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The third-party browser tracking cookie is dead. What’s next?

Why cookies are going away and how marketers can acquire more new customers without them using first-party data.

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Browser Tracking Cookies Dead

Marketers have relied on third-party tracking cookies for the last 25 years to track consumer behavior online. Nearly all ad tech and martech platforms use cookies for targeting, retargeting, display advertising and behavioral marketing in general. Now, that’s all changing.

Smart cookie-blocking technology led by Apple’s Intelligent Tracking Prevention (ITP) and Firefox’s Enhanced Tracking Protection (ETP) now block third-party cookies by default, and even Google’s Chrome will soon get controls that let consumers block cookies. Browser-level blocking, third-party ad-blocking apps, and new regulations like GDPR and the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) are quickly relegating the old cookie to the internet dustbin.

This is widely regarded as a fundamental change in online advertising. What does the death of the cookie mean to marketers and advertisers like you? Should you give up on marketing and pursue your passion for painting cats eating ice cream? 

You can put away the paintbrushes for now. While change is coming, marketing as we know it will survive without third-party cookies, and more effective data sources are already in the oven. Smell that? It’s the future of marketing. 

Just like Apple quickly scuttled Adobe Flash from the digital landscape (which, honestly, nobody but Homestar Runner misses) it also put the first knife in the cookie. While both Mozilla and Apple have had third-party cookie blocking on by default for a while, ad networks quickly found loopholes in those protections. 

With little financial interest in digital advertising and its main Google differentiator now being privacy protection, Apple made the move to Intelligent Tracking Prevention 2.2 (ITP) to seal up the digital loopholes and much more effectively block third-party cookies. Mozilla’s privacy-focused Firefox browser has followed suit with similar improvements to its Enhanced Tracking Protection (ETP). 

Both ITP and ETP are able to block third-party cookies by preventing them from being stored in the browser, and, to close the loophole exploited by advertisers, they can also prevent third-party cookies from being recorded as first-party cookies. Apple’s ITP2 in Safari takes it a step further by cutting the first-party cookie lifespan from seven days to one day. These blockers are active by default in both Safari and Firefox. 

Google’s business model relies on collecting data about consumers — what they are shopping for, what videos they watch, what they read and what they surf for on the internet. Given the search giant’s dominance in advertising and that Chrome browser accounts for over 60% of the browser market share, Google’s opt-in version of ITP will be the ultimate swan song for cookies — and why the company may run afoul of antitrust law.

Google, of course, is keenly aware of the implications, which is why it is carefully marketing all of its new privacy controls as a benefit to consumers. “Our experience shows that people prefer ads that are personalized to their needs and interests,” Google engineering VP Prabhakar Raghavan said in a blog post explaining the shift, “but only if those ads offer transparency, choice, and control.”

It has also kept fairly mum on what it will do in the absence of third-party cookies. The big question is whether or not Google will make a market-dominating move with a replacement. No matter what Google does, its digital dominance assures that it will guide the future of the entire ad tech market.

How digital advertising can work without cookies

Enough with the doom and gloom. What can you do to replace the tracking cookie and still acquire new customers and connect with your audience? Here are a few tactics that can help you break your cookie habit.

Contextual advertising

What’s old is new again and contextual advertising is back. “We don’t expect a decline in ad dollars or a decline in ad traffic, we expect a reallocation and shift of budgets,” said Jon Kagan, VP of search at Cogniscient Media. “The next best option to cookies based behavioral targeting is anything keyword or keyword contextual-based advertising. Years ago everyone discounted it and we moved further and further away from keyword targeting, but now we’re going to have to go straight back to it.”

With behavioral targeting, someone like you may get ads for martech platforms, ad agencies and the like everywhere you go on the web. But as an everyday consumer, you’re actually more interested in knitting. It doesn’t make much sense for you to get ads for Marketo when you are on Knitterly sharing your latest pattern — which could happen when behavioral targeting is being employed. 

With contextual targeting, the ads you see are based on the content you are looking at instead of your overall behavior profile. So when you are looking at your knitting blog, you see ads for knitting needles, and when you’re reading up on how to improve the click-through rate on your email newsletters, you see ads for relevant email automation platforms. 

The move to contextual targeting will also mean a move back to focusing on producing and distributing relevant content.  

People-based targeting

Introduced to the marketing world by Facebook, people-based advertising relies on a unique identifier that is related to the user, not the device. This method does not rely on third-party cookies to track users or gather data, and it allows brands to meet customers at the places and times that they actually want to engage with them. 

