The combination of GDPR and the draft ePrivacy Regulation had already precipitated the death knell for third party cookies. But the impending extinction has been accelerated after Google Chrome announced it would ban the use of third party cookies in 2022, following the example set by Safari and Mozilla Firefox.   

Many business models will need to pivot and marketing strategies overhauled in order to ensure they remain viable. According to one prediction, 85% of current digital marketing will be useless thanks to the cookie ban.

In this blog post, we explore the rapidly approaching apocalypse of third party cookies, how it will impact digital marketing and what can be done to adapt to this 'new normal'.

Cookies are crumbling fast 

In February, the course was set for negotiating the final text of the ePrivacy Regulation. Its progress has been stuttering (it was supposed to be launched in conjunction with the GDPR back in 2018), but it's likely that a new data privacy law will eventually emerge from these negotiations resulting in stricter rules on the use of third-party cookies.

The draft ePrivacy Regulation requires you to: “obtain the explicit consent from end-users before using cookies and trackers on your website, or any other technology that stores personal data on users’ terminal equipment (hardware and software).” 

But rather than explore the minutiae of these new rules, it's worth stepping back and considering these developments in a wider ethical sense: consumers are increasingly concerned about having their online activities tracked, legislators feel morally obliged to protect the consumer and regulators will soon be taking action.

Realising the direction of travel, internet browsers have adapted their products. First, Apple introduced Intelligent Tracking Protection to its Safari browser in 2017 to thwart the use of third-party cookies and protect user privacy. Mozilla Firefox followed in 2019 with its similarly named Enhanced Tracking Protection.

Now Google Chrome has followed suit. Starting in 2022 it too will make cookies obsolete. 

The ramifications of this are clear: companies which rely on third-party cookies will have to change course. Third party data will no longer be a viable means of building customer profiles and providing the bedrock for personalisation.

Even the role of first party cookies will likely be compromised. Safari has limited first-party cookies to a seven-day shelf life. So, a visitor to your site will only be trackable if they return within seven-days, after that time you won't be able to join the dots from their previous visits.

As consumers become ever more privacy-aware and data literate, don't be surprised if the likes of Chrome and Mozilla follow suit. 

Is this the end of personalisation?

The cookie's demise will have a huge impact on personalisation efforts. Offering different user experiences, based on an individual's previous behaviours is going to become considerably harder - unless they are logged into an account and have given explicit permission for how their data can be used within a “gated community”.

But it's not just changing regulations which are putting personalisation under scrutiny. A survey by Gartner revealed that 80% of marketers who have invested in personalisation will abandon their efforts by 2025. No doubt, tightening data privacy laws have a major role to play here. But it's also due to reportedly poor ROI from personalisation efforts. 

It hasn't lived up to the hype, suggests Charles Golvin, senior director analyst at Gartner for Marketers:

“Personal data has long been the fuel that fires marketing at every stage of the customer journey... However, this quest has failed to meet marketers’ ambitions and, in some cases, has backfired, as consumers both directly and indirectly reject brands’ overtures.”

Personalisation, as we know it, has become a turn-off for many consumers. Email inboxes are crammed full of tailored messages, and the general public is becoming increasingly educated about the processes behind them. The truth is: it's not really personalisation, it's categorisation based on information they often never consciously gave.

The race to collect more and more personal data - particularly from third party sources - as the basis for personalisation efforts, is over. Personalisation is not completely dead, but it will inevitably have a reduced role to play in the marketing mix for many companies.

And perhaps that's a good thing...

Preparing for a cookie-less future

In preparing for a (largely) post-cookie world, user experience must be front-and-centre, with personalisation considered as a useful add-on.

In summary, companies need to:

  • Prioritise user experience
  • Utilise anonymous personalisation, where necessary
  • Invest in consent and preference management systems  
  • Incentivise omnichannel sign-ups

It's worth considering how to approach the challenge by using the metaphor of a visit to a local shop.

In the first instance, a consumer will likely visit because it's in the right location (a metaphor for SEO), they're aware it will likely have the items they need (brand awareness) and they can walk around easily with items clearly signposted and make the desired purchase (user experience).

Let's say you're walking around an aisle struggling to find a bottle of Coke Zero when the sales assistant approaches, discovers your predicament and engages you in conversation as they take you to the right place. The sales assistant doesn't know who you are, but they have offered a personal service.

This type of experience can be replicated online via anonymous personalisation. For example, when a visitor lands on your website, their clickstream data (what they click on and where) can be used as the basis for a personalised experience which highlights the things that are likely to matter most.

Crucially, when the customer returns, they will not be confronted by a customer assistant who remembers everything about their every visit (and creeping them out). But, they may receive an overall better service based on a strong commitment to customer/user experience. 

However, if the customer took out a store card, an extra layer of personalisation is still possible. This is an example of how a store can capture explicit preferences from a customer. 'Zero party data' is a term first coined by Forrester to describe any data that a customer proactively and deliberately shares with a company. For example, a customer may choose to share information via subscriptions, surveys, questionnaires and preference centres.

We're now arguably entering a new era of technology-enabled, human-controlled experiences. And we think that's a good thing!

Experience is the future

The end of the cookie shouldn't be cause for despair, but instead a chance to refocus minds. The efforts of personalisation have long been misdirected, obsessed with tracking rather than prioritising the user experience as a whole, draining vital marketing budgets.

So, now's a good time to gain perspective and get back to what really matters: creating brilliant user experiences which get customers returning again and again.