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Cookie Wars: A New Hope

6 min read

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‘The dark side is a pathway to many abilities some consider to be unnatural’, uttered the evil Darth Sidious. In the galaxy of digital marketing, a dark and light side have long since emerged. On the dark side, dastardly Sith advertisers want to keep tracking users with third-party data, while on the light side, an intrepid Jedi Order fights for first-party data collection, and, indeed, the soul of all the web.

Okay, maybe I’m making the saga of digital marketing sound more heroic than it really is. Then again, it is May the fourth. Go hard or go home.

When it comes to their own business, everyone’s a Sith Lord. We all want the most comprehensive and accurate data about our customers and prospects. However, that doesn’t make spying on someone’s internet activity a good idea. This article will outline the reasons why third-party data is lazy, dangerous, and unnecessary. In any case, it’s about to become obsolete.

The End of the Dark Side

In January 2020, Google announced plans to stop supporting third-party cookies in its Chrome browser within two years. For anyone who needs a refresher, a cookie is a piece of data that gets stored on a user’s computer when they visit your website. Ordinary first-party cookies record things like a user’s login details, which pages they browsed, items they added to a shopping cart, etc. Third-party cookies, on the other hand, aren’t created by your website, but by some other domain. They track users from website to website, gathering increasing amounts of information about them. This information can theoretically be used to target the user more effectively with ads. If someone had spent an evening reading articles on children’s gift ideas before browsing toy retailer sites and checking out different lightsabers, then it’s probably safe to say that this user is going to buy a toy lightsaber—and have their fine china destroyed by it—in the near future.

But the primary problem with third-party cookies is that they invade the privacy of users who generally aren’t aware that their online activity is being tracked, let alone shared with, and even sold to unknown third parties. It’s one thing for a user to willingly share their data in order to have a better, more personalized online experience, but quite another for their data to be shared without their knowledge. Users should be given at least the opportunity to find out who has their data and what’s being done with it.

It was in the interest of user privacy that Google reaffirmed their commitment to getting out of the third-party cookie business with a blog post in March of this year. A section of the post read:

Today, we’re making explicit that once third-party cookies are phased out, we will not build alternate identifiers to track individuals as they browse across the web, nor will we use them in our products.

Can you hear that? It’s the sound of Luke Skywalker’s starfighter zeroing in on the Death Star.

The Practical Drawbacks of Third-party Cookies

In addition to being largely unethical, third-party cookies aren’t necessarily as effective as they may first seem. Consider the scenario Ana Gotter describes in a blog post for Disruptive Advertising:

I love to cook, so I’m constantly browsing new recipes online. Even though I have a lot of other interests, I’m most likely to click on an ad when it’s relevant to the content I’m looking at.

So, even though I run a small business, I might ignore the ad below when I’m in chef mode. If I’m checking out recipes, I’m not thinking about running my business, I’m thinking about cooking to detox from running said business.

Here, the clever method of showing users adverts based on their past browsing experience doesn’t work, because it ignores the simple fact that people are not in the same headspace all the time. Good advertising has to be more sophisticated than this. Do you really want to bombard your customers with ads about work when they’re trying to relax? Or ads about toy lightsabers while they’re trying to work?

Another drawback is that ads generated by third-party cookies tend to have the unfortunate side effect of creeping the bejesus out of people. Natasha Lomes of TechCrunch puts it simply: ‘No one likes being stalked around the Internet by adverts.’ While it’s true that this can be ameliorated by ‘frequency capping’, i.e., restricting the number of times a website visitor is shown any given advert, the underlying issue is still not being addressed. Making a customer feel like they’re being badgered rather than bedeviled is a pretty small victory.

And there’s also the issue of your business’s reputation. If you use third-party data to generate ads, you may find those ads showing up in places you don’t want them to, such as on websites that endorse offensive views or are complicit in the exploitation of particular groups. Equally, you might also fall victim to offensive third-party ads appearing on your own site. A particularly nasty example of this made international headlines in November 2017, when it came to light that Walmart.com was hosting adverts from the custom T-shirt design company Teespring, one of whose T-shirts advocated the lynching of journalists with the text: ‘Rope. Tree. Journalist. SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED.’ Witty, I’m sure you’ll agree, but the point here is that no one need gamble their business’s good name for the sake of an indiscriminate marketing blitz.

How to Be a Jedi

So how can you make sure that your business remains on the light side? First, buy yourself a toy lightsaber. Second, keep up to date with regulatory changes concerning third-party cookies and other data privacy issues, as well as staying on the lookout for new software and strategies that offer viable alternatives to collecting third-party data. For starters, marketing teams may want to weigh the pros and cons of using a device graph, which is a map that links a user to all the devices they use or entering into a publisher alliance, where businesses achieve scale by pooling data that has been given consensually by their users.

Yoda flying through the air

Marketers might also want to take another look at good old contextual advertising, i.e., placing adverts in alignment with the content of a webpage. For example, you’re watching an interview with George Lucas, so you get shown an ad for the complete Star Wars DVD box set, with director’s commentaries and seventeen gazillion hours of bonus features. Who could possibly object to that? There’s even some evidence that, upon immediate adoption, contextual advertising is equally as effective as tracking customer behavior. Digiday reported that ‘a major media owner’ switched to contextual advertising in response to the passage of the EU’s GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) legislation and saw ‘steady performance on campaigns’ as a result.

As a final point, it’s also worth remembering that no matter what kind of advertising strategy you employ, the people you’re targeting need to actually buy something. This means that post-click landing pages need to be effective and, more broadly, that targeted ads should be seen not as a silver bullet, but as one part of a holistic, people-first approach to marketing.

By the by, just in case anyone was wondering, I must have spent a good fifteen minutes trying to come up with a pun that involved the words ‘cookie’ and ‘Wookiee’. Nothing. Nada. If such a pun happens to occur to you, please put it in a comment below and you’ll have my sincere gratitude.

And, of course, May the fourth be with you.

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