Identifier deprecation won’t kill the open web – but that doesn’t mean marketers can go without a plan

Despite Google’s shifting timeline, third-party cookies are still on their way out. Adtech and martech companies, agencies, and publishers have had some time to adjust to this seismic shift, and there’s been no shortage of reporting and speculation by industry pundits. But what do marketers think? And are they prepared for the change?

Epsilon’s new research study “Preparing for a World Without Third-party Cookies,” finds that more than half of marketers are concerned third-party cookie deprecation will threaten their ability to reach consumers across the open web. But the truth is, with the right solutions and partners, brands can still reach in-market customers at scale, wherever they are.

It’s not a future thing

Identifier deprecation is already here. Big browsers like Safari and Firefox removed third-party cookies in the 2010s, while Apple removed mobile ad identifiers in 2021 (which is huge, considering 70% of consumers own at least one Apple device).  

Marketers are already feeling this impact, with 69% of respondents to the survey reporting a decreased ability to reach consumers on Apple devices since these changes. Also, about 76% of consumers’ time online is spent on the open web, where there is no authentication, unlike social media walled gardens like Facebook, YouTube, Snapchat and TikTok. The reality is that consumers are already spending a lot of time on the web in a post-deprecation environment.

Confidence gaps and concerns persist

Epsilon research shows that while marketers understand the expected impact of Google’s moves to deprecate third-party cookies, the majority (55%) are not prepared for it and continue to worry about what’s next. In fact, 64% of them believe that digital advertising will take a step backward in terms of personalization and proving marketing effectiveness due to these changes.

An even larger portion (73%) are concerned about the potential loss of the ability to do “people-based advertising.” Despite understanding cookie deprecation’s implications, 75% of marketers still depend on them and less than half (44%) feel “very prepared” for it.

First-party data remains supreme

To mitigate the impact of these changes, the survey found that advertisers are wisely adopting strategies that center on improving their foundation in first-party data (60%), using tools like customer data platforms (59%) and building out private ID graphs (54%). Yet, while building a private ID graph is essential, it’s not enough on its own.

Activating that first-party data through multiple channels, particularly digital ones, is much more difficult and typically requires engagement with the right partners—which makes the three least popular options in the survey—testing in Google’s Sandbox (31%), getting a data clean room (27%) and testing with more resilient partners (26%)—quite intriguing.

The three least popular options all relate to the digital activation of first-party data. Their low adoption is surprising given that third-party identifier deprecation directly impacts the ability to activate digitally. Google’s Privacy Sandbox is a solution for activating on Chrome in a post-deprecation world, clean rooms are a solution for synchronizing first-party data with publishers, and testing more resilient partners would be a natural hedge against the impacts of deprecation. So why are these the least prevalent?

The most likely conclusion is that the majority of marketers expect their existing partners to solve the digital activation problem for them. Epsilon found that while 61% of marketers plan to keep their overall digital advertising spend the same, they will invest more in partners and tactics that are less reliant on third-party cookies, like Google, Facebook and Amazon.

This strategy has two major flaws. First, with over two-thirds of spend already going to walled gardens, marketers’ increased dependence on them will likely create more competition for that inventory, higher prices and lower ROI. Second, when marketers double down on walled gardens instead of the open web, they’re missing out on valuable customers and prospects, further reducing media performance.

Marketers may not realize that there are solutions to activate first-party data on the open web without third-party identifiers. The truth is that the right partner can reach real people on the open web by helping marketers successfully implement the top options for building a first-party data asset: developing first-party data strategies, CDPs and private ID graphs to link and then activate first-party data.

What sort of ID solution to look for

The solution is to ground your marketing in a deprecation-proof identity that natively connects both with your first-party data and with online publisher inventory.

Many publishers achieve opt-in authentication from their users in exchange for content. Scaled and linked to a strong identity graph, this data can be used to deliver personalized advertising after third-party cookies are gone. This is a highly effective solution when it comes from an experienced vendor with scalable technology.

Not every solution is equally effective. The key for the marketer is to ask the right questions. First and most importantly, find out how well the solution reaches consumers on already-deprecated platforms, particularly Apple. Given that the value of Apple audiences makes them must-haves, any solution that is not delivering to them at scale already will inevitably struggle when every platform has deprecated third-party identifiers.

The other question to ask is how many of your customers the partner can reach online today, with and without using third-party identifiers. Many solutions tout their interoperability, meaning that they can activate some of your first-party data, but fail to answer the important question of how much of it they can activate. Many solutions filter out 80% or more of your precious first-party data on the path to activation and rely on third-party identifiers to achieve that much.

Don’t go it alone

A solid first-party data strategy requires some level of partnership. And what really makes the difference is a partner that can take that first-party data strategy and translate it into activation. Look for a solution that is transferable, interoperable and resilient—one that can face the headwinds of a changing adtech and martech environment.

The open web offers an expansive landscape where brands can discover, engage and reconnect with a broader audience. There’s no need to lose that in a post-deprecation world.

This article was originally published in Adweek, May 2024.