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The Demise of the Third-Party Cookie

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    Jason R. Stevens, CFA
Illustration depicting the end of third-party cookies, featuring a shattered cookie with pieces flying apart. The background showcases indigo hues with a futuristic, tech-centric landscape, including icons of web browsers like Chrome, Safari, and Firefox. Subtle references to data privacy, such as padlocks and shield icons, are blended into the scene. The overall feel is modern, vibrant, and slightly dramatic.

2024 marks a critical juncture for digital marketers, even though Google's plan to eliminate third-party cookies in Chrome has hit a major roadblock.

But what does this mean for the industry, both technically and strategically? Are we buying more time, or are we just delaying the inevitable?

Back in the early days of the consumer internet, before Netflix or Amazon existed, Netscape was the hot browser. But it had a problem: it couldn’t remember a thing about you. Lou Montulli, a bright engineer at Netscape, came up with the session cookie to solve this issue, making web browsing a lot more personal. But then, the game changed.

Just two years after Netscape's cookie debut, third-party cookies emerged, enabling advertisers to track users across sites. This was a dream for marketers but a nightmare for privacy advocates. Montulli and Netscape faced a dilemma: block these invasive cookies, do nothing, or let users decide. They opted for user choice, hoping the web could find a sustainable financial model without going full Big Brother.

The Long Road to Regulation

Fast forward to today, and the third-party cookie debate has evolved. With laws like GDPR and the California Privacy Rights Act, cookies containing identifiers are now treated as personal data, requiring user consent for tracking. But this hasn't made third-party cookies illegal; it’s the unconsented tracking that's the issue.

Google announced it would phase out third-party cookies entirely by the end 2024. The plan was to start with 1% of Chrome users in January 2024, ramping up to 100% by year's end. But in April 2024, the UK's Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) slammed the brakes, reminding Google that with a dominant browser market share, their decisions impact everyone.

Differentiating 1st-Party and 3rd-Party Cookies

First-party cookies are set by the domain you're visiting and are crucial for functionality and analytics. Third-party cookies, however, track you across multiple sites. Both require user consent for marketing or other tracking, but first-party cookies aren’t going anywhere. They’re essential for things like Google Analytics and the Meta pixel.

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The Future - Privacy Sandbox and Beyond

Firefox and Safari have already restricted third-party cookies, pushing for privacy by default. Google’s approach, however, involves the Privacy Sandbox initiative, introducing new APIs to replace third-party cookies without killing off ad revenue.

Fortunately, at Tincre, our developers use all browsers and our software is not affected by these changes. That said, some ad platforms are and will continue to struggle providing relevant targeting to users, making cross-platform campaigns ever more important.

What Should Marketers Do?

For digital marketers, this shift means adapting to new technologies and strategies. Focus on first-party data, get familiar with tools like Google Analytics 4 (GA4) with server-side tagging, and explore alternatives like contextual advertising. Diversifying ad strategies and embracing privacy-centric tools are the new norms.

Publishers and the Ad-Tech Industry

Publishers have had to pivot from traditional ad models to subscriptions and sponsored content. First-party data becomes gold in a cookie-less world, and transparency is key. Ad-tech vendors, the hardest hit, are developing new identifiers and leveraging first-party data to survive.

Browser Wars: Privacy Takes Center Stage

While Chrome’s move grabs headlines, Safari and Firefox have been leading the privacy charge for years. Safari’s Intelligent Tracking Prevention and Firefox’s Enhanced Tracking Protection are setting the standard, making cross-site tracking increasingly difficult and pushing marketers to rethink their strategies.

Preparing for a Post-Cookie World

Marketers need to audit their first-party data, enhance its quality, and use it creatively. Server-side setups can offer better control and compliance with privacy laws, ensuring that marketing efforts are effective and lawful.

The Final Take

The end of third-party cookies is more than a technical tweak; it’s a seismic shift towards a more privacy-conscious web. It impacts everything.

Marketers, publishers, and ad-tech vendors must adapt quickly to stay relevant in this new landscape. As we move into a cookie-less future, understanding and leveraging first-party data will be crucial for maintaining digital marketing effectiveness and consumer trust.

At Tincre we’ve been on top of this for a long time. How we allocate spend to your ads automatically chooses the best platforms, placements and ads for your campaigns, adjusting as campaigns progress.

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