Almost every company — including, very likely, your own — uses them. Every phone, computer, and smart device stores them. They’re cookies, or small text files that keep track of activity as people browse websites. Third-party cookies are those that follow people from site to site, gathering data on their preferences and behaviour as they go. They’ve been the foundation for marketing, sales, and consumer experience strategies. But they’re about to go away.
In January 2020, Google announced that it would phase out support for third-party cookies by the start of 2022.1 Cookie-based data is typically collected without consumers’ explicit consent. This has raised privacy concerns and set companies on a quest to find better, more privacy-conscious ways to gather and share consumer data. Google isn’t first in responding to these privacy issues. Some browsers, such as Apple’s Safari and Mozilla’s Firefox, already block third-party cookies by default. Apple’s operating system and apps sold through the App Store all have rules to limit data-gathering and sharing without users’ explicit consent.
But Google’s decision is significant because its search engine is so dominant: It has a global market share of more than 90 percent.2 What people search for on Google Chrome and what those searches reveal about their behaviour and preferences underpin the digital economy. As January 2022 comes closer, the outlines of a post-cookie, more privacy-conscious world are becoming clear. It’s also become clear what business leaders need to do to get ready.
The end of third-party cookies won’t leave a vacuum for advertisers. Platform companies large and small are working on new technologies and business models to support digital advertising that’s more sensitive to privacy concerns. It’s too soon to tell which will dominate, but it’s obvious that marketing and sales options will multiply.
Platform giants that currently focus on advertising (such as social media companies) will offer more sales channels.3 Those centred more on sales (such as digital retailers) will offer more advertising.4 Smaller platforms (such as those used for video conferences, doctors’ appointments, or online learning) will get in the game, too, with more sales and advertising options. Omnichannel marketing will have far more channels than ever before.
We might also see a wave of business failures. Today, some companies might be entirely dependent on third-party cookies to understand their clients or customers and make sales. Those that don’t adapt will fall further behind. Many won’t survive.
The endgame is a new competitive landscape: giants that are more gigantic, more business failures, and a host of new digital channels you can use to reach consumers.
To make sure your company not only survives but thrives after third-party cookies are history, here are three priorities for you to consider right now.
Be more self-sufficient. With less access to third-party data, you’ll need customers to share more information with you directly. Loyalty programs can help in this regard, but also consider creating a consumer privacy experience that helps people understand the value they get for sharing their information. For example, you’ll be able to personalise offerings and engage with them more effectively. Internally, build your employees’ skills and restructure if necessary so you can organise, analyse, and effectively use the data you collect.
Strap in so you can ride the digital explosion. The on-demand economy, in which consumers expect results quickly, and the online activity that’s likely to spring from the more than 400 fast-growing unicorns around the world will cause an explosion in digital platforms.5 Monitor how startups are creating more digital places and strategies for advertising — and develop your own strategy for how you’ll use them.
Play in new gardens. Platform companies are likely to offer more ‘walled gardens,’ or self-contained digital marketplaces. Assess what’s coming and prepare a strategy to work within these virtual economies. You might want to create digital storefronts in some and sign partnerships in others.
The post-cookie world is coming fast, as are other privacy measures.6 These developments will rapidly change the digital economy. But with access to first-party data and a strategy to seize new marketing and sales opportunities, your company will be well placed to navigate the new world.
This article was originally published in strategy+business on December 2, 2020.
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