If there’s one thing the pandemic gifted us, it was the benefit of hindsight. Which is why it’s so interesting that, even when presented with forewarning, many marketers are still failing to make the most of what is a substantial amount of time to prepare.
I’m talking, of course, about the ‘ongoing demise’ of the third-party cookie on Google’s Chrome browser, originally slated for April 2022 but now pushed to the end of 2023. There’s no escaping the fact that this will be a big deal. Apple’s blocking of third-party cookies in Safari already came into effect in March 2020 and, between them, Safari and Chrome account 83.7% of browser traffic. Brands’ view of where people are in the purchase journey, what their product interests and preferences are online, and whether campaigns are working or not is set to go very dark.
What’s worrying isn’t just the procrastination, it’s the hill that the majority of companies still have to climb. Marketers aren’t simply going to be able to ramp up activity on deadline day. Carving out an effective response to the end of the third-party cookie means putting some fairly long-term preparation in place, and it’s based on three pillars.
Upskilling your teams
Skills is the big one. You must have teams of people who understand customer relationship management; because the journeys are changing, the experience requires new skills. How you connect audiences and work in the ecosystem is also going to change and, as ever, some brands are better placed to adapt than others.
The data-rich sectors like retail, banking and telecoms will have an advantage over data-poor sectors like FMCG and pharma. The former group have been working within their owned environments, optimising them with opted-in consent data for a long time; first-party data that is going to become far more valuable than it has been in the past.
Now, brands and their partners will be building audiences, which they can curate and utilise in both the ‘walled gardens’ and, more importantly, the open web. To ensure the experiences are well co-ordinated across owned, earned and paid media, it will be key to have identifiers for individual customers, acquired with their permission, connecting a brand’s ecosystem with its preferred channels (owned properties, publishers and partners).
If people skills is the first pillar, perhaps unsurprisingly, the other two are process and technology. Tech will continue to evolve at a rapid pace and it’s important to test and learn constantly. Process is all about automation and this alone can provide a significant return on investment for all of marketing, let alone business as a whole.
Again, data-rich sectors like retail, banking and telecom have refined their processes (such as modelling, identifiers and connectivity) as well as technology (cloud, customer data platforms and decisioning), reducing cost per acquisition (CPA) year on year, and ultimately improving the customer experience. There’s more work to do across all of these.
Sectors that traditionally wouldn’t engage so deeply here are now picking up on the imminent opportunities and doing something about it. We see pharma brands moving into the CRM world at a pace that hasn’t been seen before. They’re building their customer data platforms, creating the backbone of their customer IDs, and looking to engage in partnerships that amplify the need for CRM knowledge, tools and technologies.
But the banking sector really demonstrates the realm of the possible when creating a sophisticated audience ecosystem. In one example, a global brand with a talented pool of employees managed to build a digital ecosystem and get ahead of ROI projections in year three of a five-year project.
Partnerships fuel acquisition and loyalty
Where the lack of the cookie will really be felt is in new customer acquisition. Loyalty is the natural next wave of transformation within the customer journey, but prospecting will always be a strategy for brands. The question is where to start.
Even without cookies, we can still do lookalike models and still prospect in walled gardens, which do give solid ROI. But, specifically in the EU and the UK, permission-based data sharing, contextual data assets and cohorts will be the way to the future. There are a lot of providers who have these assets, but the ones grounded in a data-first philosophy will create that understanding in customer behaviour and enable personalisation.
Providers and vendors are just one aspect. There are partners or brands that marketers should be working with at a more strategic level, to build authentic relationships with customers and deliver some kind of value exchange for data. These aren’t new – these data exchanges (aka ‘clean rooms’) have been around for some years now – but where they often break down is in the commercial relationship: one always seems to be getting more out of the partnership than the other.
Take travel, for example. For the airlines to be competitive, they have to know their customers. But they have a big challenge in even sharing data with the airports where they’re hubbed, let alone with the retailers inside. They just feel that they’d be bringing more to the partnership but getting less from it.
What marketers in these partnerships need to understand is that the ‘pie’ is going to be larger than the sum of the individual parts, and they’ll ultimately be more competitive as a result. Partnerships are going to be just as valuable within the ad space, where brands and publishers can use the demise of the third-party cookie to build direct relationships with key partners.
Alternative routes to personalisation
We said at the top that skills are going to represent the big hurdle to get over, and one solution isn’t going to solve all a brand’s problems. It’ll be a combination of build, buy and partner. Take, for example, creating first-party identities. The brand’s own identity layer will be so important, and you can only create that in one of two ways: either you own the data or you add third-party data assets in a meaningful way. That’s not going to be easy to do with the end of cookies, but brands will have to do it if they’re going to get more sophisticated in people-based marketing.
Similarly, journey maps must be extremely robust to meet the new measurement challenge. How do you measure the indirect interactions, visits to partner sites or different events during the journey? Understanding what the motivation is behind a customer leaving, when the critical event could have been 10 weeks before they actually detonated the relationship, is vital. One bank identified that, when a customer had a missed service request, the simple act of sending an automated email to check in reduced overall churn by 5%.
Understanding the customer, measuring the customer interaction and working out the relative impact of key touchpoints is all going to be essential in a post-cookie world. There’s no sugar-coating it. Most brands can’t pull this out of the hat overnight. There’s a desperate need to upskill internal staff, build partnerships with expert solution providers and reassess how your brand can become part of a meaningful ecosystem. The to-do list is long. The time to get started on it is today.
Mike Menzer is executive vice-president and general manager of Acxiom International.