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GUEST COMMENT How retailers should face a cookie-free future

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Some fear that Google Chrome’s decision to phase out third-party cookies by 2022 will mean the end of online advertising as we know it. It doesn’t. The demise of the third-party cookie will bring the need for brands to connect or reconnect with customers in new and innovative ways. Now, more than ever, brands need to understand and appreciate their customers. A cookie-free future creates a really exciting opportunity for brands who act now to differentiate themselves in the new landscape.

Kicking the cookie habit

For too long, online retailers have relied heavily on third-party cookies, pushing ads to consumers based on their browsing and purchase history, both on their site and across the web. While it has allowed advertisers to target customers based on their browsing habits, as a method it lacks creativity and is boring for consumers. Privacy concerns mixed with lazy ads that don’t talk to the customer’s needs mean that this kind of advertising won’t cut it for a brand anymore. Consumers expect more from their favourite brands. 

Consumers now expect that digital rivals the in-store experience. Cookies have historically been used to retarget any lost customers. But without the cookie, the pressure is on brands to improve their online experience to keep the customer. How can brands bring an in-store boutique experience online, rather than a disconnected journey? 

Don’t panic

The end of third-party cookies doesn’t spell the end of advertising on the internet. In fact, many brands have already got a strong no-cookie advertising policy: social media advertising – Facebook, Instagram and YouTube all allow segmented targeting that doesn’t rely on cookies. Google is also expected to replace third-party cookies with an AI system called Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC). It’s designed to mimic the targeting segmentation already in existence in other walled garden environments, with plans to make this available for public testing through origin trials from March. Moreover, Apple’s Safari has been limited cookie tracking for nearly five years and Firefox blocked third-party cookies in 2019. 

In short, retail brands have already been experiencing and surviving the end of third-party cookies. And those using social advertising already have a strategy partially insulated from the end of cookies. While it’s not time to panic, that doesn’t mean retail brands don’t need to act.

The solution: back to basics

Brands know they need to understand their customers and, without third-party cookies, this has become even more important. The best place for brands to start is simple, ask the customer. Declared data or zero-party data is exactly that: data collected through a survey, chatbot, or other medium, which a brand can use to understand what is bringing customers to their site in the first place and their expectations. There are plenty of tools that allow you to interact and ask your customers questions during their journey that are invaluable for progressive profiling. 

Understanding the makeup of your traffic will help brands design a cookie-less acquisition strategy. As well as using declared data to understand a customer’s intent in-the-moment, that intel can also be used to inform a brand’s wider campaign to attract customers. Your mantra should be to assume nothing and always ask your customer. 

Without being able to track customers, contextual advertising will become even more important. Micro-targeting with bland retargeting ads must be replaced with broader purchase-intent and relevant ads which will inspire consumers. Dynamic creative ads will be even more critical in a world without third-party cookies. 

All of these tactics work best together, so brands need to develop a joined-up strategy that guides the customer from offsite to onsite and purchase, in order to deliver in a cookie-less world. It’s about excellence in creativity, customer insights and planning.

Cracking the first-party data code 

Bringing customers to a brands’ site is just half the battle. Without third-party cookies, retailers have lost out on some valuable information that was previously used to personalise the customer experience.

This is where first-party data comes in. First party-data is collected once a customer is on a brand’s site and is by nature consented. Brands can utilise this data to understand the intent of a customer in that individual visit. Identifying behavioural triggers, brands can intelligently act on the needs of customers. For example, if a shopper is browsing for a considered purchase like a laptop, a problem solver survey could direct them to relevant devices and assist them to make their decision. Or if a customer is slow to make their purchase, sharing reviews for that product could convert them. Again, there are tools that can identify these triggers and help brands address customer needs in the right way.

By combining zero-party and first-party data in an intelligent way, brands can create an experience that matches a star sales assistant. It’s about engaging with the customer at the right time in order to help them along their journey, whether they are just browsing or ready to make a purchase.

The key to getting this right is knowing when and how to keep the customer engaged in real-time and that can all be done without the need for third-party tracking. Brands that create a great customer experience on the first visit will see customers coming back organically redirecting the focus from retargeted advertising to building loyalty instead. 

A powerful alternative

Customers today expect their preferences to be known and understood but third-party cookies have, for too long, simply missed the mark. Google’s plans to ditch third-party cookies will provide a necessary push for retailers to improve the customer experience and gain a competitive edge. The pressure is on brands to deliver a premium in-store experience online to keep customers engaged there and then. 

While declared and first-party data doesn’t offer a like-for-like replacement to third-party cookies, it does offer a more powerful way to understand and address in-the-moment needs of customers. By adopting a new strategy, retailers can learn to create a more engaging shopping experience and put the customer at the heart of everything they do.


Jack Wearne, CEO at VE Global

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