What Will Digital Optimization Look Like in a Cookieless Future?

In the latest episode of our video series Qualt Q&A, Jenni talks with Catherine Crim, Senior Optimization Manager at Search Discovery, about what a cookieless future means for digital marketers.

Catherine helps break down this complex topic in a discussion about how cookie restrictions are already making visitors harder to identify across visits. But she emphasizes that marketers can still innovate in a world without cookie dependency and share tips for how to successfully navigate the “cookieless future” (and hint, we’re already in it!)

Watch the full episode and read on for key insights from the conversation.

The main impact of a ‘cookieless world’ on digital optimization

Cookies have long been used to track users as they move across websites and devices. As consumer privacy became a hot button issue, web browsers started restricting cookies.

When cookies are erased, marketers lose access to web visitors’ past data and activity. Cookies used to last two years. But these days, if a user is coming from an Apple device or the Safari browser, some cookies last 24 hours, and seven days at the most. Firefox and Chrome (Google) are following Apple’s lead in restricting third-party cookies.

Marketers use cookies to connect the dots between a user’s behavior and deliver relevant advertising. It’s easy to see why a cookieless future is scary for marketers.

“I really empathize with that scared feeling … but I’ve learned that there’s no real fix for this. Trying to get back to the way things were [full cookies] is a waste of time. The only solution is to adapt to a cookieless world.” -Catherine

Marketing strategies and metrics will have to adjust

Without cookies, marketers simply won’t know as much about web visitors. Their timeline of known attributes will be shorter and their online activity erased faster. With no cookies, visitors won’t be identified across visits and every visitor is essentially a newcomer.

If visitors are labeled as new regardless of how many times they’ve been to a site, the percentage of new and unique users will inflate. At the same time, the number of visits per user will deflate as their previous visits aren’t tracked. Cookie deletion and new user bloat will also deflate conversion rates.

“All of this may pump up the brand team, but it will make marketing look bad because it underestimates the effect marketing and PPC campaigns have on the bottom line.” -Catherine

Another consequence of a cookieless world is that ROAS (return on ad spend) will drop, said Catherine. Users that arrive at the website via a paid ad, leave the tab open for over 24 hours, and then come back and convert will be seen as arriving directly to the site (and not coming from the ad). Marketing won’t get credit for that conversion.

“We did an analysis of a large ecommerce retailer with high return frequency and thousands of SKUs. Thirty percent of paid traffic converted after the 24 hour mark! A lot of revenue there is going to be mis-attributed to other channels.” -Catherine

Also, last touch attribution will be the only reliable measurement in a cookieless world. Multi-touch attribution — which provides deeper user data for marketers — will be unachievable because the connection points between a user’s web sessions are erased.

A/B testing put to the test

A/B testing is another marketing practice impacted by a cookieless Internet. A test user could visit the site multiple times during a test. Because there are no cookies and the test user is always seen as new, he could be shown the B version one visit and the A version another visit.

For the same reason, conversions may not be correctly attributed to the A/B version delivered.

“This will lead to “flat” test results because if you’re switching between versions your conversion could be attributed to A even if you were originally in group B. Flat results are the real enemy of optimization programs. They just give you reporting data. That’s a lot of man hours and resources for just reporting.” -Catherine

How to compete in a cookieless world

Catherine emphasizes there’s no “fixing” a cookieless Internet. The only way forward is to build strategies that don’t rely on cookies.

Because the topic of Internet cookies is a moving target, she suggests the following resources for staying up-to-date on cookieless trends.

She points to a few technologies such as server-side testing and “within session optimization” that can be used to compete in a cookieless world. But something as traditional as CRM and email lists now become hugely valuable because “at least for a session you’ll know who these people are.”

Catherine also gives kudos to platforms like WEVO that are driven by human-augmented AI and real feedback, and not cookies, to do testing.

“The beauty of WEVO is it’s a non-cookie based approach that talks you through the WHY of journey optimization.”

Learn to explain cookieless to stakeholders and embrace new opportunities

Digital marketers need to understand how a cookieless world affects how marketing data is reported. Because of the aforementioned inflation of unique visitors and deflation of conversion rates, teams may appear to be underperforming when they’re not.

“Marketers, and especially PPC digital marketers, must learn how to put ‘cookieless’ into context for their bosses to prove they are not performing as badly as reporting tools say they are.” -Catherine

Though a cookieless world is daunting for marketers, Catherine and her colleagues at Search Discovery aren’t hitting the panic button.

“There are still huge opportunities to speak to your visitors and build loyalty in exchange for information. There are tools like WEVO that give you insights without cookie dependencies. So we’re not totally at a loss here. Everyday there are people figuring out how to continue digital optimization without cookies.” -Catherine

To learn more about how Search Discovery leverages WEVO in their mission to help organizations use their data with purpose to drive measurable business impact, visit SearchDiscovery.com.

No cookies? No problem! Let WEVO be your partner for customer insights in a post-cookie world. Talk to us today!