Beyond cookies: Understanding the new marketing measurement paradigm
Despite the fact that it was myself and my team at Adviso who were among the first to popularize the term “cookie apocalypse” as recently as four years ago, today I’d like to be among the first to say we need to stop using it.
Why? Because things have changed and this expression no longer reflects the extent of the changes emerging within the marketing ecosystem. Today we should instead refer to a paradigm shift in marketing measurement—a transformation that has been advancing very rapidly for the past two years, and whose final phase will result in the disappearance of third-party cookies in 2023.
Let me explain further.
In an article I co-wrote with my thesis advisor, Daniel Lemire, in 2018 on The Conversation, I explained that the significant changes being made that affected the flow of data were not being done solely to protect user privacy. In the background, an all-out data war is going on within GAFAM, which is now witnessing the arrival of none other than Elon Musk, with his offer to buy Twitter.
Despite all of that, and to bring things back to the specific context of data related to online advertising, we should remember that cookies aren’t the main player when it comes to identifying users online. Since 2019, over half of advertising budgets have been devoted to mobile applications, with a dwindling portion given over to advertising using cookies in a web browser (Chrome, Safari, etc.).
As a result, if you’re only talking about the end of third-party cookies in 2023, then you’re only talking about 40 percent of the investment in digital advertising. In this view, you could say that the apocalypse in user tracking for ad targeting already happened after the launch of Apple’s ATT (App Tracking Transparency) protocol in iOS 14.5, which now requires mobile apps to ask for user authorization before tracking their activity on other applications and websites.
Furthermore, Google just killed its own mobile identifier on Android and the Google Play network, which was called GAID (Google Ad ID, the counterpart to Apple’s IDFA, which has been obsolete for a long time). The progressive deployment of the Google Play service affects all applications following the advent of Android 12 in 2021, and extends to all devices supporting Google Play as of April 1, 2022.
Application developers now have to use app set ID to retain their capacity for analytics measurement or even to detect fraud. But when it comes to advertising, the paradigm is changing completely. Google is launching four tools or APIs to replace cookies and mobile identifiers with an SDK, specifically:
- Topics API, a new method of targeting that respects privacy and was proposed by Google for third-party cookies. This is an audience targeting system that attributes bundles of interests to users based on the websites they’ve visited in the past, except that all of this happens within a sandbox environment, even within the browser, so that no data is sent to advertising servers or third-party platforms.
- Fledge API, which will become the new marketing standard. Fledge will make it impossible to track specific targeted users. The system will be based on an auction model even from within the browser in order to display the most relevant ad without sharing user data to a third-party server.
- Attribution Reporting API from Chrome, which will facilitate the continued measurement of when a click or view on an ad leads to a conversion, such as a purchase on the advertiser’s site. However, it was created to not allow third-party platforms to use it to track users on a website. In short, this API is a way of continuing the generation of attribution reports without revealing all of a user’s details and their activity.
- Runtime SDK is in some sense Google’s version of the ATT protocol, except it’s less restrictive. Based on the application sandbox idea, the aim of this system is to restrict access and sharing undisclosed data from a user’s application by third-party SDKs. It exerts control over access to data and to and to specific APIs.
Unsurprisingly, this paradigm shift corresponds to another change at Google, which will terminate the current version of Google Analytics by 2023 in favour of Google Analytics 4. The complete re-engineering of the platform seems to synchronize perfectly with the end of third-party cookies and GAID. Coincidence? Maybe.
But one thing is for sure: There’s no coincidence that GA4 is equipped with a significant capacity to reconcile user data through machine learning in order to make up for gaps in data caused by all these changes. Furthermore, it’s partly thanks to the unification of mobile and web data provided by GA4 that this is made possible.
With this in mind, if you haven’t yet started your migration to GA4, don’t lose even one more minute!
In concrete terms, how will this affect the everyday reality of marketers?
It means that the third-party cookie apocalypse is actually just one of the final stages of a host of paradigm changes in marketing measurement that have been happening for the past two years. In other words, the apocalypse won’t be starting in 2023, rather it will just be going through its terminal phase.
Unfortunately, many marketers still don’t realize that even today, on the back end, all those measurement systems related to marketing analytics are starting to be phased out. As of this year we need to start taking into account all the growing inconsistencies in our analytics tools, even with first-party cookies.
For example, since 2017, in the post-ITP (Intelligent Tracking Protocol) world of Safari, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to reconcile user data coming from an Apple browser. These inconsistent data will scramble the cleaner data from other sources of traffic coming to your website or application. More specifically, the effects are as follows:
- Distorted increases in certain metrics:
- Number of unique users
- % of new users
- Number of unique users
- Reductions in some others:
- Number of visits by user
- Conversion rate
- Visit frequency
- Number of visits by user
- User journey is harder to identify
- Hard to recognize users if there’s no log-in aspect
Even without having a specific percentage at this time, it’s already possible for our Analytics and Data Science team to confirm that in every year since 2017, there’s been a significant deterioration in all the measurement activities listed above.
The other changes deployed by Apple and Google in 2021 and 2022 will only accentuate the disappearance of the former marketing measurement paradigm. In 2023, we’ll witness its final stage, or perhaps I should call it the first stage of an entirely new marketing paradigm.
What will be the new marketing measurement paradigm in 2023?
It can be encapsulated in just one sentence: Prioritize more seriously the collection and exploitation of primary data.
As Suzanne Vranica explains in the Wall Street Journal, shrewd advertisers have been taking the paradigm shift very seriously for the past two or three years. That’s why these companies are in the midst of launching a whole new range of initiatives involving the collection of primary data about their customers.
At a tactical level, the nerve centre of primary data collection involves obtaining email addresses by consent. As reported in eMarketer, nothing is out of bounds when it comes to convincing consumers to share this important piece of information. These companies are developing aggressive primary data acquisition strategies while putting the accent on value exchange as a motivator. According to a report by Fluent in June of 2021 called “Consumers, Data, and Control: Driving Loyalty and Trust Through a Strong Value Exchange,” here is a list of growth tactics for incentivizing the exchange of personal information:
- A special discount in exchange for their email address
- An exclusive offer
- A contest
- A free gift
- Exclusive content
But this won’t be enough to collect a ton of email addresses. You first need a well-considered data strategy paired with solid infrastructure for managing these data while ensuring respect for privacy. In this sense, the major primary data management initiatives are:
- The development of a data strategy and governance plan
- The creation of a marketing data lake or warehouse to combine data from CRM, email, sales system, online analytics (Google or Adobe) and media (Google Ads, Facebook Ads, etc.) platforms
- The development of models or the acquisition of tools to unify data and construct a holistic view of the customer
- The integration of secondary data from reputable partners in the industry, such as Vividata, Nielsen and Comscore
- The implementation of customer data platforms (CDP) and infrastructure
- The integration of these platforms on the server side to exploit the one-day window and limit data loss
- The development of mixed marketing models with aggregated primary data
- The development of machine learning models specifically adapted to the company’s primary data
The question you should be asking yourself as a marketer is the following: Out of all these initiatives, how many of them are currently active or in development within your team or department?
If you’re part of a company that still hasn’t developed a road map for acquiring and managing primary data, what are you going to do when January 1, 2023, comes along?