Advertisers slowly acknowledge that measurement, not targeting, might be the bigger cookie deprecation challenge

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As third-party cookies fade into oblivion, marketers are awakening to a harsh reality: The era of a single source of truth for measurement is over. Now, they must navigate the murky waters of determining their own truth.

This shift has been brewing for quite some time — to be precise, since about four years ago, when Google first voiced concerns about third-party cookies in its browser. Executives were apprehensive then, foreseeing challenges such as tracking user behavior across websites becoming more difficult, resulting in incomplete data, attribution issues, less precise audience segmentation and a less personalized browsing experience.

In fact, these concerns may have been in play for even longer, considering that Safari and Firefox have been phasing out those same cookies since 2017 and 2019, respectively. However, given Chrome’s dominance as the largest browser, it’s not surprising that these concerns have become more acute. Especially now that they’re actually being phased out — well, one percent of them — from traffic in the browser.

“That one percent might seem small but it’s enough for a marketer to feel the absence of those cookies,” said Nick Tiano, chief revenue officer at digital marketing and tech consulting firm Making Science.

For better or worse, it’s difficult for marketers to understand there’s a problem with a measurement if they can’t feel it. That’s what that one percent of cookie-less traffic in Chrome is — a catalyst of sorts (for some marketers at least) to start to mitigate the risk of not being able to track people at scale outside of the walled gardens.

Unsurprisingly, they’re starting to ask how ad tech and martech providers have been adapting to reconcile that cookie-less traffic into their overall performance metrics.

Some say they’re using IP addresses and fingerprinting as alternatives, while others are leaning on modeling and additional tech from Google like the consent mode within Google Tag Manager. This allows advertisers, primarily in Europe but also in other parts of the world, to link their tags with their casual banners, indicating to their partners whether they have consent.

In any case, marketers are carefully scrutinizing all of these explanations and more to ensure they navigate the evolving landscape of digital advertising effectively.

“We’ve started to shift the conversation to also include measurement because it’s potentially even more impacted by the loss of third-party cookies [in Chrome] than targeting,” said Jamie Sltzer, who leads data, technology and analytics at Havas Media’s CSA division. “There are so many tools and alternatives coming to market right now on the activation side of things, not so much when it comes to measurement.”

Recognizing these challenges, marketers have started to reassess their approaches to three aspects of their measurement plans: attribution, media mix modeling and experimental solutions.

Attribution, in particular, is expected to face significant challenges without the support of third-party cookies. However, once Google’s alternative within its Privacy Sandbox is fully developed and adopted by ad tech vendors, the hope is that attribution efforts will likely regain clarity. In the meantime, marketers are diverting more resources toward media mix modeling and experimental solutions like attention measurement, recognizing their potential to provide valuable insights, albeit with varying degrees of investment.

“It’s important to understand the measurement implications of all this [loss of third-party cookies in Chrome] because marketers need to be able to understand that when they target an audience is it worth what they paid by driving the outcome they expected,” said Goodway Group’s chief media officer Stephani Estes. “We’re testing and we’re evaluating these audiences to get as close to a business outcome as possible.”

Don’t expect any major shifts to the status quo here, though. Not while third-party cookies are still available in abundance. There are too many business incentives wrapped around them to leave them while they’re still in existence — in Chrome, of course. And that’s despite many of those same marketers acknowledging that cookie-based audience tracking never really worked very well to begin with.

“We’re in a weird spot right now where opinions and incentives play a very big role in how marketers view measurement without third-party cookies,” said Maor Sadra, CEO of Incrementality startup Incrmntal. “Incentives, in particular, play a big role here because if I’m a marketer and my incentive is to spend X amount of dollars here and get attributed, then you’re going to do that because this attribution makes you look good.”

Hence, it is crucial for marketers to thoroughly understand the obstacles arising from the reduced dependence on third-party cookies, whether due to the rise of cookie-less traffic or other factors. Without this understanding, they may not feel motivated to enact any necessary adjustments to their strategies and tactics. 

Take, for example, one of Making Science’s clients, a global fashion retailer. 

Only after utilizing technology developed by the consulting firm to assess the effects of cookie deprecation on their e-commerce operations did they recognize the need to formulate action plans. The tech revealed that an average of 30% of the retailer’s revenue in January depended on third-party cookies. Perhaps more pressing was the fact that more than half (51%) of its revenue over the period came from Chrome. This prompted extensive discussions on how to mitigate potential losses. Sometimes marketers just need a little push.

“What the tool does is it makes third-party cookie depreciation real in the same way that the inability to activate makes third-party cookie deprecation real,” said Tiano. “They can see if they’re having to pay more to acquire those people who don’t have third-party cookies versus those who do. As a marketer you can start to understand whether you’re tracking and optimizing for those people [without third-party cookies] correctly.”

It was never meant to be like this.

Ad execs had (perhaps naively) hoped that the demise of third-party cookies would unite key players in the open web around a single solution capable of providing the scale needed to attract ad dollars. Instead, what they got was a patchwork of solutions spanning a wide spectrum of data ethics when it comes to consent, and nothing with the scale or compliance necessary for marketers to place their trust in.

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