“The Cookie-pocalypse”. “The death of cookies”. “The end of digital advertising as we know it”. It’s hard to think of another development in marketing that has led to the end of days being evoked quite so regularly. The golden age of the third-party cookie is over. Even though the final deadline for them to be completely exorcized from Google Chrome has been pushed back to 2023, this near ubiquitous method for collecting and storing consumer data is firmly on its way out the door. That explains the mass hysteria across the marketing community — someone is coming to steal our cookies!
However, rather than staring into the face of the apocalypse, we are actually standing on the brink of a golden opportunity.
In collectively mourning the death of cookies, we are all perpetuating the idea that we need third-party cookies in order to accurately target potential customers. This myth is one of the reasons why cookies have been allowed to survive for so long. The truth is that once we are forced to give up cookies, we will be able to shake off some of the basic issues that have held back the digital marketing industry.
Our targeting categories are lazy
Anyone who has done a basic Advertising 101 course knows about customer profiles. These were always crude, uncreative, and broadly offensive in their adherence to social stereotypes. You know the sort of thing: any domestic products are immediately targeted at women, anything tech based is obviously aimed at a male audience. A report published by comScore shows that these generalized audience characterizations make for ineffective advertising.
The silent takeover of third-party cookies took this idea of demographic profiling, digitized it and made it the core of the online browsing experience for all of us. Rather than being creative in how we reach customers, we have become obsessed with categorizing and segmenting them into set groups, defined more by their personal information than by their actual needs and preferences.
Our targeting is inaccurate
Armed with these demographic groupings, marketers have been determined to target the hell out of them. That means we have all been willfully ignoring the marketing industry’s open secret: cookies are not the crystal ball which they pretend to be. In fact, they are rife with inaccuracy. Even basic demographic information is questionable, to say the least. A class-action lawsuit brought against Facebook in 2020 revealed that their targeting based on third-party data had only 9% accuracy in some areas.
A 2019 study conducted with MIT showed that third party cookies struggled with demographic identifiers as fundamental as gender identity: the data was only 42.3% accurate, meaning that guessing the gender of the consumers would actually be more successful than this supposed “data”.
No one wants to admit that the emperor hasn’t been wearing any clothes and we’ve all structured our marketing strategies around “alternative facts”. Instead, we ignore the mistakes and focus on the soothing power of data, which creates the impression of control and reinforces the story we want to hear: that digital marketing is precise, focussed and highly effective.
Context matters far more than categories
Even if we could trust that cookies are allowing us to get our messaging in front of the right audience, the larger issue is one of context. The ease and automation involved in programmatic buying means that brands have insufficient control over where their adverts actually reach their audience.
This means that there is often no relevant context to when and where we encounter most ads. A recent study showed that 50% of US and 60% of UK respondents felt that online ads were irrelevant to them. Coming across ads at the wrong time often feels like an uncomfortable online ambush, as though the brand is screaming “I know you work in HR” or “I know you were looking at these shoes earlier”, when the user’s online behavior at that moment has nothing to do with that little nugget of personal data.
When your brand’s message has nothing to do with the context of where the ad appears, you are often doing more harm than good. Firstly, while your product might be a good fit for this customer, you are reaching them when they are focusing on something else: no one wants to read about the latest HR software when their “work brain” is switched off, and they are just browsing for shoes.
Secondly, the irrelevance of the ad gives consumers the impression that they are being hunted across the internet. That’s not a good feeling to inspire when you’re trying to persuade people to buy something.
The same study indicated that contextual relevance has become more significant in recent years in producing positive brand associations. Focusing on content can allow you to disregard the rigid consumer categories we have relied on for far too long. Here’s a crude but effective example: if you need to advertise a new printer, the best time for viewers to encounter your ads would be on videos with titles like “Why does my printer keep breaking down?!” The viewers of this video are a self-selecting group of consumers who are demonstrably unhappy with their current printer, and very possibly in the market for a new one.
You don’t need to know anything further about the audience demographics to make this connection — their gender, age and household income are far less important than the active pain point that this content speaks to, and your ability to make that pain point go away with a brand new printer.
Digital marketing tactics have been wedded too firmly to the inflated promises of third-party cookies. The decline of cookies means that we can reset and rethink many of these tactics, and find new, more creative ways to spread our message online. When we stop pretending we know everything about our customers, we can start listening to them, and turn that message into a two-way conversation.
Shoshana Eilon is VP of marketing at digital content data platform ThoughtLeaders. Shoshana, originally from London and now living in Tel Aviv, has over a decade of experience in marketing, film distribution, and TV format sales.