Third-party cookies: The end of the beginning

Third-party cookies: The end of the beginning

If you are Gen X or, gasp, a Boomer, you remember a time when all the music you listened to came on an album. That hit track blowing up on FM, you wanted to hear it at home, had to buy ten other songs you didn’t want. You had to buy the record… or the cassette or the CD.

Enter Spotify. Queue up (almost) any track you want for free or a small fee. Album sales disintegrated. The Swedish streaming company changed not just the music business but even music itself.

Another simple piece of technology transformed an entire industry almost as quickly as Spotify changed music. It was a small text file, the humble browser cookie. It quickly evolved to provide advertisers a level of insight they had never had and billions of marketing €, £ and $ moved online. Where big brands once relied on PhDs to apply econometric wizardry and the mom & pop shops relied on instinct, the cookie, particularly the third-party cookie, leveled the field, making the promise of truly measuring advertising effectiveness seem possible.

And now, Google has announced it will be phasing out these 3rd party cookies—the ones that do most attribution and tracking—by 2022. It is curious it took this announcement to get everyone talking. Apple started this in 2005 and that now effects about 30% of web traffic. But Chrome is used by significantly more, umm, web surfers so now the advertising industry is, belatedly, paying attention.

What does this announcement mean? The death of (3rd party) data? The retreat of retargeting? The demise of the DMP? The disappearance of view-through attribution? The annihilation of analytics? Potentially. There will be causalities. Though is anyone really going to miss 3rd party audience segments? Or miss relying on third-party as a measure of marketing effectiveness? But given this announcement seems to have taken many by surprise, nothing is clear.

The advertising industry has not exactly been doing much serious preparation for the post-cookie world, paradoxically, this includes the change agent themselves, Google. So the announcement that Chrome will phase out third-party party cookies has sown doubt and while many are predicting what this means for the industry, nothing is certain—two years is an eternity in internet time.

Google’s announcement is an excellent reminder that cookies are tools. They are not solutions. Relying on the third-party version as a proxy for identity or as a method of attribution was always inadequate.

It is also a reminder that the most important cookies and best data are both first-party. Activating the data you own will be key. And having the tools needed to do it effectively will be more important than ever. The most powerful marketing tool any advertiser has is their own website and focusing on making every visit count remains—as it has been—the most effective marketing strategy.

The album format had a good run until Spotify arrived and everyone started listening to singles. And if Google follows through in the next twenty-four months, the third-party cookie will also will have had a good run. A much shorter run but as influential. But advertising existed before the third-party cookie and it will exist after—this is just the end of the beginning. And while reading the industry predictions that have followed Google’s announcement, it is worth remembering that the dominant format before the album killed it? The single. Ask a boomer, they’ll tell you.



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Posted by Josh Mortensen