How The Cookies Crumble In A Mobile-First World

Columnist Mike Sands believes if marketers want to get ahead in today's mobile, hyperconnected world, they need to move past outdated technologies like cookies and tags.

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ss-cookies-smartphone-mobileToday’s digital technologies have the ability to connect people and brands in the most advanced, relevant ways ever seen. The promise of digital devices — and all the information that comes along with them — has made it possible for marketers and advertisers to connect with their customers with just the right information at just the right time.

The marketing holy grail of “right person, right message, right place, right time” has never been closer to becoming a reality.

So why, then, if true people-based marketing has never been more within reach, does it seem to be harder to achieve than ever? Why are consumers frustrated and annoyed by irrelevant ads that tax their data plans and interrupt their online experiences? Why do we continue to see ad blockers among the top downloads in app store charts?

There’s a reason that’s often overlooked, and it has to do with the fact that digital marketing technology is built on antiquated, browser-based technology called “tags” and “cookies.” These bits of JavaScript, used by websites and marketing vendors to track user data, date back to the mid-1990s and simply don’t cut it in today’s mobile-first, hyperconnected world.

The Drawbacks Of Traditional Cookies And Tags

Let’s take a look at the challenges with traditional cookies and tags.

• They’re nonexistent in apps: There are now more mobile-only consumers than desktop-only consumers, and 86 percent of their mobile time is spent within apps. Mobile apps are where consumers are and where marketers need to be.

But cookies and tags don’t work within mobile apps. This means that marketers can’t effectively measure or optimize their efforts through mobile apps or understand mobile app experiences in the context of the overall customer journey.

• They don’t work effectively on mobile browsers: Not only do cookies present problems in mobile apps; they don’t work consistently across mobile browsers, either.

Apple’s mobile Safari browser, which earlier this year claimed 55 percent of US mobile browser usage, blocks third-party cookies — that is, cookies used for ad and marketing tech purposes. And while third-party cookies do work on Google’s Chrome browser and the Android OS, they don’t function effectively within the majority of other smartphone and tablet browsers.

• They are device-specific: Cookies are device-level identifiers associated with a single browser, meaning that they aren’t reliable ways of mapping to an individual. Multiple individuals might have the same cookie if they share a browser. Or one individual could have multiple cookies if they use multiple devices or browsers.

In short, cookie ≠ person. This creates immense challenges in targeting advertising and marketing to the right person and accurately measuring the reach, frequency and effectiveness of campaigns.

• They aren’t future-proof: Cookies present a number of challenges to understanding how consumers are using the 15 billion devices connected to the internet today. But the issues become even bigger when you think about the 50 billion connected products that are anticipated to exist in the next five years.

This includes items like connected TVs, mobile payment systems, wearable devices and smart thermostats. Most of these will operate with cookie-free environments, meaning that cookies will keep shrinking in importance as these emerging technologies become more prevalent.

• They impede the user experience: Much attention has been given lately to slow page load times and site latency, both of which harm the user experience and suck up mobile data.

These issues exist because vendors across the marketing tech and ad tech ecosystem each have their own third-party tags to power data-driven applications like analytics, advertising, retargeting and search. As a result, sites are oversaturated with cookies and tags, which hinder the user experience because they load within the browser.

Looking Ahead

As the role of the web cookie continues to crumble, marketers need to plan for a brave new future in which customer recognition and knowledge isn’t tied to 20-year-old data collection technology. The unfortunate reality is that many digital marketing vendors have invested heavily in legacy platforms that are dependent on tags and cookies — and they’re not likely to let go of these aging technologies any time soon.

But marketers deserve innovative approaches for capturing and connecting cross-channel data and identity in real time. Otherwise, they won’t be able to identify and understand their customers, let alone target and communicate with them accurately and efficiently.

Marketers should start asking their technology partners questions like:

  • How are you preparing for a connected, cross-channel world without cookies?
  • What new approaches are included in your technology roadmap?

More forward-looking tech partners will let marketers know that cookieless data collection technology has evolved to the point where it’s possible for them to collect and merge data across web, mobile apps, CRM (customer relationship management) and other channels like point of sale and distribute the data across marketing endpoints in real time.

One solution is to implement server-based data technologies that use API (application program interface) connections and the cloud to do the work of cookies. This enables marketers to collect data from all devices and touchpoints and connect all of the data into one clear profile for immediate marketing activation.

Internet giants like Google, Facebook and Twitter are also replacing the besieged cookie with their single sign-on (SSO) approach, which authenticates users through logins on their owned properties and on some third-party websites and apps. The SSO method gives these companies access to cross-device user-level data without using cookies or tags, enabling them to create vast stores of rich audience data that can be used for better media targeting.

Advertisers are responding well: By the end of the year, Facebook is expected to realize $16 billion in global ad revenue, an increase of 42 percent over 2014. The downside? Brands who turn their data over to these “walled garden” players don’t get customer or campaign data back, meaning they lose control of their first-party data and identity, and they can’t measure their marketing outcomes effectively.

It’s time to start thinking about a world where browsers, cookies and tags play a smaller and smaller role in how brands reach their customers. Marketers must demand data collection alternatives that will work across all channels today and in the future and enable them to maintain ownership of their customer data. Or they will be doomed to irrelevance.

Contributing authors are invited to create content for MarTech and are chosen for their expertise and contribution to the martech community. Our contributors work under the oversight of the editorial staff and contributions are checked for quality and relevance to our readers. The opinions they express are their own.

About the author

Mike Sands
Mike Sands is CEO of Signal. Prior to joining the company, he was part of the original Orbitz management team and held the positions of CMO and COO. While at Orbitz, Mike helped take the business from start-up to IPO, then through two acquisitions (Cendant and Blackstone). After Orbitz, Mike joined The Pritzker Group as a partner on their private equity team. Mike also has held management roles at General Motors Corporation and Leo Burnett. His work at General Motors led him to be named a “Marketer of the Next Generation” by Brandweek magazine. Mike holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Communications from Northwestern University and a Masters in Management degree from the J.L. Kellogg School of Management.

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