The digital media industry has experienced a sea change over the past few years, culminating with Google announcing the planned deprecation of the third-party cookie on its Google Chrome web browser by 2022. While third-party cookies have been on their way out—Apple Safari and Mozilla Firefox browsers already block third-party cookies by default—Google’s announcement sent shockwaves throughout the $565 billion global ad industry. This will be a significant change, but for now, third-party cookies remain the best tools for precision targeting and measurement. However, marketers will eventually need to find new solutions to reach their audiences and validate marketing impact.

Here we answer key questions that commonly arise around what this change means for pharma marketers and how they can best prepare for the new digital ecosystem.

Q: What are third-party cookies?

Cookies are small, unique text files that are placed on web users’ hard drives as a mechanism for recognizing users in different contexts. Cookies have been a fundamental component of the architecture of the web for more than 25 years, helping websites and advertisers solve basic problems related to recognizing users (e.g., an ecommerce website may use cookies to keep the shoes that you looked at last week in your shopping cart).

“Third-party cookies” are cookies placed on a user’s hard drive by an entity other than the website that the user is visiting, allowing for the recognition of the same user across different websites and thus enabling hugely valuable marketing applications. Many of these applications are central to the value of digital marketing. For example, marketers (and their vendors) can connect third-party cookie data to other datasets (e.g., CRM data, demographic data, purchase data, etc.) to build robust profiles on audiences, to efficiently target relevant prospects with tailored messaging across the web, and to measure which ads drive site traffic and ultimately business outcomes.

Q: Why have web browsers started to eliminate support of third-party cookies?

While cookies continue to help marketers strategize, deliver more relevant advertising, and improve user experiences, they are not without faults. Third-party cookies have never been an ideal solution for both marketers and consumers as there’s limited visibility into how they work, what data is collected, and how that data is used. However, between privacy concerns and new regulations, such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), consumers are demanding increased transparency and control over how their data is used, and the industry is on board. Widespread recognition shows it’s time for the industry to develop a modern, privacy-first approach to digital identity resolution to enable effective targeting and measurement.

Q: How does Google’s policy change affect health marketers?

Because Google Chrome accounts for ~60% of desktop web browsing in the U.S.1, this policy change will affect marketers across verticals, including healthcare, because they will no longer be able to use third-party cookies for targeting and measurement.

While tremendous value is at stake across the ad industry, marketers won’t be affected immediately. Digital marketing isn’t going anywhere—ad spend in this space surpassed traditional ad spend in the U.S. in 2019—so any changes will be gradual, and third-party cookies will not disappear overnight. In the near term, solutions that currently use third-party cookies will largely continue to function as the industry works towards alternatives.

In the longer term, the deprecation of third-party cookies could mean a larger share of ad dollars will go to a few dominant players that do not require third-party cookies to target specific audiences and measure performance. However, advertisers are also wary of ceding more control to notoriously non-transparent walled gardens, especially as these companies’ reporting practices come under increased scrutiny.

Q: What solutions could replace third-party cookies?

Many organizations, including Google, are working to develop “cookie-less” solutions that will preserve the open-web marketing functionality that third-party cookies enable; however, there is no clear frontrunner yet. Significant uncertainty remains as to what architecture(s) the industry will adopt next and whether Google’s initial timeline is still realistic.

To address this uncertainty, many media owners are collecting and building out their first-party cookie pool as an alternative to third-party cookies. Advertisers in many non-health verticals may be able to collect data directly from their customers for advertising purposes without cookies. However, health marketers are unable to use their own customer data due to privacy restrictions around patient data. Instead, health marketers have other options to leverage people-based data, which include working with audience extensions through endemic partners or by enlisting the services of trusted targeting partners who score the population through a national consumer database. In a post-cookie world, it is critical for marketers and their agencies to work with partners who have invested in people-based marketing for both measurement and targeting applications.

Q: How can marketers continue to effectively advertise through digital channels?

While the industry will not shift immediately, in the long term, marketers will need to adopt alternative strategies and technologies to ensure continuity in their marketing efforts. With third-party cookie replacements being developed, brands must prepare for this change in advance and cannot wait until new options are released.

One viable suggestion is for marketers to establish direct relationships with platform or media owners. Today, many media owners have a non-third-party cookie identity that they can make available. For example, many websites or services require users to log in with an email address or other ID in order to access their content. These users can be connected to anonymous identifiers in order to perform measurement and analytics.

Q: How can marketers measure their efforts holistically across publishers?

This has been a long-standing challenge for marketers because ad performance has historically been measured in silos across publishers. However, measurement solutions that create direct feed connections across many publishers can provide a more complete picture of campaign performance. For example, the Crossix DIFA Partner Program integrates publishers’ first-party data in one place, providing marketers with transparency, accountability, and the ability to optimize their marketing campaigns across publishers.

What’s Next?

There will be no magic bullet. The industry is exploring many possible approaches for preserving addressability and measurability on the open web without the infrastructure of third-party cookies; it is unlikely that many will succeed. We see parallels between the pending disruption and the early days of programmatic advertising, in which marketers experienced confusion and anxiety over a technical shift, leading to the proliferation of many different solutions and the eventual consolidation around a handful of winners.

While the end of the third-party cookie will usher in a new digital age, the industry has an opportunity to innovate. A new ecosystem that continues to provide value, while increasing transparency for both marketers and consumers is on the horizon, but in the interim, brands can prepare with new strategies that will allow continuity in their marketing efforts.

References:

1. https://gs.statcounter.com/browser-market-share/desktop/united-states-of-america.

  • Sarah Caldwell

    Sarah Caldwell is General Manager at Crossix Analytics. Sarah is responsible for Crossix measurement & optimization and audience targeting solutions. Crossix leverages connected health data to help life sciences more effectively activate, measure, and optimize their marketing investments. Sarah joined Crossix in 2007 and has consulted with pharmaceutical brands across various therapeutic areas and business situations, including launch and loss of exclusivity.

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