A Cookieless Future: Finding the New Data Sweet Spot

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Josh Arter

STIR | Social Media Director
Sep 29
Cookie on laptop

It goes without saying that in digital and social media marketing, data reigns supreme. So, it comes as no surprise that when Google announced it was going to begin phasing out third-party cookies in Chrome in the second half of 2024, there was a massive scramble to understand the implications of this and how marketers could overcome it.

While other web platforms have already started to limit the amount of browser data collected for advertising use, Google’s decision to follow suit has started to raise some red flags for companies — mainly due to its massive market share.

Before we get too deep, for everyone out there that doesn’t have a sweet tooth, let’s break down what cookies are used for. A cookie is a piece of data that is used each time a user visits a website. First-party cookies can store things like login credentials, website preferences, and items you may have previously added to a shopping card. Third-party cookies are what advertisers use to target campaigns; they’re more behavioral-type data.

So, what has caused this shift in limiting the collection of third-party data? In one word: privacy. With a slew of data privacy issues in recent years, people are more protective of their personal data than ever. In fact, 86% of Americans say data privacy is a growing concern for them, and 68% are apprehensive about the level of data being collected by businesses — even the brands they’re loyal to.

Party Time, Excellent

When it comes to online data, there are a few different parties you could be invited to:

First-party data – including transactions, social media interactions, and website traffic – is information companies receive directly from users based on their online behaviors. In other words, every site visit, social media engagement, or cart fill becomes a point of information that helps companies learn more about you. Companies are the sole owners of first-party data.

Second-party data is essentially first-party data sent to a company through a secondary source. A perfect example of this is PPC (pay-per-click) advertising on Google. Google technically owns this data, but they let advertisers use it for a price. For all the interactions people have with Google, second-party data is saved for marketers to use to advertise to their target audiences — specific groups of people for whom they might not have the data but know they want to target.

Third-party data is data acquired from outside sources. This is where things can get messy. These data sets are not always the most reliable and are openly available to competitors. People typically get spooked when they think they’re being served ads because their phone is “listening.”

Each of these three categories help companies target specific people, some more than others. But these data points are largely based on an individual’s online activity rather than finite, private information.

Here’s where things get even more exciting. There’s also a category called zero-party data. Zero-party data is any information a customer willfully and voluntarily gives a company — think responding to a poll, filling out a survey, filling out a contact form, signing up for an email newsletter… you get the picture. It may sound similar to first-party data, but the key difference is that zero-party data is not behavior-based; it’s information coming straight from customers.

What Does All This Have to Do with Cookies?

As Google and other platforms move away from third-party cookies, it will force advertisers to rely on data they can glean directly from current and potential customers. This means there will be no more campaigns tracking online behaviors, but rather targeting those who have intentionally shown interest in brands via websites and social channels or have provided specific information about themselves (name, email address, phone number, etc.).

Obviously, a prime argument from advertisers is that this will severely hinder their ability to target people based on lookalike audiences and tracked online behaviors. In fact, in 2022, programmatic digital advertising represented more than 90% of all digital display ad dollars. A counterargument, however, is that most companies don’t need to know which specific individuals buy their products; they just need to know that more people bought their product as a result of being exposed to ads.

Finding the New Sweet Spot

While “zero-party” doesn’t sound like something you’d want to be invited to, it’s becoming even more vital to the future of marketing. It’s forcing a shift from campaigns based on “intent” to those based on “action.” And while many agencies aren’t yet familiar with the term or concept, our team specializes in gathering and leveraging zero-party data for our clients and generating positive ROI.

This approach is what STIR has been recommending to our clients all along – a model with a proven track record that builds brand awareness and loyalty. Marketers need to serve their audiences better, attracting/drawing in prospects and customers to their sites by adding value through content. Essentially, you need to give them a good reason to engage and convert. This then becomes a very valuable and ownable piece of data that can be maintained, nurtured and mined. Ultimately, it can be used to develop closer relationships with customers.

It’s more important than ever to develop effective, compelling web content that drives traffic, engagement, and ultimately that good, wholesome data needed to strategically target your true audiences.

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