A successful People-Based Marketing strategy boils down to these three key elements:

  • Identification. Brands need to identify their customers and connect them correctly to their various devices. The goal is to ensure persistent, cross-device recognition for a single view of the customer. 
  • Data. Today, brands have a plethora of data on each of their customers; from purchase data to email engagement to device information. The identification-first approach for customer data gives brands an upper-hand of targeting them effectively.
  • Automation. Instead of relying on cookie-based data, people-based marketing automation relies on first party-based targeting. It helps brands unlock a singular view of the customer, anchoring all of the data to a single source. 

The big catch here is customer identification and data. In the walled gardens of Google, Amazon, and Facebook, the customer remains logged in within these ecosystems across devices. But just because you aren’t Google or Facebook doesn’t mean you don’t have access to great sources of first-party data of your own.

First-party data from phone calls

Getting your hands on first-party data will be more important than ever in the absence of third-party cookies. Facebook, Google, and Amazon obviously have a huge advantage, but brands often have access to more data than they think. Not to mention that utilizing data from customers who have shown interest in reaching out to you is generally seen as more above-board than buying and selling access to third-party consumer data. 

One untapped source of first-party customer data might be hiding in your call center. Phone conversations may be your ultimate first-party data source and they’re a holy grail for marketers who work in industries that rely on phone calls to make sales.

When your customers call you, they are literally telling you what they want and how they talk about it. To feasibly classify customer conversations into useful digital datasets, you need an automated system that can understand what’s being said and accurately derive meaning from it. Enter Invoca Signal AI — a machine learning-powered predictive analytics technology that analyzes your callers’ conversations and turns them into actionable marketing intelligence. 

With Signal AI, not only can you predict whether a conversion happened on each call, you can predict things like caller type (e.g. service call vs. sales call), as well as milestones on the path to conversion. And when you understand the nature of a call, you can optimize your media for higher ROI, which can be particularly helpful when you are nailing down the right keywords to feed to your contextual advertising campaigns.

Invoca also enables you to marry your digital customer journey data to data from phone calls to create a single and comprehensive customer profile. By using online data collection and trackable phone numbers, marketers can attribute digital campaigns to actions taken on inbound calls. With this information being connected in the Invoca platform, you can analyze digital and call data in one place and get a more complete view of your customers.

How marketers can use first-party call tracking data 

Okay, so having first-party call data is great, but what can you do with it? AI-powered call tracking and analytics software can bridge the gap between online customer behavior and offline actions (like purchases made on the phone) by unearthing rich data about the call, attributing the call to the entire digital journey, and providing the data required to automate and optimize marketing actions after the call, like retargeting and suppression.

Call Tracking platforms like Invoca provide the following capabilities:

1. Track calls and attribute them to pre-call consumer touchpoints like paid search, social, display, emails, or landing pages

2. Unify data across multiple sources including web, CRM, or other offline data to create a rich caller profile

3. Analyze phone conversations with tools like Invoca Signal AI to derive insight around call drivers, behaviors, and outcomes

4. Push this intelligence to your marketing stack for automation, analysis, optimization, personalization, and audience expansion

Armed with powerful call data, digital marketers can optimize marketing performance, personalize the caller experience, enhance the end-to-end customer journey, and expand audience reach — all without third-party cookies. 

Moving marketing forward

While it seems pretty scary right now, keep in mind that cookies are a 25-year-old technology and we’ll definitely find a way to move on. It’s going to be all about exploring new technologies, innovation, and striking a balance between profit and privacy choices to avoid another wave of consumer backlash. Taking advantage of first-party data that you get when people intentionally engage with your brand is the first step toward accomplishing this. 

Get the Invoca Call Tracking Study Guide to learn everything there is to know about today’s AI-powered call tracking and analytics solutions and how it can help you thrive in a cookie-free world.

About the author

Invoca is an AI-powered call tracking and analytics platform that helps marketers get campaign attribution and actionable data from inbound phone calls. Invoca delivers real-time call analytics to help marketers take informed actions based on data generated before and during a phone conversation. As a result, marketers can dramatically improve ROI by driving more revenue-generating calls, increasing conversion rates, personalizing the customer journey, and running more efficient campaigns. With Fortune 500 customers in telecommunications, financial services, insurance, healthcare, and home services, Invoca's platform integrates with Google Marketing Platform, Facebook, Adobe Experience Cloud, and Salesforce Sales and Marketing Clouds.

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