What You Should Know About the Cookie’s Crumble

One of the most fundamental tracking tools of the internet era, the browser cookie, is starting to fall out of fashion, and it’s going to change the way marketers work online. Here’s why.

If you follow digital marketing trends, you may be familiar with phrases such as “the customer journey,” or perhaps you’re familiar with “retargeting.”

These concepts were, simply put, made possible by the data cookie, a small chunk of information that stores basic details about a given user, which can then be used on later visits, or in the case of third-party cookies, can be used throughout the web. It’s one of the web’s oldest technologies, dating to 1994, and the modern marketing field has grown like a weed around this cookie, allowing marketers to put a focus on individual users more than ever.

Understandably, many online users have long carried a sense of skepticism around the cookie, particularly in its third-party form. It may be a boon for marketers, but it’s understandably a disaster for privacy advocates.

That skepticism has found its way to both browser-makers and regulators. The European Union’s forthcoming General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the subject of an ASAE roundtable taking place on Tuesday, could make cookies much more arduous to use from a regulatory standpoint. And that could deepen if the European Commission decides to further strengthen its ePrivacy directive, which would complicate the ways that browser cookies are used.

Meanwhile, browser-makers and plug-in designers (particularly the makers of the ad-blocking tool Ghostery) have played a cat-and-mouse game in terms of making cookies less effective.

Perhaps it makes sense that most digital marketers think tracking cookies are on the way out entirely, and they’re taking a close look at alternatives.

And there’s evidence that the cookie may be nearing the end of the road. Last week, Facebook lost a court case in Belgium over its use of tracking cookies, and faces fines of 250,000 euros a day until it changes the way it uses them. (The company is appealing.)

But that dagger, as much as it likely hurts Facebook, is nothing compared to the one that Apple threw out last year, after it moved to restrict third-party cookies in its Safari browser—a move that instantly made tracking a whole lot harder on iPhones. Its browser competitors, most notably Firefox maker Mozilla, have tried to do this in the past only to scale back their ambitions in the face of criticism; Apple doesn’t appear to be budging, though it did make a slight change last week to ensure that plug-ins like Facebook’s iconic “Like” button worked. (So it wasn’t all bad news for the social network last week.)

And it should be said that cookies can in some cases invite deep security problems. Earlier this month, the makers of the popular browser extension Grammarly faced controversy after it was revealed that the extension had a bug that allowed bad actors to steal the data from its cookie, which appears on essentially every website you use.

Time to Dunk Cookies?

Considering all this not-great news, perhaps it makes sense that most digital marketers think tracking cookies are on the way out entirely, and they’re taking a close look at alternatives.

A recent survey by the consulting firm Viant found that 32.1 percent of brand-side digital marketing execs felt that they would likely stop using cookies in the next year. Another 31.7 percent said they saw them going out of style within one to two years. And just 4.1 percent believed that they didn’t anticipate dropping cookies from their marketing strategy.

The survey, part of a white paper titled Power of the People [registration], framed the situation as “not needing” to use cookies, though it’s just as likely that it’s a situation of cookies proving to be less tasty than they once were.

“Between Safari cookie retention policies and GDPR, the pool of usable cookies will shrink dramatically,” Eric Berry of the native ad platform TripleLift noted in comments to eMarketer.

So, what does that mean for associations? It might be a matter of learning some new tricks to crack the marketing nut.

Viant’s report makes the case that marketers should be more aggressive about acquiring first-party data, something it spins as “people-based marketing.” This approach, argues the Meredith-owned marketing firm, encourages the use of first-party data versus third-party data, which the organization argues is more anonymous in nature.

“Relying on anonymous data is a relic of the past in digital marketing: that ‘close enough is good enough’ sentiment when it comes to targeting among digital marketers is shifting—the days of guessing and throwing ad money into the wind are over,” the report states.

While it’s not clear that Viant’s recommendation is the right solution, it is clear that it’s a conversation that will ramp up in the coming months. With cookies crumbling under the brunt of bad press, regulatory pressure, and tech titans, the old marketing strategies might need to be reconsidered.

Tracking certainly isn’t dead—odds are that Facebook won’t stop its tracking-heavy approach anytime soon.

But for many marketers, the cookie might just lose its crunch.

(tongwongboot/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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