Discussions about data protection, digital identities and our online footprints are rarely out of the news these days. Consumers have never been more aware of what data companies and brands are collecting about them, and how they’re using it. Within the marketing and advertising industry, debate continues between privacy activists and regulators about what sort of notice and choice is needed for compliant marketing data use. In Europe, as online ethics continue to develop, the balance between the business use of personal data, and respect for people’s rights and freedoms still evolves. 

The power of the walled gardens

The big update in this area over the past year was Google’s announcement that it will phase out third-party cookies in its Chrome browser. Third-party cookies contain information captured other than by the website a user is currently accessing, and until now, they’ve been the backbone of how online advertising has worked. Using the adtech ecosystem, brands embed their content within websites, and when users visit pages and interact with content, they not only save their own cookies on the user’s device – containing a record of their visit and any other preferences – they also check and record other cookies already present on the user’s device. In this way, websites and brands can track users around the web.

With such a dominant position in online advertising – not to mention the huge popularity of Chrome amongst Internet users with an almost 65% market share – Google’s announcement has major implications for other brands and online marketers. So seismic is the move that Google itself then said it would be delaying the move until 2023, a year later than its original target, citing the complexity of removing cookies and ensuring web developers are suitably ready to work with its Privacy Sandbox alternative.

Google’s Privacy Sandbox concept is fundamentally about creating a protected environment for web users – a protected space around the personal data users share with the websites they visit, from their activity and preferences to details they might have entered into a form. It proposes using other techniques such as differential privacy, where information is stored within a dataset in a way that still reveals patterns of behaviour, but is sufficiently anonymised so that individual users can’t be identified. Over the longer term, it also is about addressing the over-collection of data, putting measures in place for sites to be more specific about what information they need from users.

Similar tightening of policies is also happening on the mobile side of things. Mobile Ad IDs, the way the industry identifies and tracks users on mobile devices, are also under scrutiny. Apple already announced the end of IDFA (IDentifier For Advertisers) in iOS 14, with similar moves expected from Google. 

While these changes give consumers more precise controls and choices over their privacy, which is undoubtedly a good thing, the likes of Apple, Google and Facebook control so much internet traffic that the rest of the players in adtech and martech can do little but comply with their proposals and rules. Privacy should not be used to shore up market dominance, and so the rest of the industry need to find ways to operate not just within these walled gardens, but also find ways to capture their own first-party data, and invest in privacy and risk management technologies that will help them match this data between parties without it leaving its original location.

A new advertising model

All of these changes mean that for advertisers and marketers, a strategic rethink is needed. Both the companies behind websites and online platforms, as well as advertisers themselves, must stand up and take notice. They must look at ways they can continue to understand website visitors, in a way that doesn’t rely on what increasing numbers of consumers see as intrusive tracking across the web.

For publishers and those behind online platforms, meanwhile, they have a heavy dependence on advertising revenue to fund their content. The use of programmatic ad buying and ad exchanges, established for many years, has given publishers easy access to advertisers. But that all depends on third-party cookies, and in a world where they are fading from use in all the major browsers and platforms that people use to access the web, alternative forms for publishers and advertisers to easily connect will be critical to make sure the Web’s content stays robust and accessible. 

What marketers should do

Both brands and publishers need to look at the data, and resulting revenue streams, they’re relying on. With third-party cookies out of action, brands specifically need to look at ways they can capture their own high-quality first-party data through the channels they have at their disposal.  Unless they are working towards owning their own data and brand presence, they’ll remain reliant on the big tech players and their systems, with no ability to control or orientate themselves.

There is no silver bullet, but brands must look closely at the journeys their customers are making, and seek moments where they can incentivise users to share their preferences, intentions and contexts with opt-in consent. From there you can implement a first-party tag across a brand’s owned and paid media, to connect media exposure more closely to site visitors and conversions.

Brands and marketers must also work closely with any technology or service partners they might already be using. Speak with them to learn what they’re doing to future-proof themselves for a cookieless world, and if there are changes, get clear on what the implications are. 

There are a growing number of possible alternatives being developed to third-party cookies, alongside Google’s own Privacy Sandbox proposal. Acxiom is involved with the International Accreditation Forum (IAF) and data technology vendor Anonos in the 5th Cookie Initiative, an alternative means to aggregate user segments in a way that’s pseudonymised and GDPR-compliant. 

Whatever exact solution is settled upon, everyone has a vested interest in designing the next generation of an advertising-supported free Internet. With the phasing out of third-party cookies, first-party data on web users and consumers are set to only grow in value. Consumers look set to gain increased control over their privacy, while still being served with advertising and content that’s relevant to them – which can only be a good thing.