How to Do Retargeting in a Cookieless World

How to Do Retargeting in a Cookieless World

Retargeting has been a staple of the majority of advertising strategies in recent times.

However, the approach leans heavily on third-party cookies for targeting and profile data.

So, how will the impending removal of third-party cookies impact options in this area. And how can you plan for effective retargeting and advertising in a cookieless future?

Here, we give the topic some thought and consider:

What are cookies – and what’s happening to them?

For some upfront context before we dive into retargeting, cookies are small text files that store data in your user agent – which is the application you are using to access the internet – that is then used to identify and personalise your web experience in different ways.

They are effectively the rails that Google, Facebook and Amazon have all used for years to deliver targeted advertising – including the delivery of retargeting ads.

There are two main categories of cookies as follows:

retargeting in a cookieless world - first-party vs third-party cookieless

There is also an additional category – second-party party cookies – which collect the same type of information as first-party cookies but can potentially be transferred from one company or website to another under a data partnership.

Google’s decision to remove third-party cookies from its Chrome browser by the end of 2024 has major implications for marketers.

The decision itself is being driven by a range of issues from powerful legal changes – like the impact of legislation including the GDPR, the ePrivacy Directive and CCPA – to the growing concerns of consumers who are increasingly worried about how their personal data is collected and used. In fact research by the Pew Institute suggests that we are over the tipping point on this with 81% of consumers indicating that the potential issues with personal data collection now outweigh the benefits.

Add to this security concerns that already existed around third-party cookies and high profile investigations into potential data misuse by the big platform players – like the Irish Data Protection Commission (IDPC) investigation into Google’s advertising approach – and you get a feel for the landscape behind this decision.

With Chrome browser penetration hovering in the mid-to-high-sixties in percentage terms, according to Statista, the sheer scale of the impact of the switch off becomes clear. Particularly as other browser providers like Apple (Safari) and Mozilla (Firefox) have been blocking the use of 3rd party cookies for much longer now – since 2021 and 2019 respectively.

How are cookies used in retargeting?

So how are cookies currently being used in retargeting – and what are the potential implications for advertising in a cookieless world?

Retargeting is an approach to online advertising that essentially targets users based on their previous internet browsing history and behaviours with a view to showing them targeted ads that influence conversion.

And retargeting and reminding consumers of what you are offering matters – when you consider that an incredible 97% of users who visit your site for the first time leave empty-handed.

Retargeting itself exists in multiple different forms but here are some of the examples of how this is done in practice:

  • Website retargeting – the classic example that is best understood is when, for example, you are looking for a lawnmower online and do some initial web research looking at various sites on your journey. Throughout the journey third-party-cookies collect behavioural data that is then used to retarget you with lawnmower ads – as you continue to browse the web for other reasons in the following days and weeks. This is a third-party cookie example but the same principle applies if you want to use the same approach for users on your own site using first-party cookies
  • Email retargeting – where consumers have submitted their details to an email marketing list. When they visit a designated website this core data is used to trigger a retargeted email marketing response that is tied back to their behaviour on the site
  • Search engine retargeting – interest-based data when people search for products and services is valuable and it is possible to track keyword searches and use them as the basis for delivering retargeting ads

As third-party cookies are phased out, the mechanisms on which many of these retargeting opportunities are built will be affected.

And in some cases will disappear entirely.

So, marketers need to be thinking about how they set themselves up for effective retargeting in a cookieless world.

How will the removal of cookies impact retargeting?

This one is a little bit of a moveable feast as many of the proposed solutions for cookieless retargeting are work in progress and evolving right now – and the industry is still battling to understand the implications.

But here are some of the headlines around the potential impact, as things stand:

  • Cookie dependent channels will undoubtedly be impacted – by definition, any platform that relies on third-party cookies to deliver targeted advertising is going to be impacted. For example, Google’s advertising offerings in their current form will be heavily impacted with is why they are scrambling to propose industry alternatives as part of their Privacy Sandbox Initiative
  • Targeting will suffer, at least in the short term – and it will happen on existing platforms at least. It stands to reason that if you lose access to the type of behavioural data that third-party cookies currently provide then your ability to target (and retarget) is going to suffer. And that seems to be what we are seeing in some of the Google replacement options like the Topics and FLEDGE APIs which are currently offering much less granular targeting than predecessor solutions
  • Conversion reporting will be impacted – conversion reporting and effective measurement is key for marketers to be able to track the effectiveness of their efforts and it relies on third-party cookie tracking. In a ‘post’ cookie world this is likely to be replaced by estimates from data aggregations which are best guesses not accurate assessments of performance
  • First-party retargeting might be more prominent – it is worth noting on the website retargeting front that, while third-party retargeting using cookies isn’t going to be possible in future, first-party retargeting will. And it may well be that marketers pour more resources into developing this capability than previously as the change bites
  • Publishers may have to shift their model – it is a slight tangent for us here but for many publishers display ads are a revenue source that enables them to keep their heads above water financially. Less effective retargeting options will potentially impact their revenue from advertising and push many towards paywall type approaches

What is cookieless retargeting?

