Workarounds for the End of Third-Party Ad Tracking

So much digital ink has been spilled with advertisers and marketers lamenting the upcoming changes in ad tracking and cookies.

What’s the Problem?

To quickly summarize, here’s what’s changing. Marketers will no longer get individual third-party data from advertisers. Advertisers will not be able to collect third-party data.

For example, suppose as a consumer we’re surfing the web and we go to Socks.com, then Shoes.com, and then Trousers.com. AdNetwork.com has a tracking pixel on each of those sites, so as we surf from site to site, AdNetwork.com learns which sites we’ve been on, and builds a profile about us.

Then as marketers, if we’re customers of AdNetwork.com, we would show ads to that segment of people, people interested in clothing for the lower half of their body.

As browsers like Chrome, Safari, and Firefox phase out third-party cookie tracking, AdNetwork.com could no longer gather that data, and we as marketers would no longer be able to show ads to that segment.

Why is This a Problem?

Everyone will still retain first-party data. That isn’t changing. So if your website sets a cookie on a visitor to store their preferences, for example, that won’t change and will still be permitted by all browsers. It’s the sharing of consumer data across websites we don’t own that is prohibited.

This means that some ad networks will lose most, if not all, of their tracking data and therefore value to us as marketers. Other ad networks will use alternate data. For example, Facebook doesn’t need any third-party data to build models about who you are, because you volunteer a lot of it through your profile and the content you interact with. Google doesn’t need any third-party data because it owns the browser (Chrome has something like 50% of the browser market share, and Google monitors your behavior and where you go inside of Chrome) and the search engine, as well as YouTube.

What this means for us as marketers is more of our ad dollars will go to the big tech companies if we want the best targeting – and that will mean higher prices because of greater demand.

It also means that if we have any reliance on third-party cookie data – as some marketing automation and website intelligence software does – we’ll lose access to it. There are some software packages in account-based marketing, for example, that rely on third-party data to create profiles of anonymous site visitors and offer targeted content to them based on where they’ve been. Those will stop working.

What’s a Solution?

The solution to losing third-party tracking data for identifying anonymous site visitors is straightforward: as consumers interact with you, ask them for information; some percentage of people will volunteer it. Then build your own consumer knowledge models based on that information. Let’s look at an example of how that could work.

Building tracking profiles

Suppose, in the diagram above, visitor 1 comes to your website. They visit pages A, B, and C in that order, then fill out a profile of some kind. Maybe they subscribe to your newsletter and volunteer some details, something like that.

Visitor 2 comes to your website, visits pages A and B, then leaves. Okay, fine, nothing really to do there.

Visitor 3 comes to your website and visits pages A, B, and C in that order. Because their behavior and path exactly matches visitor 1, we might be able to infer (this is vastly oversimplified) that visitor 3 has similar characteristics to visitor 1.

Over time, if visitor 1 converts to something more meaningful, like a paying customer, we’d have an even better profile to infer from.

This kind of behavioral data is likely to be the gold standard as time goes on for website owners, building our own segments of audiences based purely on the way people behave, with no personally identifying information besides that which people volunteer. You will never have to worry about losing access to data that isn’t yours.

This is a good thing, too – many of the demographic segments that ad networks provide have built-in biases and assumptions that may reduce our opportunities. The classic example I use to explain the flaws in demographic targeting is My Little Pony. As a marketer, you might assume that you should target households with 8-14 year old girls in them, and in doing so, you’d completely ignore the 26-40 year old men (“Bronies”) who are an incredibly lucrative marketing segment with lots of disposable income. (more than 8 year olds, anyway) But if we track behaviors, rather than demographics, we’d catch this other segment and perhaps even change our targeting based on it.

What about things like retargeting? A fair amount of retargeting will break, especially on third-party ad networks, but I wholly expect the big ad networks like Google’s to keep working because Google has first-party access to our websites through Google Analytics and Google Tag Manager.

Get Your Influence On

If we won’t have access to third-party audiences through ad networks, where will we gain access to audiences who aren’t already on our owned properties?

From people who already have audiences we want. Right now, many ad networks function on publications, sites with big traffic like the New York Times and CNN. But there are also tons of sites out there with smaller, more targeted audiences. As ad networks’ capabilities to track across sites get smaller, we’ll need to find our audience on other sites manually.

Today, take a look at the publications and sites where your ad traffic already comes from, if you’re using display advertising. Look for the sites that drive the highest converting traffic, and then consider alternate ways to partner with them.

Concurrently, if you haven’t done so already, start building out your influencer marketing program to find new first-party audiences you could access with said influencer’s assistance. You’ll need that when ad networks get disrupted and you don’t have the budget for the biggest networks all the time.

The Most Obvious Ad “Hack” of All

How will you find out where audiences are spending their time, without the ad network data?

Ask your audience.

Seriously, that’s the hack that no one’s doing. Ask your customers, ask your prospects where they get information when they’re evaluating a purchase. Ask them where they spend their free time. Do focus groups, 1:1 interviews, surveys, analysis of social media data.

There’s no substitute for just asking people straight up where they spend their time online, who they follow, what they pay attention to.

Third-Party Ad Tracking Isn’t the End of Marketing

While the change to third-party tracking will diminish the effectiveness of some advertising and concentrate ad revenue to a few big players, in the grand scheme of things it shouldn’t have a huge impact on our marketing. If it does, we’re over-indexed on paid media anyway and should be looking to diversify our marketing methods. Many of the things that work best for us – email, SEO, etc. – will be completely unaffected by these changes.

Stay focused on the core principles of your marketing, on creating and delivering value to prospective and current customers. Adapt your advertising as needed, but work to reach a point where advertising is a nice-to-have and not a must-have. Your marketing strategy and results will thank you.


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