The recent delay by Google was not much of a surprise. While eliminating cookies should spark significant improvements in privacy, it also requires major changes to the free exchange model advertisers, content producers and consumers have become accustomed to.
Why are things changing now?
For years, third-party cookies have been an instrumental part of how advertisers buy targeted digital media. Digital advertising is increasingly powered by the data that publishers and exchanges can provide about unidentified users, allowing the publishers to offer better and free content.
When used properly, a highly targeted campaign finds just the right recipient for their message or product. Likewise, the consumer should ideally see more relevant advertising that is suited to their interests.
So, in theory, cookies should’ve made advertising and content consumption better for everyone. But like many great innovations, there was room for this cookie technology to be misused.
Targeting could be used to increase consumption of content or become a filter bubble of singular or unchecked ideas. And advertising could manipulate or scare consumers into choices versus helping them connect with products or services of interest.
The more data collected, the more profiling and behavioral optimization became possible—and not all of it was managed with people’s privacy and well-being in mind.
For a million good reasons, recent talks of privacy and transparency have become headlines for the digital world. The more connected our lives become, the more data needs to be protected and monitored. It’s not just your browsing behavior or viewing habits that are at play here. It’s your location, your home life patterns and your health or well-being measures that are all captured by the connected devices we use and wear.
The long-term goal for eliminating the current form of third-party cookies is to help increase privacy and transparency for everyone. Marketers want more clarity and control on where messages go. Individuals want more anonymity and a less controlled experience.
While Google is making the news lately, in the fall of 2019, Firefox began blocking third-party tracking, and in early 2020, Safari rolled out their anti-tracking technology.
Much of the pressure early on was coming from international advocacy groups and the UK, but now domestically, marketers must rapidly determine how to thrive in a digital world without third-party cookies.
What will the change mean for advertisers, publishers and consumers?
Brands and advertisers must finally focus more on their first-party data. This will be a challenge for many categories and industries where there is not a direct relationship to the consumer. Think of all the packaged goods brands you fill your cart with, but never interact with directly. How will their news still find its way to you relevantly and personally? Companies like Nestle are betting on stronger partnerships with publishers to create second-party data agreements. But what about the smaller CPG companies—how will they build out better data partnerships?
Publishers will also have to reimagine their model if and when advertising dollars shift from targeted placements and impressions to data deals and/or gated content options. Third-party cookie removal and GDPR will force new conversations around the value of data. It will also spark privacy advocate debates around methodologies, like the recent Google Privacy Sandbox. Even though Google is saying 2023, the race for finding the magic first-party or portfolio-level identifier is on, and no one wants to be late to the finish line with all the dollars at stake.
Then last, but not least, there are all of us that browse and consume content. Our privacy will hopefully be better managed, although some are concerned that these changes are really just reshufflings. Regardless, as the user experience adapts, so will our expectations around free content.
What new pay gates will exist to offset the lost ad revenue? What sites will require IDs to secure my browsing or make relevant content accessible and affordable? What happens when some of the good and interesting curated ads no longer introduce you to the next cool new thing? What new forces behind the scenes could drive my content experience in the name of privacy? Will we truly be taking back our searches, preferences and favorites, or will there just be new forces at play filtering and predicting our needs?
A cookie-less future will definitely look a little different for everyone. The hope is it will also be more secure, transparent and user-driven. It could make things harder for underdogs to break through, but somehow the good ones always seem to find a way. Today’s savvy consumer usually knows a good brand, product or service when they see one. And as much as everyone says they don’t like advertising, a well-told, relevant story is powerful no matter the medium.
We have our fingers crossed.