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Topics: News

How we learned to stop worrying and hate the cookie

We have a confession to make. We're glad that cookies are being obliterated from the internet.

There, we said it — and we don't care who knows it! (Strictly speaking, that's not true. We want you to know it. Hence, why we're publishing this article.)

More importantly, you (the marketing and advertising professionals reading this) should be happy as well. In particular, third party cookies are not the single, solitary, and incontrovertible tool for engaging with your members/donors/attendees/prospects that Big Cookie™ would have you believe.

Cookies were intended to be a minor aspect of the HTTP Standard, initially introduced in a Netscape beta in 1994. They were so minor that they didn't even merit a mention or discussion in the Usenet post announcing that Netscape release. Their initial duty - which first-party cookies still perform - was to store arbitrary and simple pieces of data on the client (browser).

As envisioned in 1994, that simple data could be used to make the internet more convenient, e.g. helping the server remember what page you were looking at, whether you had logged in or not, the last time you visited, etc. Notably, marketing, advertising, and communication were not in the vicinity of any imagined use cases.

Initially, the creative flourish of using cookies to store unique identifiers for analytics and advertising was just that - a clever solution that enabled a novel opportunity. And, like all things invented pre-2007, humanity gorged on its own cleverness until its stomach hurt and needed to collectively puke.

Cookies are (and have always been) a woefully inadequate way to enable marketing and advertising on the internet. They were never intended to handle that kind of data. They fail at even the basics of security, portability, and transparency, not to mention our developed considerations around privacy and personal choice in advertising. The lone appearance of "advertising" in the most recent (2011) update of the reference document for HTTP State Management Mechanism is not a glowing endorsement:

"Particularly worrisome are so-called "third-party" cookies. In rendering an HTML document, a user agent often requests resources from other servers (such as advertising networks). These third-party servers can use cookies to track the user even if the user never visits the server directly."

Cookies are not inherently evil. They are a 1994 solution that is facing a 2021 set of challenges. When the fateful day comes, and the cookie casket is lowered into its technological grave, we will pay our respects. Like Icarus before it, the cookie merely took a byte bigger than it could chew. (Get it...? Byte ...like bite, but funnier!)

But doesn't the end of third-party cookies mean the end of advertising — and Feathr?!

Oh, my sweet summer child. Google, Facebook, Apple, etc., have no intention of suiciding their multi-trillion dollar businesses. The push for replacing third-party cookies with more effective, performant, and valuable identifiers has been underway for years. Google, et al. are attempting to carve out as much proprietary control of the next generation of personalized marketing as they can. Google/Chrome's recent announcement's key points are not very thinly veiled. They want to ensure that their preferred solutions are the dominant ones. From their own blog post, emphasis added:

"Even so, we continue to get questions about whether Google will join others in the ad tech industry who plan to replace third-party cookies with alternative user-level identifiers.

We realize this means other providers may offer a level of user identity for ad tracking across the web that we will not — like PII graphs based on people's email addresses. We don't believe these solutions will meet rising consumer expectations for privacy, ...

Developing strong relationships with customers has always been critical for brands to build a successful business, and this becomes even more vital in a privacy-first world. We will continue to support first-party relationships on our ad platforms for partners, in which they have direct connections with their own customers."

My favorite comment comes from an analysis of the blog post rather than the post itself. From the Electronic Frontier Foundation:

"Google is leading the charge to replace third-party cookies with a new suite of technologies to target ads on the Web. And some of its proposals show that it hasn't learned the right lessons from the ongoing backlash to the surveillance business model."

Overly cynical and paranoid? Yes. Correct? Also, yes.

There are several competing projects and proposals for "replacing" third-party cookies as we stand right now. Not surprisingly, each comes with its own complex web of inter-corporate politics.

  • Google mentioned two of their privacy and advertising-related initiatives in that very same blog post. Privacy Sandbox and Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC).
  • Several of the largest Ad Exchanges and Publishing platforms in the world have partnered on Unified ID 2.0, which is intended to be a more transparent but equally transportable replacement for third-party cookies that pivots off of email addresses. (i.e., they don't want Google, Facebook, or Apple to have control of a proprietary solution).
  • The Webkit team (Apple's equivalent of the Chrome team) proposes a novel web API for Ad Conversion Attribution that would enable individualized conversion measurement — but without identifying that individual.

There shouldn't be much risk of confusion about these companies' goals. They intend to continue providing marketers and advertisers ways to meaningfully engage with people online based on their characteristics and behaviors. If done correctly, there is ample opportunity to improve on both the control over privacy and marketing effectiveness in the coming years.

Ultimately, the questions and considerations that matter the most to Feathr are around how we make this transition seamless and productive to the people who matter most to us - our customers. Our role has always been and will remain to ensure that complicated technical and legal frameworks are not a burden on your organization's goals. We will continue building the features and integrations necessary to hit your goals, grow your organizations, and serve your audiences.

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Aleksander Levental
Co-founder and CEO, Feathr