Cookie TrackingFor years upon years, retailers, advertisers, publishers et al have depended on cookie tracking to enable their business.  Tracking cookies are a core part of the backbone of the Internet.  They are the key method of tracking a customer.  It allows companies to do such basic things as sign-in to a website, keep items in a shopping cart if they leave the site, and, crucially, target and serve advertising.

In the very near future though, this backbone of the Internet may be going away, and if it happens, it will be hugely disruptive to the unprepared.  A recent article on Mediabizbloggers does a fantastic job of walking through the many impacts and strategies to deal with this potential change to cookie tracking.

While a great article, it can be a little heavy to read though, and leaves some critical strategic pieces out of the conversation.  Here, I will attempt to walk through the high-level impacts and moves you should be making to position yourself for this potential change and how it can even be turned into an advantage for you.

Why would cookie tracking go away?

Even if tracking cookies technically stay around, their utility in today’s world is diminishing.  The inability to keep consistent tracking across browsers and devices, the growth of “Do not track” built into browsers, the growing practice of consumers deleting cookies as privacy concerns continue to grab headlines (Anyone heard about the data breach at Target?) all raise serious questions about the viability of the venerable cookie in the future.

The other big reasons are the explosion in mobile devices and mobile applications.  As customers use more and more devices, it is impractical to have the same cookie identifier carry across with the customer to a new device.  Mobile applications make this even worse.

The short version is, using cookies for tracking is antiquated and not flexible enough for the modern world of big data, personalized content, multi-device engagement etc.  It’s time for us to move on.

What are you going to lose if cookie tracking goes away?

Well, let’s be clear, you won’t lose anything but instead gain a lot if you are prepared!  In the unlikely event you were debating not being ready though, losing cookies would have several impacts:

  • Personalization: Providing relevant product recommendations, cross-sells, up-sells, and other dynamic content targeted at an individual or a segment of people will become essentially impossible without a new method of tracking customer sessions.
  • Marketing Data: All that great clickstream and referral data that is gathered today is all done largely via cookies.   Losing this valuable data showing what customers are looking at, and where they are coming from can leave big holes in a marketing plan.
  • Marketing Performance:  Knowing what marketing programs are driving qualified traffic and how they interact with each other (Customers usually use more than one marketing program when finding your business) is critical to knowing how, where and when to invest your precious marketing dollars.  This obviously impacts attribution modeling, as well as without a replacement tracking mechanism; everything essentially becomes last touch based attribution modeling.

How will you track customers without cookies?

So, now that we know what is at risk, let’s focus on how we will track customers in a world without tracking cookies. The good news is you will still be able to track your customer.  New Universal Tracking ID’s (UID)’s will get attached to customers via either the browser (Chrome, Safari, IE, Firefox etc.), the Operating System (OS) level (Windows, iOS, OSX, Android etc.) or the social level (Facebook, Twitter, Google+ etc.).

These new Universal ID’s will be random encrypted numbers to protect consumers, but still enable companies to identify when a person moves from one device, or session, to another, assuming they continue to use the same browser, OS or social sign in service.

This actually has a huge potential benefit to companies.  While there are definitely some technologies and players out there, like fingerprinting that aim to identify customers via tracking behaviors, times, content and other tell tale signs that in combination, can potentially identify a unique person; these types of solutions have large holes in them and are not as accurate as other, more valuable solutions.

The best solution to this problem is a benefit to customer and company alike.  Logging in to a website or service (like an app) is a great way to keep everything in sync.  Once logged in things like shopping carts can carry across devices or browsers, content can be personalized so as to adjust to what the customer did on the previous device they were on, and advertising can avoid showing non-relevant content since it now knows what the customer did previously on another device.

Today though, most companies do not provide intrinsic value to customers for logging in beyond completing a shopping cart.  I highly recommend establishing key value propositions for customers who log in to your sites, and then making those benefits front and center to encourage customer adoption.  It may be personalized content, promotions and offers, an easier experience, connecting customers with social content…anything that gives the customer value for logging in.

Social login tools like those from Gigya, JanRain and others provide relatively easy ways to integrate things like letting customers login to your site via Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, etc.  There is a growing body of research on social login that shows conversion rates jumping as much as 50% by allowing customers to login via services they already know and trust rather than having to create new accounts for them to remember and track.

What’s more, tools like these provide a plethora of additional value to companies who use them by aggregating social information from your customers’ social networks and allowing you to potentially leverage this data in your customer databases for wider marketing and analysis purposes (though with some restrictions).

What else do you need to do to prepare?

This change is certainly going to be wide ranging and have impacts far beyond what we are discussing here.  However, there are a few other key areas I encourage you to start investing in today in order to make sure you are positioned to win as tracking technology changes.

  • Build strong relationships with your key marketing partners today.  If you don’t have strong personal relationships with your strategic teams at Google, Facebook, Twitter, Bing, etc.  start building them now.  These are the companies at the forefront of these changes and they are best positioned to help you navigate the new waters.  They also happen to be critical business relationships for a myriad of other reasons too so there’s no time to waste.
  • Beef up your CRM platforms.  This new world is going to come with a lot more data for you to manage and take advantage of.  Ensuring your CRM platform can track, store and leverage all these new data points will go a long ways in separating the winners from the losers in a world without cookies.
  • Rethink your agency relationships.  Even today, eliminating silos is business critical.  Understanding how all your marketing programs and user experiences work together is quickly becoming table stakes in a consumer world.  This means the old days of having one agency manage PPC, another managing social media, still another driving SEO, etc. may not be the best strategy.  By pulling everything together into one team, either internal or external, you give yourself the best chance to benefit from the new tracking technology coming our way.

The world gets better, not worse

In the end, I believe the changes, at least in some part, away from cookies as the key tracking technology and to a Universal ID is inevitable, and ultimately, a big benefit to companies and customers.  The changes will start rolling out in the near future.  However, one thing will remain the same: Technology, however much it improves, is just an enabler.  The trick is to use it in a way that maximizes value for your customer.

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