Google's two-year cookie deadline: are advertisers ready to change?

Marketers know the days of using trackers for third-party data are coming to an end, but only a minority report confidence in using their own first-party data. And what technologies will replace cookies in browsers such as Chrome?

Google has finally unveiled how it plans to kill third-party cookies, the widely used ad-targeting tool that helps advertisers track users: a two-year timeframe and a privacy "sandbox".

The search giant announced this week that this phased approach, in which cookies will no longer be effective on its Chrome browser by 2022, will allow Google to develop a "healthy, ad-supported web" that does not undermine the business model of advertising. 

Instead, Google wants to introduce a new set of technologies that may be less invasive and disruptive, while providing a degree of anonymous tracking so that advertisers can still measure how their ads are performing. 

Keith Pieper, vice-president of product operations at publisher adtech specialist Sovrn, described Google's decision to create a two-year timeline as "refreshing", but suggested that forward-thinking advertisers are already relying on first-party publisher data. In May 2019, Google announced that it would look at limiting third-party cookies in Chrome, while rival browsers Apple Safari and Mozilla Firefox have default settings that limit tracking tools.

Pieper said: "[These advertisers] know publishers have close relationships with their audiences and are therefore in a good position when it comes to data collection and gaining consent from users. Now, advertisers have a countdown clock when those transitions to first-party data need to be complete."

However, while it is true that marketers have known about the "cookieless future" for some time, a new survey seen by Campaign reveals that the majority of them are concerned about how best to make the most from their own data. While 96% of marketers say they're "ready" to target without third-party cookies, most also believe that they are tapping into less than half of their first-party data’s potential.

The Silverbullet survey of chief marketing officers also found that nearly two-thirds (65%) of them have partnered third-party companies to understand how to make more effective use of cookieless solutions, such as contextual targeting. The same proportion (65%) are working with management consultancies to maximise first-party data strategies, while 50% are working with partners to develop data profile systems, such as consent-based customer data platforms.

Agencies, such as Publicis Groupe’s Performics, are seeing an increase in demand from their clients to get the most out of first-party data, according to UK managing partner Paul Kasamias. This is true for both direct-response and more traditional, brand-focused advertisers. 

Kasamias said: "It’s fair to say education around demand-side platforms has certainly increased over the last 18 months, with CMOs getting a smarter grip on which technology requirements require investment, often restructuring units to ensure data has more of a central focus. 

"CMOs have wanted to invest in DMPs [data management platforms] without actually understanding the broader data collection methods they had available… so there has definitely been a consultancy opportunity here we’ve been able to offer clients." 

The challenge for these brands is making first-party data actionable across different platforms, due to Google and Facebook’s walled garden, as well as privacy restrictions around location data. Performics has seen a shift in its key clients from using DMPs to "customer data platforms" (CDPs), with some using onboarding partners such as Lytics and LiveRamp. 

Nevertheless, Kasamias warned: "The industry is truly in a state of flux and today’s solutions are unlikely to remain the holy grail."

Luke Judge, chief executive of Incubeta, said he was surprised by the high figures shown in the Silverbullet survey, suggesting that he did not believe the marketing industry was ready to use first-party data for audience segmentation and targeting.

"Most companies have got a long way to go before they can say they are maximising the benefit of their first-party data for segmenting and targeting purposes, even within their email campaigns, let alone their paid-media campaigns. And the low numbers of businesses that have actually implemented a CDP of any kind would indicate that," Judge said.

"Considering, for example, the low number of advertisers that actually have a data-onboarder like Liveramp. [This] indicates that the stats are not indicative of a UK market; and I'd say likewise of the US market. 

"All too often, I see a huge gap between a) the acquisition marketing teams, and b) those who own the customer data(base). Meaning that often the first-party data isn't used at all or used well."

What happens next also depends on what technologies are developed to replace cookies. Google's plan includes encouraging industry buy-in to a Privacy Sandbox for Chrome: a forum to collaboratively develop ways to store performance metrics such as clicks or conversions that anonymise user data.

For example, in a draft proposal for click conversion, clicks from ads are registered and associated with an advertiser, but the attribution is reported back to the advertiser in a bundle with limited data about where the clicks came from.  

UM client director Lawrence Dodds stressed that advertisers need to make the most from first-party data because it's a source of information that competitors don’t have.

"Advertisers are able to now generate people-based audiences by enhancing their first-party audiences in an agency’s data stack," Dodds explained. "First-party data is ingested and scaled up, enabling full-scale national segmentations that are unique to that advertiser. These audiences can then be pushed into demand-side platforms for activation."

Context is another area that is being under-exploited by advertisers, Dodds added: "Machine-learning methodologies now allow us to understand the meaning of an individual page. Advertisers are already buying into contextual targeting, but not exploiting it correctly. There is an over-reliance on behavioural audiences that are often poorly defined. 

"Contextual coupled with dynamic creative optimisation is a powerful tool that requires a deeper audience understanding and a lot of resource to produce relevant creative and match it to the contextual environment."

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