As outlined above, traditionally a significant percentage of advertising strategies have relied heavily on data from third-party cookies for retargeting.

Essentially, following the footsteps of users on their journeys around the web.

Cookieless tracking is concerned with finding alternative approaches that effectively bypass the need for the type of behavioural and profile based data used for targeting. And instead use data from cookieless tracking techniques to deliver a more compliant solution for a post-cookie world.

What solutions are there for cookieless retargeting?

So, what are the solutions that are out there that you can look to for cookieless retargeting?

Here are some of the main ones.

4 solutions for cookieless retargeting

1. Increase your focus on first-party retargeting

This is likely to be as part of a wider focus on increasing the value of first-party data.

First-party data refers to the data that is scattered across your MarTech stack, including:

  • website
  • analytics solutions
  • CRM
  • CDP

The changes that Google is making don’t prohibit the use of first-party cookies and data.

So, getting a strong handle on your first-party data and activating it for retargeting on your website and on other channels, like email, offers the potential for a compliant retargeting solution post cookie switch off.

It may not be the omni-channel type solution you currently have but something worth exploring in the change.

The key here is to get your consent ducks in a row before you start, to ensure customer buy-in and trust.

2. Google’s replacement retargeting solution

It is worth noting that, despite the decision to end third-party cookies, Google will continue to track and offer retargeting solutions in future.

Their current proposed replacement solution for retargeting, which is in testing and consultation with the industry, is their FLEDGE API.

It attempts to get around the privacy issues associated with retargeting by adding Chrome users to different interest groups based on their browsing habits and enabling advertisers to serve retargeting ads effectively anonymously to users based on this profile information.

It is early days and worth checking back with the progress on this as part of the broader Privacy Sandbox push.

But it is worth noting that the solution relies on users being logged into their Google accounts and there are concerns around the level of take-up there might be on this.

3. Contextual advertising solutions

These are not new in any way but they may well be set to get a boost as advertisers look to expand their cookieless horizons in coming months.

The approach relies on using non-personally identifiable data on where a user is viewing content to assess what their preferences might be.

For example, serving ads for your food mixer product on a website that is displaying cooking recipes.

For us, contextual has always been a worthy media option but given the changes taking place, we think that the combination of first-party data and contextual advertising could be the gamechanger that helps brands make big strides as cookies disappear.

4. AI driven attribution

One of the themes we return to often in our commentary on this topic is whether the removal of cookies is actually a blessing in disguise for the industry.

Why? The reality is that cookies actually do a particularly poor job of tracking complex, multi-channel and multi-device journeys anyway (due to limitations in the cookie/pixel tracking technology being used).

Take the client example on the right, for a leading UK retailer, where they were concerned about the quality of the attribution view they were getting from their GA 360 solution.

In this case, we were able to effectively rebuild their raw analytics data from the ground up using the AI and Machine Learning capability within Corvidae – and in the process we established that 80% of their data had been incorrectly attributed.

The reality here? Corvidae, our cookieless attribution solution, gave them a much more accurate attribution view than their original cookie-based solution.

Much of the narrative right now is about finding cookie ‘replacements’ and the reality is that looking for cookie ‘alternatives’ is going to give you a bigger bang for your advertising buck in a cookieless world.

Introducing Corvidae – our cookieless attribution solution

If you’re concerned about how you are going to deliver the same level of performance from your retargeting and broader marketing activity as third-party cookies deprecate – including how you track and report effectively on it – then you may want to take a look at Corvidae, our own cookieless attribution platform.

Corvidae replaces the cookie with AI and Machine Learning to provide a true picture of the customer journey and enables you to:

  • rebuild your marketing data from the ground up
  • cut out wasted marketing spend
  • convert customers for the lowest possible spend

To find out more, and the realities of a cookieless future, download a copy of our eBook, Is Cookie-Free Attribution a Myth?, below

Or request a no-obligation demo and discuss your attribution challenges with one of our experts today.

Is Cookie-Free Attribution a Myth?