Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Balancing consumer privacy with effective marketing in a cookieless world

by Daniel Rowles, CEO of Target Internet and Course Director for the Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM)

Let’s start by clarifying something. Cookies, small data files used to track online user behaviours, are not disappearing. It’s not going to be a ‘cookieless world’, but rather a ‘third party cookieless world’. But since that doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, the marketing world has stuck with ‘cookieless’!

For decades, cookies have been key to digital marketing, enabling targeted advertising, personalisation, and robust analytics. They’ve been instrumental in mapping user journeys, understanding preferences, and delivering tailored experiences. However, this convenience has come at a cost in some cases – diminished user privacy. Indeed in recent times, it has become increasingly harder to balance user privacy with marketing practices and to secure consent from users to use third-party cookies. 

The industry as a whole has seen rising consumer interest in online sentiment privacy which has led to further protections across into the wider marketing ecosystem. For instance, the introduction of Google’s Privacy Sandbox which aims to replace third-party cookies, allowing users to manage their interests and grouping based on their browsing patterns.

A brief history of cookies in digital marketing

Cookies emerged as an internet innovation in the mid-90s, initially designed to enhance user experience by remembering login information and other preferences. However, they quickly became a powerful tool for digital marketers. Third-party cookies, in particular, allowed for the tracking of users across multiple sites, facilitating a new level of user behaviour analysis and ad targeting. In the 2000s the usage of cookies was an inherent practice in the marketing sector, with user data frequently being exchanged for website access. Indeed, ad tech providers have been able to track users proficiently in the past turning cookies into a key aspect of digital advertising, enabling practices like retargeting, where ads follow users across the web, based on their browsing history. 

Yet, this power raised concerns. As users became more aware of their digital footprints and the potential misuse of their data, a pushback began. This led to regulatory actions and a growing demand for greater transparency and control over personal data. The response from major tech companies has been significant, with key players like Apple and Google announcing plans to phase out third-party cookies in their browsers. This move marks the beginning of a new, more privacy-focused landscape.

Developing a First-Party Data strategy – practical steps

In a ‘cookieless’ world, first-party data becomes invaluable. This data, collected directly from your audience through interactions with your brand, is both more reliable and more respectful of user privacy. Strategies include encouraging users to log in for a personalised experience, integrating offline and online data, and leveraging email marketing with explicit consent. To do this effectively we need joined up data and systems. This requires our website Content Management Systems, our Email Service Providers and our Customer Relationship Management systems to be fully integrated. This integration has long been a problem in marketing, and for many, the move to first party data has created a burning platform for movement towards joined up systems and data.

Regulations and consumer attitudes

In the current marketing landscape there is now little room for third-party cookies, which peaked in the 2010s. Instead we see a growing shift towards more privacy-oriented solutions, influenced by evolving privacy regulations and changing consumer attitudes towards data privacy. Moves to protect user privacy have been global and governments have led the charge on data privacy issues. For instance, in 2019 the EU Court of Justice ruled that users in the EU must actively consent to all analytics cookies when accessing a website. Furthermore, regulations such as the CCPA in California have set new standards for data collection and user consent.

Consumers are increasingly aware of their digital rights and are demanding more control over their personal data. This changing landscape necessitates a greater focus on transparency and user trust, and for many this will necessitate a major investment in the systems and integration that enable this. Marketers must now think of innovative workarounds that enable them to identify with the masses and remove the need for hyper-targeted content or frustrating pop-ups. 

Unlike their name-sakes, cookies aren’t necessarily unhealthy, they help to smooth the user journey and improve personalisation. Looking ahead should take a crumb of comfort that a ‘cookieless future’ is not a major challenge for the wider marketing sector but also an opportunity for marketers to adopt more transparent, ethical, and effective targeting strategies.