You may have heard recently that restrictions on third-party cookies are increasing. Apple’s Safari and Mozilla’s Firefox web browsers now allow users to block all third-party cookies and Google has said its Chrome browser will stop its use of them in 2023.
But what does this mean in real terms for your website and marketing? Let’s have a look at what third-party cookies are and how they’ll affect you.
What Are Third-Party Cookies?
They are small text-based files that are stored on a person’s computer when they visit a website. They help the site recognise a user as they navigate through the site, or visit back at a later date. These cookies are useful for all sorts of things such as logins, shopping carts, personalisation, analytics, ads, targeting and retargeting.
There are two types of cookies, first-party and third-party. First-party cookies are used by the website owner, they store useful information about the visitor. They tend to be used for essential data (such as what products a user has in their shopping bag) or to make the on-site experience more personalised.
Third-party cookies are not created by the website being visited, but instead by someone else. If a website embeds a YouTube video or adds code from an advertising platform they use, then that third party could potentially embed a cookie on the user’s computer. Don’t worry about cookies being harmful though, they are generally safe little files, even if you don’t know who’s adding them to your computer.
Third-party cookies are used a lot in online advertising. Website owners add an advertiser’s code to a web page and then that advertiser can display ads on the site, as well as add a third-party cookie to the viewer’s computer and track them across the different sites they visit. This can really help tailor advertising content to the user’s preferences and activity.
Why Are Third-Party Cookies Being Blocked?
It’s all about transparency and privacy. Many users don’t even know when a third-party cookie has been added to their computer and don’t know who’s placing them there. This, as you can imagine, is worrisome for many internet users, as there is no indication a cookie has been placed from a third party.
A lot of the laws put in place via the EU to protect users’ privacy and data were the first stage of users having more control of what is placed on their computer and who can see their data. This is why you now see consent bars popping up on sites asking you to accept marketing preferences and decide which cookies you want to allow.
Many platforms, such as Apple, are now also following suit and allowing you to block third-party cookies completely, so users know that not a single site they visit will add them to their device.
What Does This Mean For Businesses?
The main areas that will be affected are advertising and analytics. Advertisers add third-party cookies to people’s devices so they can track them, personalise ads, and allow for accurate analytics of the advertising data.
If you use an advertising platform like Facebook or Google, you may have seen your tracking become less accurate (or appear less effective) over the last year or two as more third-party cookies are being blocked. It has made it difficult to compare data from previous years as data isn’t as reliable as before, which makes it hard to see the effectiveness of your current ads.
It has also meant increased costs for advertising as ads can’t be so targeted, meaning your ads might be seen and clicked on by people to who they aren’t relevant to. For example, I seem to get a lot of irrelevant retirement living ads these days, even though I’m in my early 40s! I think this is due to the fact that I live in an area with an elderly population, so advertising platforms are having to use much more generic data to target instead of following me around the web, tracking my activity, and getting to know a bit more about me.
So if third-party data and ads are becoming less effective, what can you do to counteract it?
First-Party Data Is Key
First-party data is what you collect in your business, it’s your customers, newsletter subscribers etc. It’s data about people that directly choose to engage with you.
Relying more on first-party data can feel a little daunting for small businesses, as often advertising is key to reaching outside of your current customer circle. But if done right, you will reap the benefits and put more of the control in your hands.
If you get the right permissions from your customers to use their data you can use their information within your email marketing, ads and marketing channels.
CRM (which stands for ‘customer relationship management’), is a system that stores customer data and allows you to interact with your customers.
If you don’t have one already, you should look sign up soon so that you can start gathering your data in one place. This could be a simple newsletter platform like MailerLite or MailChimp, or something more advanced like HubSpot (which is a great B2B CRM).
Depending on the software you use you may be able to do lots of things with your CRM such as email marketing, marketing automation, logging customer details, and keeping track of calls and emails. Both B2B and B2C businesses can use a CRM to organise customer data and use it within the sales and marketing departments.
You should look at any current data you have and any future data to ensure you’re getting customers’ permission to use their information for marketing purposes. Most newsletter systems have the option for customers to ‘opt-in’ to your marketing when they sign-up, so you can send them emails and show them ads.
Ads and Retargeting
Just because the reduction in third-party cookies has made advertising a little more difficult if you add in first-party data you can really take your paid marketing to the next level. Platforms like Facebook allow you to upload and use first-party data, to make it easy to target your database with ads. It also offers the option to find ‘lookalike’ audiences that have similar behaviours and interests as the customers you uploaded, so you can get a really accurate pool of people to display your ads to.
Just be careful to ensure you’ve asked your customers for permission before you upload their data to platforms like Facebook. Usually, you need them to ‘opt-in’ to be shown marketing and ads.
Partnering with other businesses is an incredibly underused but powerful marketing tactic. By doing so, you’re not just tapping into your first-party data, you’re backing on to the partner brands too.
Partnerships work well with two non-competing brands that have a similar audience, such as hotels and flights, or hairdressers and beauticians. If you decide to collaborate on a project, then you can use both business channels such as email marketing, website and social media for advertising the collaboration and tap into that dual audience.
Platforms like Google Analytics use third-party cookies to track user’s activity, so you may have seen changes in your customer’s activity in the last year or so since third-party cookies have started being blocked. You have most likely seen a drop in numbers, and it’ll be hard to gauge whether your marketing activity is having the same effects as it previously had been.
Google is changing over from Universal Analytics to GA4 next year, which uses cookie-less tracking, and may help you obtain more accurate tracking of users and marketing effectiveness. If you’ve not moved your analytics over yet, read our blog on the changeover to get some more details on what’s happening.
Start Changing Your Strategy Now
Third-party cookies are being switched off left, right and centre so you need to act now to ensure that your ad budgets stop increasing and you’re taking control of your data.
Look at the customer data you currently have – if it’s in lots of different places try to bring it all together in one place, like a CRM. Go through the data to see if it’s up to date, good quality and usable.
Next, look at how you could capture more data, such as asking customers to sign up for your newsletter when they come onboard, or enticing potential customers to sign up with exciting offers and being sent regular interesting content.
By doing these you’ll really be taking control of your first-party data and making the most use of it.