Marketers are starting to test alternatives to third-party cookies amid Google’s changes

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Instead of waiting for a lifeline from Google, some marketers are taking matters into their own hands.

They’re testing alternatives to third-party cookies now that the tech giant has clipped one percent of them in its Chrome browser. These marketers understand the tests won’t be perfect, but they’re seizing the moment to make a start. After all, as they argue, if not now, then when?

“We’ve had more interest in this [alternatives to third-party cookies] during this early part of the year than we had for the whole of 2023,” said Georgie Haig, product lead of identity at programmatic marketing agency MiQ.

The level and type of interest vary depending on the region.

In Europe, for instance, there are early signs that data partnerships have caught the eye of some marketers. These agreements, combined with first-party IDs, are implemented within the publisher’s owned and operated environment, often through private marketplaces or direct data-sharing relationships. As Jochen Schlosser, chief technology officer at Adform, explained, “We see increasing traction and willingness to move to first-party [data]. We have seen doubling of the usage of first party solutions.”

Some of this momentum has been driven by Adform’s identity hub solution, ID Fusion. This software enables publishers to manage multiple identity solutions. When a publisher activates any ID, Adform sends it into the bid request, allowing advertisers to bid on it flexibly via their demand-side platform. Schlosser expanded on the point: “We saw it activated on 20% plus in our [DSP] settings last year and we expect significant further increases this year.”

Nevertheless, it’s essential to recognize that the marketers behind these moves are still in the minority. There are many more who remain hesitant to experiment with alternatives to third-party cookies because it necessitates a shift from precision to prediction in targeting and measurement, which inherently involves some degree of uncertainty.

That’s not to say those who are experimenting aren’t entirely comfortable with it. They recognize the challenge, but believe it’s crucial to understand and address rather than solely relying on Google’s guidance.

“The poor quality of the data coming from those cookies is not a big loss,” said Catherine Lautier, Danone’s global head of media and brand communications. “This [the loss of third-party cookies in Chrome] has been one of my main arguments for our business to understand the power of retail media data as well as invest in first-party data and other types of third-party data.”

For instance, the advertiser has been collaborating with agency Essence Wavemaker to blend geolocation data and contextual data with its own first-party data to target ads. According to Lautier, it’s still early days, and she did not share any results. However, it’s an approach that has impressed other advertisers based on their own tests.

Take U.K. retailer Homebase, for example.

Rather than relying on Google’s cookie alternatives, Homebase is using the Converged solution from the Havas Media Network. This tool takes audience attributes and cohorts based on things like media behavior, demographics and psychographics from an ever-expanding compendium powered by partners like YouGov. Through artificial intelligence, the tool matches these attributes to individuals on platforms, bypassing the need for third-party cookies.

“In the first test we did to a gardening audience, we saw an uplift of 16% in cost-per-click (CPC) performance when compared to our business as usual (BAU) campaign,” said Homebase’s head of marketing Lisa Tickle. “We also ran a follow-up test in Converged targeting a kitchens audience and observed a 43% reduction in cost-per-lead (CPL) when compared to our BAU prospecting audience.”

And the best part? It didn’t even require first-party data to achieve these results. Instead, Tickle said she and her team devised several audience groups they believed would be interested in Homebase’s gardening products and ran test campaigns for each. As the AI learned which campaigns and audiences performed best, it adjusted spending accordingly, optimizing until all ad dollars were behind the top-performing campaign. The tool can do this typically within 48 hours, according to Havas. 

“Privacy and consent are fundamental and the use of AI for modeling and filling in the ‘gaps’ in our data will become key and most likely the one thing that will deliver significant breakthroughs,” said Tickle. “It’s with this in mind that we’ve invested in Havas Media’s Converged platform to future proof our business and protect our media spend whilst also enabling us to deliver in our own channels like email too, delivering a full omnichannel customer experience and journey. Well, that’s the aim.”

It’s not hard to see why advertisers like Homebase are interested.

By providing a way to advertise that doesn’t rely on tracking users through cookies or hashed emails, it could be argued that these tests promise a far more ethical way to run ad campaigns. Time will tell whether this approach proves effective in reaching the widest audience possible and driving the hardest working ads. In the meantime, Homebase isn’t leaving anything to chance, and is already looking at other alternatives to third-party cookies.

In fact, Tickle said she has already had “some very positive match rates” working with ID5 as an alternative ID. Like many of her other peers, she knows there won’t be one alternative to replace those cookies. She also acknowledges that these alternative IDs are not exactly problem free — on the contrary they have ethical concerns, technical limitations and the fragmentation of identity, which makes them costly to maintain.

The blunt reality is, there’s no easy fix for the cookie conundrum. However, there’s a growing recognition that long-term solutions will involve abandoning outdated tracking methods and adopting newer, privacy-compliant ones.

As Tickle explained, “Yes, we absolutely believe there is a role for alternative IDs — subject to consumer consent of course. These can be managed in a privacy-safe way, and we are already working with alternative universal identity providers like ID5 on this.”

The debate over whether marketers should use IDs is contentious. But regardless, if they choose to use them, understanding their workings is crucial.

For instance, some ad executives stress the importance of distinguishing between publisher-initiated alternative IDs, which involve actively sending emails from logins, and using on-page scripts that essentially harvest data. The former has attracted interest among marketers for its potential privacy benefits.

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