cookie-monsterAh, cookies – you either know them as a delicious treat often sprinkled with chocolate, or your livelihood just might depend on them, even if you’re not Tollhouse or those Keebler Elf dudes.

It’s recently been announced that Firefox will be shipping its products with a default setting of “3rd party cookies off” – essentially bringing networks like Google’s Retargeting service, Analytics and hundreds of others to a screeching halt. Why is this bad? Let’s look at some of the basics…

What is a 3rd party cookie?

Get ready for a quick elementary internet school recap: when you visit a website, that site can store a file (the cookie) on your computer to keep track of your activity. This is useful because on sites like Yelp, LinkedIn, etc, this data can help to personalize your experience based on actions you take on the site itself. A well-constructed cookie will track the right data and is essential for the dynamic web we’re so used to today.

A 3rd party cookie is one that is placed from a different partner or network (usually an advertiser) that can potentially track your activity across multiple sites. When used in an ad network or retargeting network, such as Google Ads, this cross-referencing allows networks to build a personalized list of products or services you might be interested in.

Still confused? Here’s a simple demonstration of how 3rd party cookies work via retargeting from the hilarious folks at Toothpaste for Dinner:


In that example, you can see how VISITING websites with similar products/interests can help advertisers qualify your intent – ie, if you price compare for cars over a certain period of time, you’re likely to respond to ads for cars you’ve already looked at with an incentive attached to them.

So, what does it mean if 3rd party cookies go away?

A Less Personalized Web

Imagine the last time you made a big purchase online. Say, a camera – you look at existing models, you price shop, you look at reviews. You may even notice a propensity for ads to display cameras you’ve looked at – and it may be a special deal meant to recapture your interest and make you buy a camera for an extra discount.

That incentive, that discount, is essentially paid for by 3rd party cookies. Advertisers have measured and quantified response rate for years, and it’s common sense that you’re more likely to buy a product you’ve already looked at or engaged with on some level. The quality of the data in the cookie allows business owners to play with their margins and marketing strategy to reach out to consumers who’ve seen their products, may have been interested but did not convert for some reason.

Essentially, you’re giving a business owner a second chance to gain you as a customer.  If a large number of web traffic becomes invisible to cookies and ad networks, then the quality of the data diminishes, and business owners have less creative options to reach out to potential customers.

Are there any workarounds? Well, we’ve got a few…

What You Can Do About It

While some may panic over the potential loss of an established system, it’s often the kind of change that allows for real innovation in the field. A couple of ideas that come to mind are…

Respectfully Ask your Customers

A simple entrypop display that shows up for people with cookies disabled on a given website that clearly and succinctly explains to them HOW you use cookies and WHY you need them turned on allows the user a simple yes/no choice – this option seems strange, asking someone who’s by default opted out to opt in, but remember – most people won’t even care or know about this feature, so making them aware of it, and then telling them the specific value you provide BECAUSE of their choice can make a big impact.

Use Workarounds

With any significant technical help, you can theoretically take advantage of newer technologies such as HTML5 Local Storage that can be modified to keep track of pages via Google Analytics.

Bribe Your Customers with Increased Functionality

While this is nearly the same as respectfully asking your customers, this is a slightly different flavor of an offer: treat cookie status as an email opt in. Offer an ethical bribe or increased functionality for turning cookies on, thereby communicating exactly what you need them for and what they help your site do.

In any case, it’s very clear that the more and more people we market to, the smarter they get. In some cases, a retargeting campaign can be as wildly profitable as a killer email campaign – the difference is, someone usually has to give you their email. This coming change, if it becomes established, is sending business owners and marketers alike a very clear message: people are becoming increasingly aware of how valuable their data is, but they lack a clear understanding of how it’s used.

All you need to do is treat them with respect and intelligence, and you can turn a potential problem into a great conversation with your customers.

What are some of YOUR ideas to circumvent this potential pitfall? Sound off in the comments below!

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