In 2020, Google announced that it would be working to make third-party cookies obsolete. The initial goal was to do so in two years, but the transition has been slow as Google further pushed the date to 2024. Even so, as the world works toward a future that is less dependent on cookies, it begs the question: what can brands do to replace the delectable value that the confectionary technical term has to offer?

Let’s start with a quick analysis of the value cookies bring to the table. All they consist of is personal information and ancillary data. Different sites and their companies use this to identify customers, remember their preferences, and offer them targeted services. That means that if cookies become extinct at some point in the future, the company that retains the most relevant information about its customers will be in the best position to succeed.

With that said, here are several alternative ideas for creating personalized, targeted messages without the need for third-party cookies.

1. Start with trust and loyalty

If you want to succeed in the modern marketing world, you need to get personal. In fact, there’s nothing quite as frustrating to a marketer as the dichotomy between the overarching desire of consumers for privacy and personalization. You cannot ignore one in favor of the other.

Cookies — especially third-party cookies — have undermined the privacy side of the equation for years. It’s bad enough that the shift away from them provides a unique opportunity to build trust. 

When emphasizing a cookie-less marketing model, companies should start by building a new level of trust and loyalty with their audiences. Prioritize and communicate transparency. Cultivate truly valuable experiences. Study your audience, understand their pain points, and use that information to be relatable in your marketing messages. 

This inverts the personalization approach and eliminates the need for excessive amounts of customer information in order to create a relatable message. It also fosters trust and encourages consumers to want to share their information with you in a proactive manner.

2. Focus on quality

In the same vein as building trust, providing genuine, high-value content for your audience is another great way to indirectly personalize your targeting. It isn’t as direct as third-party cookies, but quality content quietly reinforces a relationship that can become more personalized over time.

Serial entrepreneur, author, and CMO, Michael Brenner points out that you want your content to offer value. The Content Marketing influencer adds, “Give your customers the insights, advice, and guidance that can help them in their life and work…” 

You can do this in many formats, from blog posts to infographics, white papers to podcasts, and much more. The kind of content that you utilize should be dependent on the proclivities of your target audience. No matter what avenue you choose, though, the important thing is that you keep the contents clean, relatable, and unique.

This associates your brand with high-quality content in the minds of consumers. When that happens, they are often more open to sharing information with you in more acceptable ways than using third-party cookies.

3. Understand your desserts

Before getting into detailed personalization strategies, there’s one more important thing to point out. The idea of needing to operate in a “cookie-less future” is a bit oversimplified. 

The truth is that Google is targeting third-party cookies, not all cookies. That means there are other versions of cookies that you can still utilize. In fact, you should use them. Leaving them on the table is akin to avoiding your entire arsenal just because you can’t use a specific weapon.

Instead, it’s helpful to understand the difference between third-party cookies and a couple of other alternatives:

  • Third-party cookies (which are on Google’s chopping block) are collected from external companies that use other websites to better understand the habits of consumers. From there, the data helps to target advertisements through past preferences.
  • First-party cookies remain in play (and praised as important pieces of marketing). They are simply data, like demographics or purchase history, that is directly collected from a consumer by a company. This process takes place on their own website and isn’t harvested across third-party lines.
  • Zero-party data is the greatest “cookie” of them all. Salesforce defines this important term as data “which a customer intentionally and proactively shares with a brand.” This is the information that a customer or audience member chooses to share with you in order to help you personalize their experience.

It’s important to learn how to operate without third-party cookies. They are invasive and on the way out. However, first-party and zero-party cookies remain firmly in the picture — and should play a central role in your personalized targeting.

4. Implement different forms of zero-party cookies

There are many ways to replace third-party cookies with zero-party cookies. Remember, all you’re doing is getting the same personalized data directly from the source. A few examples of how you can do this include:

  • Newsletters: You can use your company’s newsletter to capture your audience’s email addresses. This is an opt-in data collection format, and it opens the doors to collecting more preferences and data in the future.
  • Surveys: Can surveys be annoying? Of course. But if you use them sparsely, are transparent about your intentions, and ask for the most valuable information and nothing more, you can use surveys to glean critical data from your audience.
  • Content downloads and access: Another great way to spur the exchange of zero-party data is by offering something valuable in return. If a customer will give you some basic info, like their email, geographic location, or how they want you to recognize them, you can give them something valuable in return. Putting valuable content behind a data collection wall is a great way to create a powerful opt-in personalization strategy.

These are just a few examples. Once you’re comfortable with the idea of collecting data directly from consumers, it becomes much easier to build that personalized experience with the help of the very people who will benefit from it.

5. Set up a digital experience platform (DXP)

Finally, if you want to be more comprehensive in your cookie-less personalization process, consider setting up a digital experience platform (DXP).

Gartner defines a DXP as “an integrated set of core technologies that support the composition, management, delivery and optimization of contextualized digital experiences.” In other words, a good DXP centralizes your personalized targeting efforts within your company’s tech stack.

DXPs can feel similar to many traditional CMS or commerce products. However, the emphasis is on optimizing (or re-optimizing) your digital products and presence with experience in mind. 

At times, a good DXP can simply provide a personalized experience based on basic information. At other times, it can consist of full modularization of digital assets and services, which can be reshuffled and presented in a targeted manner. Either way, a solid DXP avoids the need to stash cookies on desktops for future use.

According to McKinsey & Company, 90 percent of consumers are concerned about online privacy, and third-party cookies have long been a blatant part of that ongoing worry. Leaders and marketers who can figure out how to weed the need for third-party cookies out of their marketing content sooner rather than later stand the best chance of thriving in the future.

So start with things like trust and quality. Then look for first-party and zero-party data solutions that can replace your need for third-party information. If you can do that, you won’t just be preparing for a cookie-less future. You’ll be proactively giving yourself an edge over your competition as well.


John Rampton is a top digital marketing leader, influencer, and Chief at Calendar. John was recently the “Top Online Influencer in the World” by Entrepreneur Magazine. Find him on Twitter at @johnrampton.

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