Real Alternatives to Third Party Cookies for Marketers (2023)

Real Alternatives to Third Party Cookies for Marketers (2023)

JK Sparks 5 min

Imagine you’re an advertiser in the 1990s when NBC, ABC, and CBS announce they will no longer announce their Nielsen ratings. You wouldn’t know who was watching your commercials. It would be unprecedented. For marketers, this decision would be downright apocalyptic.

Something similar is about to happen in the world of search engines: the end of third-party cookie tracking on popular platforms like Google Chrome, Apple Safari, and more. That means 83% of digital advertisers will be stumbling in the dark.

In 2022, Google postponed the move by another year. One way to interpret that is: It’s a calm, prudent way to give advertisers time to adapt. Another way? Google sees the holy-cow-this-changes-everything nature of what other major digital platforms are up to. Either way, you have some time to scramble.

But make no mistake: a seismic shift in ad tech is coming. If you want your advertising to have the same success it had with the robust customer data of digital advertising’s cookie age, you’ll need a few alternatives.

  • First Party Data

  • Google’s Privacy Sandbox

  • Publisher Provided Identifiers (PPIDs)

  • Contextual Advertising


Why are Google and Apple Blocking Third-Party Cookies?

In a word: user privacy. Users are growing weary of advertisers tracking their every move. Apple and Google, two mega-techs with competing web browsers and smartphones, are anxious to please regulators and privacy-hungry buyers. The moves have “pleased privacy advocates,” says Bloomberg. But they may also leave advertisers scrambling.

There’s also Europe and its evolving privacy laws. In 2019, the EU started requiring consent from web users before third-party cookies could start tracking. But while that’s ruled out the “implicit opt-in” of allowing cookies simply because users visited a website, it still leaves the door open a smidge. If advertisers can get personal data with users’ permission, they can run all the analytics they like.


What Does This Mean for Marketers?

Third-party trackers have been a boon for digital advertisers. It’s how Facebook knows you were looking up chew toys on Amazon and may want a refill on your dog food.

According to Statista, only 17% of digital marketers have gone cookieless. The other 83% constitute a major portion of a $22 billion market or roughly 30% of the entire U.S. advertising industry. That’s an industry large enough to support all sorts of mini-industries, such as:

  • Facebook’s demographic targeting system. Facebook is handing “pixel” power—its famous cookie tracker—over to users. That pixel has been one of the most powerful tools in social media for years. In fact, some marketers have used third party pixel data to target specific neighborhoods. But it’s now an advertising superpower they can no longer take for granted.

  • Account-based ad tools. Analytics tools to track users across multiple websites could help you identify potential “warm” leads visiting your business. Stricter third-party tracker rules could get in the way of that.

  • Third-party data enrichment. Even if you have some first party data already, some marketers “enrich” that data by cross-referencing it with third party tracking. This allows for customer-based precision. If someone downloaded your webinar or bought your product, you could use that data and combine it with third-party data for a 360-degree view of who your customers are. That’s in jeopardy now, too.


4 Real Alternatives to Third-Party Cookies


First party data

One reason third-party data is on the way out is that it was always sneaky. Users often didn’t know these trackers were in place. It’s not that users didn’t appreciate the benefits of precise ad tracking. Who wouldn’t want more relevant ads based on their browsing habits?

Acquiring first-party data (via user consent) is the most immediate solution. This approach understands that the problem isn’t that data is going away. It’s the user permission will be harder to achieve. But if you create strategies for obtaining that permission, your advertising analytics can be as robust as ever. You can respect users’ data privacy and get analytics to enhance the user experience.


For starters, users’ privacy concerns go away with first-party data. And here’s the thing: we may already be in the first-party data era when everyone will require third-party cookie alternatives. The sooner you can innovate in that space, the more substantial your advantage over advertisers still scrambling. And the ever-present benefit of first-party data is that it will always remain proprietary. The only way someone else can get their hands on it is if you agree to part with it first.


You’re at the mercy of user agreements. This will require some investment on your end. What benefits can your audience glean from handing their data over to you? You may have to create incentivizing, exclusive content that draws them in—and it’s easier said than done.


Google’s Privacy Sandbox

Google hasn’t been sitting around twiddling its thumbs. It’s introducing the Privacy Sandbox as an alternative to third party cookies for web and smartphone browsing. The idea? Keep the benefits of third-party tracking (cookie data across multiple websites) without sacrificing privacy (using APIs to limit how much companies can really know about customers). It’s a tiny needle to thread, so the Privacy Sandbox is still developing.


The whole idea behind the Privacy Sandbox is that advertisers will get to play the old game again, tracking peoples’ data across multiple websites to get a sense of the patterns. And for the consumers, if Google can pull it off, they sacrifice none of the privacy.


Time scale. This idea is still rolling out. Google engineers are working hard, figuring out ways to incorporate APIs that will make the sandbox possible. If you focused on first-party data instead, you might find that you have all the advertising data you need without needing to play in the sandbox.


Publisher Provided Identifiers (PPIDs)

When someone is using your site, you can track what they do. The problem was always in placing trackers that followed users to other sites. PPIDs are user ID tags you place to assign specific profiles to user habits while visiting your site. It’s not a full substitute for third-party data, but it makes your analytics more robust.


Effectiveness. According to Snigel, Google claims that PPIDs can potentially increase your revenue by 15%—though the actual data is hard to come by.


As Google notes, PPIDs aren’t included in Ad Manager’s conversion tracking stats. While you may recover some of the data you lose if you rely on third-party tracking, you won’t necessarily get the full gamut you can get with first-party data. You’re limited to what happens during user visits, without a complete picture of the user’s browsing history.


Contextual Advertising

Contextual advertising, or contextual targeting, is a bit like a best guess—but it often beats no guess. The goal of contextual advertising is to place ecommerce ads where they’re most relevant for your audience. There’s no guesswork based on previous audience behaviors, or how many times a customer might have browsed a page. It’s simply advertising designed to meet the need of the target audience. For example, you might notice ads for reading glasses in The New York Times “Books” section.


Smart contextual advertising can work with minimal data input. These aren’t targeted ads, but they are are thoughtful ads. Rather than measure every touchpoint, you can use contextual advertising to make logical associations about your audience.


Without the data to fuel your ad campaigns, contextual advertising requires a bit of guesswork. What if one newspaper’s “Books” section is full of customers who already have reading glasses they’re happy with? You’ll end up with a lower conversion rate without much explanation why. Contextual advertising is smart—but it’s not as surgical as advertising with real data behind it.


How to Prepare for a Cookie-Less Future

Get ready by choosing the alternative that empowers you the most. We recommend building a first party data strategy. But you also may need a paradigm shift. This is an opportunity to de-emphasize the paid platforms you’ve relied on in the past. Every company is becoming a media company, building its own distribution and publishing systems. And when you “own” your audience—rather than renting it from a paid platform—you regain some of the data you lost.



JK Sparks | About the Author

Head of Marketing, AudiencePlus

JK is allergic to the words “guru, ninja, and hack” when used to describe anything marketing related. Instead of chasing the latest “growth hack,” he’s focused on building sustainable and predictable levers that fuel long term success. By implementing this approach over the last decade, JK has helped organizations in both bootstrapped and well-funded environments scale from <$100K to more than $100M in revenue. You can follow him here.

JK Sparks 5 min

Real Alternatives to Third Party Cookies for Marketers (2023)

Third party cookies are going away. Here are real alternatives to target, build & grow and online audience, while measuring business impact down to the user.

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