Opinion: When the cookies crumble: The CMO’s guide to a cookieless world

The ad space is going through a cataclysm and with data security concerns on the rise, consumers today are less trusting of brands and the way their data is collected, with more than half of Asia-Pacific consumers expressing concerns about safeguarding their online personas, according to a 2020 global privacy report by Kaspersky. 

This has, in turn, spurred governments to prioritise user privacy, with national and international regulations such as Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and Singapore’s Personal Data Protection Act (PDPA) coming into force. Private tech giants such as Mozilla and Apple have also announced bans on third-party cookies, invoking a melee of marketers and business leaders. 

As consumers become more digitally savvy and aware of their rights, they are demanding more control over their data and expecting brands to manage their information responsibly. They have become increasingly selective in where, when, and with whom they share their data, expecting value in return and only dealing with brands they trust. 

As such, the spotlight is now on the way brands collect and use consumers’ data – putting the final nail in the coffin for third-party cookies, one of the most used mechanisms of digital advertising. Not only are third-party cookies outdated in the world of the conscious consumer, they are also inaccurate and have often been used by advertisers in ways that have directly conflicted with consumers’ expectations and best interests. 

End of third-party cookies – not the end of personalisation 

The marketing and advertising industry has relied heavily on third-party cookies for a long time, to measure the impact of impressions and guide campaign strategies. Marketers might conclude that the end of third-party cookies means a shift away from customer analytics and personalisation. However, that notion could not be further from the truth. In fact, research from Epsilon shows that 80% of consumers are more likely to engage with a brand if it offers personalised experiences. 

That said, only 37% of companies are "very prepared" for a cookieless world, according to Adobe’s 2021 Digital Trends Report. Many leaders are taking a “wait-and-see” approach, which often leads to last-minute, short-term fixes instead of a long-term business strategy. With 63% of organisations still unprepared, there is a huge opportunity for winning brands to get ahead and differentiate themselves with the right first-party data investments. 

Rallying forces to prepare for change 

While all this may only seem like a marketing issue and raise alarms among CMOs, the rest of the C-suite and business will also be impacted with this tectonic shift. In an increasingly digital-first world, understanding your customers intimately is critical in delivering compelling personalised experiences, growing your consumer base, and scaling your business. This involves breaking down organisation silos across all customer-facing functions, not just marketing, to optimise insight and knowledge about your customers. Taking the time to educate fellow C-suite leaders and department heads on the changes in your company’s ability to measure customer experience (CX) is also going to be vital.

A holistic and collaborative approach is needed to prepare for a world without third-party cookies. CMOs will need the support of the entire C-suite when it comes to recalibrating customer experience management (CXM) strategies around first-party data. CIOs, CTOs, CDOs and even heads of commerce, legal, security, and privacy, need to work hand-in-hand to establish the right solutions and rebuild organisational structure to collectively deliver the exceptional brand experiences that consumers have come to expect. 

First-party data to the rescue 

First-party data will soon become the lifeblood of a successful CXM strategy. As brands focus on customer data they collect, marketers and business leaders can coordinate, unify and constantly mine for relevant insights across a spectrum of channels, generating more detailed and accurate profiles of customers. The benefits of these richer customer profiles can be reaped across departments beyond marketing, to offer consumers personalised and enjoyable brand experiences. 

To do that, business leaders must consciously move away from disconnected data teams and bring together cross-functional data sets – from web analytics to email engagement to app usage, to create complete, well-rounded profiles that unlock enhanced experiences. All that has to be done with user permission and respect for customer privacy in mind, introducing more transparency around how consumer data is collected, used, shared, as well as their rights around that data. 

With the phasing out of third-party cookies, encouraging unknown visitors on your platform to authenticate or log in will become an important step. Successful first-party data strategies will centre that authentication around delivering value to consumers – for instance, to save time, introduce new relevant products, provide exclusive or early access to preferred content, or promote a personalised, limited time offer. By promising and delivering value, brands can go a long way in earning consumers’ trust and data.

Ultimately, the cookieless future will boil down to exceptional brand experiences that build trust. The customers of today are conscious and intentional, and eager to understand how and why their data is being used and what they can gain from sharing it. Brands must respect this and work with consumers to meet their evolved expectations. 

The digital world can once again become an exciting space when data is seen as a force for good, and consumers don’t feel constantly bothered and stalked by ads. If brands commit to and invest in a holistic first-party data strategy, and lead with empathy to deliver consensual experiences that instil trust, there will be no mess to clean when the cookies crumble. 

The writer is Simon Dale, managing director for Southeast Asia, Adobe.