How to Rise to the Challenge of Cookie-less Advertising

Bringing back 'pre-ad tech' tactics, post Google news

This time it’s for real.

Weaning media plans and tech stacks off third-party cookies and audience data is now an urgent priority for the remainder of 2021.

Google may have just killed the last, best hope for being able to buy deterministic (or “user-level”) cross-domain audience data off the open market. We already knew the third-party cookie was going to die in 2022. Google is now taking that option off the table within the confines of its own ecosystem. Consortiums of synchronized first-party audiences may survive (and even thrive) outside the Google advertising ecosystem, but they’ll have a much harder time achieving meaningful scale. And remember, Google is essentially following Apple’s lead by saying that owners of first-party audiences are disallowed from pooling their user data together behind the scenes.

Here’s what you’ll learn as you master “cookie-less” advertising:

Despite the fact that the next few months and quarters look intimidating, there is a not-too-distant future where you, your team and your brand are OK; you’ve adapted to this tectonic shift and are rapidly mastering a blend of innovative and time-tested digital marketing tactics. Let this serve as a foretelling of what your “cookie-less” marketing team will have learned when this trial by fire is over and the dust has settled. Let it also serve as a present-day road map for where to focus over the rest of 2021 and beyond.

Probabilistic doesn’t mean ‘risky’

A more private web and app ecosystem isn’t going to mire your campaigns in an impenetrable fog of uncertainty. The fact is that predictive models and third-party data sets based on user-level tracking have always required statistics and those models never guaranteed risk-free outcomes. All that’s changing is the “atomic” level of targeting and measurement is in many cases going to be set at aggregations of consumers (often referred to as “cohorts”), rather than individuals. Your statistical models will get better over time, giving you clear targeting and measurement levers so that every new campaign isn’t a roll of the dice.

Better at experimentation

Go read “Marketers Underuse Ad Experiments. That’s a Big Mistake” from Harvard Business Review. It’s provided the playbook for what marketers can do when they can’t use third-party data to pre-select only the audience members and ad impressions that fit precise criteria. Iteratively testing and learning may take more time to arrive at the truth, but it’s a truth that’s tailored to the needs of the brand, not the needs of a third-party data broker.

Bringing back ‘pre ad tech’ tactics

Panel data, media mix modeling and direct publisher buys are all examples of “pre ad tech” tactics set to make a comeback (not that they were ever really gone). Luckily they’ll all be vastly superior to their forebears. Opted-in consumer panel data will be rich with deterministic digital audience profiles and behaviors, serving as a highly robust targeting and measurement yardstick available in near real time. Media mix modeling will give a bird’s eye view of cross-channel performance, only with access to more data and faster processing, giving marketers the agility to respond to learnings before they go stale. And with leading publishers building troves of first-party data and powerful audience activation offerings, brands will be able to fine-tune direct buys to an unprecedented degree.

Expertise on second-party data

When you need audience data but you can no longer buy it off the open market, there’s really only one choice left: second-party data (aka “someone else’s first-party data”). Even the walled gardens can basically be considered very large-scale second-party data partners. They have an audience and they offer marketers means (albeit privacy-preserving means; more on that below) of accessing that audience. But beyond the Walled Gardens, there are limitless possibilities for second-party data partnerships: publishers, retail media, strategic industry partners and sellers of complementary goods & services, media and entertainment platforms and so forth. You’ll become an expert on finding and evaluating the second-party data your campaigns need to scale and succeed.

Deep bench of ‘privacy-preserving’ tactics

Hopefully it’s (somewhat) clear at this point that “cookie-less” advertising will be anything but a wasteland. Data will still be out there, you’ll just work with it in different ways. However, individual consumer privacy will have to be protected. To this end, there is a massive amount of innovation happening that will allow digital advertising to be as effective as ever without sacrificing privacy. Companies like Amazon, Google and InfoSum are innovating data clean rooms. Apple and Google are making major changes to their web browsers. Consent Management Platforms are helping capture and track consumer opt-ins. Companies like Permutive are building solutions for “edge computing” that satisfy a need for user data to stay secure (and private) on users’ own devices. If ad tech has shown us anything, it’s that we won’t lack for technical solutions to the difficult challenges facing digital marketing.