Why is 2020 so important? Let’s assume with some confidence that your company or clients find the following elements valuable, and review how they could be affected as the associated trends unfold this year.
- Channel attribution will stumble as tracking limitations break measurability and show artificial performance fluctuations.
- Campaign efficiency will lose clarity as retargeting efficacy diminishes and audience alignment blurs.
- Customer experience will falter as marketers lose control of frequency capping and creative sequencing.
First step is understanding the basics.
What is the cookie?
A cookie stores information that is passed between browser and server to provide consistency as users navigate pages and sites. Consistency is an operative word. For example, that consistency can benefit consumers, like the common shopping cart example.
Online shoppers add a product to the cart and, as they navigate the site, the product stays in the shopping cart. They can even jump to a competitor site to price compare and, when they return, the product is still in the shopping cart. That consistency makes it easier for them to shop, navigate an authenticated portion of a site, and exist a modern multi-browser, multi-device digital world.
Consistency can also benefit marketers. Can you imagine what would happen to conversion rates if users had to authenticate several times per visit? The pace of online shopping would grind to a crawl, Amazon would self combust, and Blockbuster video would rise like a phoenix.
But that consistency can violate trust.
Some cookies are removed when you close your browser. Others can accrue data over months or years, aggregating information across many sites, sessions, purchases and content consumption. The differences between cookie types can be subtle while the implications are substantial.
Comparing first- and third-party cookies
It is important for marketers to understand that first- and third-party cookies are written, read and stored in the same way.
It’s common in the parlance of the web to talk about first-party cookies and third-party cookies. This is a bit of a misnomer. Cookies are pieces of information that are stored on the user’s computer. There is no distinction between first-party and third-party in how these cookies are classified and stored on the computer. What matters is the context of the access.
The difference is the top-level domain that the cookie references. A first-party cookie references and interacts with the one domain and its subdomains.
A third-party cookie references and interacts with multiple domains.
Other important web tracking concepts
Persistent cookies and session cookies refer to duration. Session cookies expire at the end of the session when the browser closes. Persistent cookies do not. Data duration will prove to be an important concept in the regulation sections.
Cookies are not the only way to track consumers online. Fingerprinting, which uses the dozens of browser and device settings as unique identifiers, has gotten a lot of attention from platform providers, including a foreshadowed assault in Google’s Privacy Sandbox announcement.
Privacy Sandbox is Google’s attempt at setting a new standard for targeted advertising with an emphasis on user privacy. In other words, Google’s ad products and Chrome browser hope to maintain agreeable levels of privacy without the aggressive first-party cookie limitations displayed by other leading browsers like Safari and Firefox.
Outcomes: Where we are today
The state of data privacy in 2020 can perhaps best be understood by framing it in terms of drivers and destinations. Consumer drivers, like those mentioned in the previous section, created reactions from stakeholders. Some micro-level outcomes, like actions taken by individual consumers, were predictable.
For example, the #deletefacebook hashtag first trended broke and surveys found that three-quarters of Americans tightened their Facebook privacy settings or deleted the app on their phone.
The largest outcomes are arguably happening at macro levels, where one (re-)action affects millions or hundreds of millions of people. We have seen some of that from consumers with the adoption of ad blockers. For publishers and companies that live and die with the ad impression, losing a quarter of your ad inventory due to ad blockers was, and still is, devastating.
The European Union adopted GDPR to enhance and defend privacy standards for its citizens, forcing digital privacy discussions into both living rooms and board rooms around the world.
Let’s use the following Google Trends chart for “data privacy” in the United States to dive deeper into five key outcomes.
General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) has handed out more than €114 million in fines to companies doing business in the EU since becoming enforceable in May 2018. It’s been called “Protection + Teeth” in that the law provides a variety of data protection and privacy rights to EU citizens while allowing fine enforcement of up to €20 million or 4 percent of revenue, whichever hurts violators the most.
Where it goes from here
The state of tracking and data privacy can take several paths from here. Let’s outline a few :
2020 Path A: Lack of clarity leads to little change from search marketers
2020 Path B: Compounding tracking limitations keep marketers on their heels
2020 Path C: Correction as consumer fear eases in response to industry action
The backlash to tracking and privacy is a reaction to imbalance. Consumers are protecting their data, politicians are protecting their constituents, and platforms are protecting their profits. As difficult as it is to see from our vantage point today, it’s most likely that these imbalances will normalize as stakeholders feel safe.