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  • Ben Portnoi

An Overview Into the Cookieless Future

By Thomas Ives

Founder at Ra@s Labs

There has been a lot of talk about the cookieless future and what this means for marketers.

As it stands, we hear a new solution every day to solve this cookieless dilemma, however most “solutions” revolve around replacing a user identity - that is, basically doing the same as what a cookie can do.

However, these solutions are not all they appear to be, and this is why we first need to look at how we got here.

What is a cookie?

A cookie is a small file that contains a piece of information to identify you, or more accurately the web browser (Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, Safari) you are currently using.

Cookies were originally intended to improve the functionality of a website; keeping you logged in if you leave the webpage, remembering what’s in your basket, etc. These are known as “1st party cookies” as they belong to the website you are visiting.

However, some clever people realised that cookies could be used to track behaviour across websites, and even devices. These types of cookies could be used to create rich tapestries of a user's browsing behaviour, inferring their interests, purchase intent, gender, and many more personal details. They also allowed us to assess the efficiency of media, tracking if a user had seen an advert, and if this advert led to a conversion (a sale on a website if you’re talking to your Mum about what your job is).

These are called “3rd party cookies.” The 2022 equivalent to a 16th century witch… everyone wants them gone.

Why are we burning cookies at the steak?

As recently as 10 years ago, not many people in the general public understood what cookies were. Whatsmore, they didn't really understand how they were being used - this includes government legislators.

Needless to say, knowledge increased and people became worried about the use of their personal information. In Europe this ultimately led to the introduction of PECR (Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations), and it’s more famous cousin GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation), with similar regulations appearing around the globe - CCPA (California Consumer Privacy Act), LGPD (Brazil’s Lei Geral de Proteção de Dados) and POPI (South Africa’s Protection of personal information) just to name a few.

These regulations changed the way the public perceived the use of their data, and if there’s a trend to be jumped on, companies are going to back it.

Apple came out of the blocks in 2017 with ITP (Intelligent Tracking Prevention). This technology essentially prevented 3rd party cookies from working - say goodbye to your user profiling and media efficiency tracking.

Mozilla followed suit with Firefox Enhanced Tracking Protection (FETP); a carbon copy of Apple’s ITP.

Both Apple and Mozilla backed these updates with large advertising campaigns, with privacy at the forefront of Apple’s marketing strategy.

It was inevitable that Google, owner of the marketing dominating Chrome, would also need to phase out the use of third party cookies to avoid a PR backlash. They’ve announced they will be going cookieless in 2024 (there have been multiple delays).

I’m just a humble marketeer, how does this affect me?

Well, loads of ways. This is going to fundamentally change the way we approach digital advertising.

For a start, forget the 1-2-1 tracking of users we’ve all become accustomed to. We’re now in a world of modelled conversions where the likes of Facebook and Google are using “signals” to “model” the number of conversions their platforms or media have driven.

Unsurprisingly, there is a degree of scepticism to this blackbox modelling. It’s like when I used to mark my own homework… Needless to say, I appreciated my own work much more than my teachers.

Secondly, audience targeting. Gone as we know it.

Audience targeting is based on user behaviour - what you bought, what you searched for, your gender, your age, your dog's favourite brand of food, where you like to go on holiday… it’s mostly reliant on 3rd party cookies to tie these interests and behaviours back to the user.

With 3rd Party Cookies now as useful as shares in blockbuster, there will be so much less audience data available, and therefore audience targeting will no longer allow us to reach people at scale with relevant adverts.

To summarise; 1) tracking advert effectiveness is harder and less reliable and 2) reaching a relevant person has just become a lot more difficult if you want to scale in any meaningful way.

Bottom line - your media is about to get a lot less effective!

The Cookieless Solutions (that aren’t RA@S LAB)

Every company in digital marketing is working on a solution right now. There are far too many to cover, however most follow the theme of replacing what has been lost, that is recreating what a cookie did - identifying a user.

For certain formats and media owners, this is easy. For example, connected TV platforms are logged in users, meaning they can target based on known identities (such as emails, phone numbers, addresses, etc.).

For display this is much harder. A large number of websites are now encouraging users to create “free” accounts to continue accessing content. These accounts are tied to a user’s email address, allowing targeting at the 1-2-1 level and audience profiling without a cookie.

Media owners and tech providers in this space are collaborating to create a unified identifier, sharing the logged in user information for targeting and tracking.

However, this requires a very large number of users to create “free” accounts, which leaves the question of “just how scalable is this solution?”

Special mention here goes to Google. Ironically, Google has so far struggled to replace the technology they are killing off. Their first attempt, FLOC (Federated Learning of Cohorts) is already dead. Its replacement, Topics (no acronym on this one), stores a user’s interests in their web browser, rather than sending interests over the web. Advertiser’s can then target this information held within the web browser. There’s already rumblings of opposition against this approach and it’s not yet available to the general advertising community.

Finally, there’s contextual advertising. It’s making a big comeback. Contextual targeting is privacy-safe, cookie proof and a proven advertising technique as old as advertising itself.

In a nutshell, this is putting your brand, products or services next to relevant content. Simple.

However, most contextual solutions are very generic, rounded up to a level where the targeting starts to become irrelevant. Great you can target “cars”, but what does that actually mean? I’m not sure a Nissan Micra next to a Ferrari F1 car is contextually relevant.

There is another solution (and we think it’s the best)

We created RA@S LAB as we weren’t happy with the current state of the display market.

We believed advertising could be better. It just so happens that our way of making advertising better was cookieless… I mean, great timing or what?!

RA@S LAB is contextual technology, but with a unique difference.

We take a brand’s product feed (or list of services) to match products against relevant content, and then advertise the matching product on that webpage.

This means we are producing 1,000,000s of unique targeting and creative combinations to capture a user when they are looking for your specific product.

Our AI and machine learning has not only made contextual advertising scalable, it has also made it perform better than cookie based advertising, without user data.

We have redefined what is possible with display advertising, and maybe this is what it should have been all along.


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