Engagement in a cookie-less world

By Laura Graham

4 min read

Engagement in a cookie-less world

By Laura Graham

4 min read

Third-party cookies have been used to track our web movements for decades. They’ve been relied upon to serve up targeted ads and offers, with many brands building profitable businesses around them. Their days are numbered though with ad blockers and demand from audiences and lawmakers alike for more privacy.


Cookies are now considered as ‘personal data’ and therefore have to adhere to the principle that individuals should be clear on what’s being tracked, why, and are given the chance to opt-out. Both GDPR and the ePrivacy Directive require consent from the individual before using cookies (except in circumstances where it’s considered essential). The CCPA (California Consumer Privacy Act) is similar, although it’s focused on transparency rather than ‘privacy by default’.


Almost every player in the ecosystem will be affected by these new regulations and will need to find new approaches; ad companies for identity resolution and online brands for first-party data collection.


When it comes to first-party data, identity and engagement are intrinsically linked; you need to know who your audience is (identity) to build propositions and experiences that keep them coming back (engagement). You also need to encourage them to consume more experiences (engagement) to build a richer picture of who they are (identity). There’s no chicken or egg question here, both need to happen, but in a cookie-less world, the depth of your relationship with audiences, and their level of engagement, becomes even more important.


So how do you start to build audience profiles in the absence of something that’s been relied upon until now?


‘Walled gardens’


The first step is to build a series of ‘walled gardens’ around your online proposition where your audience is asked to share some of their personal details to gain access, such as registering for a newsletter or signing up for exclusive offers.


The objective is to have a way to constantly find out more about them, their likes and their dislikes, so a one off data collection doesn’t go far enough. You therefore need to build an identity strategy to connect your ‘gardens’ — across all platforms, all propositions and all experiences — with a clearly defined path for audiences to move from one to the other. Every time audiences make this move, you build up the quality of your addressable market, learn more about them and gain the insights to drive more value from them.


We’re also starting to see the growth of ‘walled garden ecosystems’ as publishers, in particular, look to collaborate amongst themselves to build a critical mass that connects the dots of activity. It’s also an attractive proposition for advertisers. The challenge with relying on this approach, however, is the million-dollar question of who ultimately owns the audience data.


The capabilities you need


With these ‘walled gardens’ in place, you then need to strengthen your capabilities to grow the quantity and quality of your first-party data assets.


Browsing habits have changed significantly, users surf the web and interact with brands across multiple devices (including the use of native apps) and cookies can’t track across all of these to build up a cohesive profile.



To effectively make use of data collected, you should deploy a persistent identity solution that can be used to build usage profiles, and enable targeting and personalisation of content and experiences. We’re increasingly seeing the use of orchestration platforms that enable cross-device profiling and cross-channel coordination of the content, product features and messaging to build reader engagement.


Be open and honest


Third party cookies have had a bad ‘big brother’ reputation, often being perceived as creepy in the way that they track you discreetly across the web to build a picture of who you are. The shift away from their use has fundamentally been driven by individuals’ greater demand for privacy and control over how their personal data is being used. A sentiment that will remain, even when being asked for information directly.


Publishers therefore need to make sure the value exchange of these ‘walled gardens’ is transparent and fair. This puts a big spotlight on what you’re offering in comparison to your competitors, and piles on the pressure to design experiences and product features that encourage audiences to come back for more.


One last thing…


Right now, the loss of third party cookies may seem like a headache for publishers as they’re having to rethink how they build addressable audiences. It’s not all bad though, if they can put the strategy and capabilities in place to gather their own data on audiences, they’re well set up to gain over the long term. They’ll be more attractive to advertisers, and be less reliant on programmatic ads.


Advertising, subscription and affiliate revenues will become increasingly dependent on the ability to scale and engage known audiences effectively, but the publishers who do it well stand to benefit from a growth in the value of their reader relationships.


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