Google recently announced that it is delaying its plans to phase out third-party cookies in the Chrome browser until 2023, a year later than it originally planned. However, while the announcement may feel like a backwards step in the battle for consumer privacy, the wider industry continues to press on with plans to deprecate the use of third-party cookies.

Apple launched changes to IDFA (ID for Advertisers) as part of its iOS 14.5 update, which requires apps to ask users to grant permission to collect and share their data. What’s more, Mozilla and Firefox have already stopped the support for third-party cookies to track users on their browsers. Nevertheless, with Chrome accounting for 60% of all web traffic in the UK, this announcement still marks a seismic change for third-party cookies. 

This all leads to online advertising being pushed to adapt to a more privacy-driven web, giving end-users better control over their data. The 2022 timeline was always very ambitious, meaning this additional time has been welcomed by advertisers and publishers, as it provides them with more time to adapt. However, the transition to a cookieless world will not be a one-off switch, but an ongoing process for advertisers that is already underway.

Removing the reliance on cookies

In digital advertising, third-party cookies are widely used by ad tech companies to identify users on desktop and mobile devices for the purposes of targeting and reporting. Based on changes in consumer preferences on how their data is collected or used, brands will be forced to sever their dependence on cookies, shifting towards a future that meets new privacy standards. Businesses in the space can use this new era as an opportunity to solve some of the underlying issues linked to cookies, such as slow-loading and a lack of control over publisher data for editorial groups, or cookie matching between different platforms for advertisers. 

Furthermore, the reliance on cookies has made many marketers focus excessively on their targeting strategies, seeing them rely on questionable attribution models and embrace standard ad units pushing for a commoditisation of advertising. More often than not, some companies in the sector forget that the very reason why advertising exists is to create positive emotions in anyone that interacts with the brand. 

Contextual is the best answer and the only one available at scale 

While walled gardens will remain an option for advertisers to interact with their potential customers using first-party data, the big question is what will happen in the open web without cookies. Companies in the ad tech sector have two options: substitute cookies for an alternative technology that allows them to keep addressability on the web; or switch to privacy-first targeting options like contextual advertising. 

The ad tech industry is still in the early days of identifying an optimal solution for a post third-party cookie world. The problem with the cookie is not its technology, but its lack of privacy. With privacy concerns well and truly entrenched, no technology that fails to respect users will prevail.

Contextual targeting using NLP (Natural Language Processing) and AI algorithms is not only available and workable at scale, but is also proving to be as effective as audience targeting was. The ability for brands to understand the content that the user is consuming at the time of the ad delivery will become a new and as-effective identifier for the target audience and their preferences. Contextual targeting combines relevance with the scale, precision, and seamlessness that is championed by programmatic media. 

Ensuring consumers’ privacy

In terms of privacy, contextual advertising permits targeted marketing in highly relevant environments without requiring data from customers. It concerns itself with the context and meaning of advertising environments, not the behavioural patterns of online users. Therefore, it presumes that the user is relevant to the advertisement without ever relying on their historic behaviour. With real-time updates, the company’s contextual targets will automatically refresh to include new and relevant environments for the adverts, driving improved results and conversions. 

Another strategic advantage is that it enables advertisers to deliver messages to consumers when they are most receptive to brand messages. For instance, when a user is browsing content about a specific topic, it might imply their interest to make a related purchase. Overall, the ability for ad tech companies to target customisable contexts is essential, especially when operating in highly specific or niche markets. 

Future of ads

With the ad tech industry on the path to a cookieless world, it’s now time to adapt and make sure that consumers are able to provide privacy-driven, digitally savvy end-users with better control over their data. As contextual targeting has proven to be effective with real-time updates and personalisation, many marketers are seeking it out as an alternative to third-party cookies. 

Many industries have successfully adapted to key defining moments and have ended up becoming larger and more profitable as a result. The creation of the internet, for instance, created global opportunities for travel agencies and those who embraced the change evolved from local or national companies into global businesses. Those who resisted the change, and didn’t put their clients first, probably don’t exist today. The advertising industry is not an exception and businesses must define their strategy backwards. Consumers want privacy in the same way they want to book their holidays online – if this is granted then new, exciting opportunities will arise for everyone.