What the GDPR Freakout Can Teach Us About a Cookieless Future

Applying a teaching moment from the past to the pivot away from third-party data

This past May marked the three-year implementation anniversary of the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). If you’re one of the many marketers who failed to note the coming and going of this milestone, it might be because the looming disruption of the shift to a cookieless world (albeit, a delayed but still inevitable one) makes the impact of GDPR on your marketing plans look minuscule by comparison.

That said, for those currently fretting over the long-term sustainability of targeted marketing as we know it, it’s worth taking a lesson from the panic that consumed the global—and especially European—marketing community just three short years ago. The fallout and rebound of modern-day data-driven marketing in the wake of GDPR taught us a lot about what it takes to survive and thrive amid massive upheavals to the privacy landscape. Here are some insights from yesterday’s GDPR and today’s cookieless trenches.

Time to double-down—or bow out

Three years post-GDPR, the global ad-tech and marketing community has long since fallen back into its groove, and—indeed—it turns out that relevant, omnichannel marketing remains as possible and effective as ever. That said, the fallout of GDPR and its effect on the competitive ad-tech landscape prove highly instructive in light of the forthcoming loss of third-party cookies for audience targeting.

When GDPR hit, data and ad-tech providers had a choice to make: transform or jump ship. For many, the required technology and process pivots, not to mention the expected short-term revenue blips, were simply too daunting. Companies exited the EU, many of them consolidating their presences in the U.S., where national brands could still take advantage of their products and services as they currently existed.

Others stayed. They adapted. They innovated. They envisioned and executed privacy-first (and, yes, scalable) approaches that not only complied to the letter of GDPR, but that also offered flexible, sustainable solutions for future marketplace shifts. These are the companies on the frontlines of the forthcoming “cookiepocalypse.” And they’re the ones that aren’t panicking.

The global lens that leads the way

As U.S. marketers prepare for the final pivot to a cookieless world, they need to be taking a global perspective in understanding what the future of marketing will look like. Brands have to take stock of their data assets and reevaluate all of the strategies, technologies and methods they have developed in recent decades to ensure they are ready for the future.

When it comes to data, the shift to a cookieless reality is resulting in an increased focus on building first-party data strategies that won’t be dependent on third-party cookies and will give brands full control and transparency around privacy and consumer impact. For many global brands, the pivots made in the wake of GDPR have already laid the groundwork for a successful transition.

The very real challenge that many U.S. brands will face with their first-party data is scale. Not every brand has been focused on building out proprietary data assets, and many have only been using first-party data for specific use cases where scale isn’t the goal (e.g., personalization, customer retention, cross-sell and up-sell opportunities). Instead, these brands have relied on third-party data to provide the scale and maturity that their first-party data has lacked.

In looking to fill that gap, brands have to begin rethinking the application of first-party data and using it as a base to build consumer profiles that can be used across more disciplines. To do so, they need to start by incorporating data from all online and offline data sources to build the scale and depth that first-party data has traditionally lacked. Untapped offline data might include research, purchase, survey, CRM or loyalty program data. By unlocking these resources through data onboarding, brands can build a primary foundation for robust first-party data strategies that are consumer-friendly and built to last in a cookieless world.

The opportunity—one realized by many global brands in the wake of GDPR—is to use offline data sources, either independently or in unison, to aggregate consumer attributes into high propensity cohorts that identify highly correlating user clusters. Simply said, finding the commonality between different customer traits and their behavior. Once the data has been used to build audience cohorts, an onboarding partner will use this data to map the offline attributes to compliant online profiles to create digital audiences.

The final product is a proprietary customer target profile based on intelligence that only you, as a brand, hold. This data helps drive new customer prospecting, consumer-friendly engagement and effective interest-based advertising.

The shift to a cookieless world represents a sea change within the marketing industry, but there are plenty of lessons we can take from the implementation of GDPR to guide our industry’s journey, particularly in the U.S. It’s time for brands to build future-proofed, flexible, mature data strategies that can be applied to any marketing or business need, independent of channel or type of identifier—and to do so with partners that are entering a cookieless world with confidence, not consternation.

Kristina Prokop is co-founder and CEO at Eyeota. For more than 20 years, Kristina has been on the forefront of digital marketing and online advertising, bringing new advertising technologies and business models to market. Kristina has previously held positions at Adify, Mirago and eBay.