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The Fast Company Executive Board is a private, fee-based network of influential leaders, experts, executives, and entrepreneurs who share their insights with our audience.

Cookies or crumbs? A closer look at cookie alternatives

What matters most is setting the right foundations before the tried-and-true methods of data gathering change.

Cookies or crumbs? A closer look at cookie alternatives
[NicoElNino / Adobe Stock]

Hopefully by now you’re fully aware of the sweeping changes coming to cookies (and if not, you can read more about them in my last piece). Those little tokens that enable brands to gather meaningful data about their customers and potential customers online are being phased out. (Starting with the more contentious third-party cookies people love to hate.)

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What that means, of course, is that brands are faced with a somewhat hazy picture of what the future will look like. Marketers, in particular, have relied on them to shore up their ability to connect with and engage consumers, and now they’re having to figure out alternative approaches to building up their datasets quickly.

Let’s take a look at the options for a brand marketer staring down the barrel of a cookieless web.

THE DEATH OF THIRD-PARTY COOKIES AND GOOGLE’S NEW PLAN

Before figuring out next steps, it might be helpful to know which roads are going to be out of service. Alongside tighter regulations coming out of Europe, two of the biggest names in tech have said they’ll be shifting their focus away from third-party data collocation. Apple has made opt-in the default for apps, meaning users now have to explicitly authorize apps to track them throughout the web, and Google has said it’s getting rid of third-party cookies, turning instead to aggregated data to surface the marketing insights it’s become known for.

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The changes to Apple’s iOS went into effect in early 2021, but Google’s changes—which weren’t slated to go live until later this year anyway—have been delayed until 2023. Whenever those changes eventually do go live, they will fundamentally alter the web. But what are those changes, exactly?

Google’s plan is to provide a set of APIs that will offer aggregated data, similar to what the third-party cookies of today offer. Brands will be able to use the APIs, but instead of being specific to any one person, the data will be more like a sample of similar kinds of people. For example, if today a brand is using data to better target John Doe, a 28-year-old male in Louisville, by 2023, they’ll be working from a sample set of data that can target people similar to John Doe in terms of age, gender, and geography, but not specifically John Doe himself. Essentially, they’re planning to remove explicit tracking and rely on a more cohort-based option instead.

Google says it’ll be effective; marketers and advertisers seem less convinced. Until the changes take effect, the results will remain TBD, which means marketers are going to need to look at supplementary ways of gathering and handling data to ensure they’ve got coverage.

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(One other thing that’s important to note: While the overall removal of cookies is probably good for consumers, Google’s ability to assemble vast tracts of data for drawing these cohort-sample analyses could actually increase its majority stake in the advertising revenue streams and options, rather than decrease it.)

FIRST-PARTY DATA AND CUSTOMER DATA PLATFORMS

One thing everyone seems to agree on is the importance of shoring up your programs for first-party data, which is why you’ll hear a lot about customer data platforms, or CDPs, in the coming months. CDPs enable you to collect first-party data, pass it among the various systems you have, and most importantly, protect it.

Alongside Google’s aggregated data sets, first-party data is an obvious and compelling solution to the loss of third-party cookies, but it’s not as easy as just making a switch. First of all, it puts a heavy onus on the brand to provide a compelling reason why a customer should accept being tracked to varying degrees. As with Apple’s privacy shifts mentioned earlier, first-party data is an opt-in feature that needs to be enticing enough to sign on to as a consumer.

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The other thing that can seem daunting for brands is that it forces them to assume more of the data risk themselves. For most, that means not only are they taking on more liability, but the vast majority also need an upgrade to their systems and processes. That can be a significant investment, and while it’s good for consumers when done right, it’s a big ask for brands.

Ultimately, the rise of CDPs and first-party data corresponds to a shift from a decade of “acquisition” (a sort of land-grab equivalent phase in digital customer attraction) to a new era of “retention” (how can we keep those customers for the long haul). The cost of acquiring customers is extremely high, and brands need to keep them coming back. A CDP works well on both fronts—with better data structuring and a clearer view into every part of the customer acquisition journey, you can attract the right people at the right time, and also keep them interested in what you’re offering.

WHERE TO NEXT?

With change comes an opportunity for innovation. First-party data is going to be a crucial piece of the puzzle, and so will aggregated and anonymized consumer data. More offerings are coming on the market that monitor anonymous signals, such as click patterns and traffic sources, and then predict what the customer is trying to do with ever-increasing accuracy. I think we’re going to see some of the successful applications of consumer intent data in the B2B space move into the B2C chain as well, since the consumer space lends itself so well to being anonymized.

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There’s more to dig into and consider on the so-called cookieless front. But for now, what matters most is setting the right foundations before the tried-and-true methods of data gathering change. It’s one of the most important things brands can do to prepare themselves for the ongoing evolution of digital experiences.


Jason Cottrell is CEO & Founder of Myplanet, specialists in creating digital experience platforms that tackle complex commerce challenges.

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