HTTP cookies (aka “web cookies,” “browser cookies,” “internet cookies” or simply “cookies”) have been working behind the scenes on consumers’ computers for more than a quarter of a century now. They have roots tracing back to the early 1990s — and initial moves toward their widespread use were seen in the 1995 release of Internet Explorer version 2, which included support for them.
They’ve been used primarily to keep track of internet users’ online activities so that websites can, for example, remember what an e-store shopper has put in his or her cart or know that a website’s user is logged in to his or her online account. And for marketers, the ability of third-party tracking cookies to keep tabs on internet users’ online activities and browsing history have delivered huge benefits. Among them, these cookies can help brands know what types of products and services a specific consumer may be shopping for and help them serve relevant advertisements to prospects who have shown an interest in what they’re selling.
But, unfortunately for many marketers (and in a long-sought win for online-privacy advocates), the third-party tracking cookie’s days are numbered.
The crumbling cookie
U.S. and European lawmakers took some of the most substantial strikes at the third-party tracking cookie’s longevity in the early 2000s through the late 2010s. During this time, legislators began putting gradually increasing limitations on these cookies’ use via the passage of a trio of consequential laws: the European Union’s ePrivacy Directive, passed in 2002, the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, passed in 2016, and the California Consumer Privacy Act, passed in 2018.
More recently, a number of internet browsers have begun phasing out the third-party cookie. While Google has delayed its plans to phase out the third-party cookie on the Chrome browser. That has given marketers until at least late 2024 to figure out a replacement for the widely used tracking and targeting tool, the writing is definitely on the wall — and the cookie is clearly crumbling.
5 attractive alternatives to the third-party tracking cookie
With the third-party tracking cookie’s time fast running out, various alternative targeting solutions have popped up or are in the works. Built to help marketers make their consumer-facing content and ads more personalized, some of these options are still being tested, while others have already been put in place (with even newer solutions sure to come into play as more time passes).
Five of the leading alternatives to third-party cookies that are currently available to or will soon be available to forward-looking marketers include:
1. First-party data collection
First and foremost, all businesses and brands should strive to collect as much relevant first-party data about their customers as possible. This direct-from-the-source information can be especially valuable to marketers, as (since it’s harvested straight from consumers) it offers extremely high levels of reliability. And, in addition to using this information to garner insights about a specific customer’s needs and preferences, which can help guide the ideal communications to deliver to that consumer, brands can use the same data to target and attract similar consumers with look-alike marketing strategies.
Brandon pro insight: The leading source for first-party data collection is on-site consumer registration, which brands can grow by offering such value-added content as newsletters, gated articles, special events (both in-person and online) and forums to spur more user registrations.
2. Google’s Privacy Sandbox
A marketing tool that aims to use a set of application programming interfaces (APIs) to supply advertisers with data on ad targeting, attribution, conversions, spam prevention and more, Google’s Privacy Sandbox is still a work in progress. But it promises to curtail cross-site and cross-app tracking while still offering marketers some of the same highly focused targeting capabilities as the third-party cookie, all via first-party cookies on the Chrome browser. While this may not yet provide the definitive answer to replacing the third-party tracking cookie, advertisers looking to get ahead of the curve in the area would be well advised to follow news and updates regarding the Privacy Sandbox.
3. Google’s Publisher Provided Identifiers
Another Google initiative, the search engine giant’s Publisher Provided Identifier (PPID) tool, leverages Google Ad Manager to enable publishers to assign identifiers to users when they log in to a website. These identifiers can then be shared between certain partners to enable personalized ads to be served to users in a privacy-centric manner. Further, marketers can use the tool to build custom audience segments, ensure that relevant ads are served to users, and more. For brands looking to harness PPID functionality today, Google Ad Manager already offers ways for its users to start doing just that.
4. Contextual advertising
Rather than serving ads to consumers based on their internet browsing histories and personal data, contextual advertising presents advertisements to website visitors based on a keyword- and phrase-focused analysis of the specific content of the web page they’re on. By doing so, consumers are presented with ads based on their immediate interests and their current online destination. While this type of advertising admittedly lacks the more focused targeting capabilities and accuracy of advertising driven by third-party tracking cookies, it serves to greatly alleviate user-privacy concerns.
Brandon pro insight: Contextual advertising is most effective when employed on websites visited by highly specific and even niche audiences. For example, an advertiser selling bowhunting gear would be better served by advertising on a website geared specifically toward bowhunting, rather than toward hunting in general.
5. Universal IDs
Created (typically by tech-industry companies) to identify and track users based on first-party website cookies and users’ personal data such as email addresses, phone numbers, user IDs, etc., Universal IDs are unique tags assigned individual web users. Once in place, they’re shared across the digital-marketing supply chain to allow marketers to deliver relevant, targeted advertising to the consumers with which they correspond. Meanwhile, Universal IDs provide much more control to the individual user than third-party tracking cookies allow for. This is accomplished via tactics such as fully anonymized user contact information, easy user access (via a personal account login) to details about how their ID is being used and shared by advertisers, and significant transparency about the ways in which their data is being exchanged.
As each of these (and other) alternatives to the third-party cookie advances, Brandon clients can rest assured that the agency’s team of data-driven marketing professionals will stay on top of all the new developments, as well as best practices for the tools’ integration and application. And of course, we’re always eager to share our experience and expertise with new clients — including your brand or business.
To get started with marketing help ranging from consumer/prospect tracking to a comprehensive strategy tailored to boost the performance of all of your marketing efforts, contact us today.