party data and not have to rely on third-party cookies. You might have to offer something in return—like a rewards program or exclusive content—but the data you receive will be well worth it. 

The second option is tagging your site with a first-party identity resolution service. This tag uses a first-party cookie that can link to consumer identity signals such as name, address, phone number, or email address. This creates an identity graph that stores the identifiers that correlate with individual consumers. Being able to connect to first-party cookies will still allow you to reach your desired audience without relying on third-party cookies. This transparent way of tracking allows users more control over what data is stored and what it’s used for. 

The digital landscape is evolving and ever-changing, but a cookie-less existence isn’t the end. It is an opportunity to find more precise and user-centric ways to collect data, which then allows us to create better ads and target users with better results. 

Need help navigating the cookie conundrum? Reach out today!