How marketers can respond to the death of third-party cookies

14 May 2021

Image: © bigacis/

Core’s Conor Murphy talks about the demise of third-party cookies and how online marketers can respond.

Forty-six minutes into the final of the 2011 Rugby World Cup, Stephen Donald kicked the winning score. New Zealand held off a resurgent France to claim their first Webb Ellis trophy in 24 years. Despite being the fourth choice out-half, a series of injuries to other players saw Donald called up to the squad, and he played a key role in a tense match.

To grow as a team and win, New Zealand had several obstacles to overcome. In addition to injuries, there was the pressure of being the number one ranked team in the world, playing at home in front of their own famously demanding fans who had branded them as “chokers” based on their under-performance at the 2007 World Cup. With all that to contend with, how did they do it?

They succeeded because they controlled what they could control, focused on what they could do from within, and used that as the foundation for their ultimate success. Despite the injuries being outside their control, it was no fluke that Donald kicked the winning score because they had prepared for it before the squad was shortened pre-tournament. It meant that when Donald was called into camp two weeks before the final, he knew what was expected of him.

With a similar approach to performance marketing, organisations can achieve sustained growth, despite external factors. Performance marketing faces many unknowns at present, none more so than the impending death of third-party cookies next year. But, with an inward focus and in controlling what you can control, organisations can lay solid foundations for growth. Here are three critical areas to focus on.

Bring brand and performance marketing together

Performance marketers can no longer look at brand counterparts as adversaries. The brand is one of our most potent weapons. In a 2020 essay, Tom Roach correctly argues that: “Long-term v short-term is probably the most cited false choice in marketing.”

Delivering long-term sustainable growth is not just a case of making the right decision between brand or performance marketing. You need to do both. Brands need short-term sales to ensure they are around to have a long-term future. Performance marketing needs a powerful brand to help deliver an immediate impact on sales.

Brand and performance fell out because, as Roach states, the tech giants gave businesses of all sizes a giant, ready-made direct response ecosystem. The ability to buy an ‘off the shelf’ in-market audience through third-party cookies lessened the requirement to build meaningful connections through the brand first. It was a shortcut. And because it generated immediate results, we got hooked on it.

However, Google Chrome will follow Firefox and Safari to block third-party cookies from 2022. This will adversely impact marketers’ ability to deliver targeted and personalised advertising. Now is the time to bring the two adversaries together. This will require a clear overall strategy to be delivered at brand level and through performance. It means being fluid and agile in everything: how teams are built; the movement of budgets; the tactics deployed. For measurability, separate yet complementary KPIs for the different strategies will need to be determined.

Have first-party data that is actionable

With third-party cookies gone from 2022, it will not be enough to rely on publisher first-party or second-party data to fill the gap left by their absence. Due to demand, first and second-party data will become more expensive. The need to build powerful connections with the audiences that generate your own first-party data will be critical to ensure marketers are not overly reliant on other companies’ data to drive performance.

Actionable first-party data will be instrumental in delivering sales in the near-term, and in maintaining sustainable growth long-term. Critically, for organisations, this means including a layer within digital strategy purely focused on delivering consent-based first-party data that is actionable for marketing purposes.

Data privacy is a hot topic. GDPR is finally starting to do the things it threatened to do back in 2018. The key thing is to build out your data in a sustainable way.

Firstly, only take what you need. Do not overdo it. Be clear on what you are collecting, why, and what it will be used for.

Secondly, recognise that if you are going to ask people for consent to use their data, you should really offer them something in return. This does not mean simply selling them a product. You need to add value above and beyond that. And by getting these aspects right, your organisation will be well on the way to having first-party data that is actionable.

Do more with your existing customers

Agencies usually focus on acquisition for their clients, but similar strategies applied to sales activation through performance marketing can be used for retention. Having developed out first-party data, partner with the right agencies and tech partners to ensure you deliver relevant, timely messages to those with a perceived tendency to churn.

Take it a step further and leverage the same customer data to cross-sell and up-sell. Fuel loyalty and advocacy through repeat purchase: generate sales today and reduce the cost of acquisition in the future. Prospecting is about to get much harder and more expensive. Offset that by doing a lot more with what you already have.

An important point here is not to rush this level of performance marketing. Take small steps. Start with tests on different audience or product segments and build out from there. A great first win could be the ability to take out customers who have just bought the product from your acquisition campaign and for that to happen in real time. Starting small enables organisations to explore more sophisticated use of their data to drive sales performance.

Control the controllables

As with the New Zealand rugby team in 2011, there were many external factors beyond their control. However, the team focused on what they could control, not on what they couldn’t. Focusing on what they could directly influence improved their overall performance.

Take that approach to your performance marketing strategies. There are a lot of unknowns as to what will happen in 2022 with the death of third-party cookies. All that is outside our control right now. However, by focusing on what is within our influence, we can set ourselves up for success. Not just in 2022, but beyond.

Focus on your brand, your data, and your customers. But do it now.

By Conor Murphy

Conor Murphy is a consultant at marketing communications company Core.