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Thriving in a Cookieless World: Success Beyond Third-Party Cookies

Third-party cookies are being phased out — or are already deprecated — on many of the most popular web browsers and devices. Here's everything you need to know. 

It’s long been said that the purpose of digital advertising is to reach the right person at the right time with the right message and, historically, third-party cookies have helped achieve that through targeting that’s informed by user browsing behavior. These delicious morsels of data delivered a relevant ad experience to users and a high-quality audience that drove leads for advertisers. As we look to a cookieless future, there are a few key areas we can prepare. 

What are Third-Party Cookies?

Third-party cookies are snippets of data that are sent to a browser when a user visits a website. These cookies follow users from one website to another, gathering information about that user's behavior, purchases, interests, and intent. Marketers have relied on third-party cookies primarily for targeting and measurement. 


Third-party cookies collect information about user demographics, interests, and purchase activity over time, informing personas associated with user devices and allowing advertisers to target more relevant ads, particularly in the awareness and consideration stages of the consumer journey before our audience engages with us. Once that audience visits our website, third-party cookies are what we rely on to retarget those individuals across multiple advertising channels to influence the evaluation and application stages of the consumer journey.


Because third-party cookies transcend websites, they allow us to track our audience from one platform to another and attribute conversions across devices and the entire marketing funnel. Industry experts from IAB agree, that “associating impression and conversion events across different sites within the same browser becomes much more difficult” without third-party cookies. But ad platforms, publishers, marketing tech firms, and agencies have been working on solutions for years and have you covered. 

Why are Third-Party Cookies Going Away?

In the interest of consumer privacy and protection, third-party cookies slowly started to fall out of favor some years ago. Safari started phasing cookies out in 2017, followed by Firefox and others when the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) ignited interest in consumer privacy in 2020. Google announced their intention to phase out third-party cookies from Chrome as early as Q3 of 2024, but has since delayed the phase-out for the third time citing regulatory concerns.

Beyond this consumer privacy concern, third-party cookies cannot distinguish between users who share devices, providing imperfect attribution. The cookieless future is turning to first-party data as a source of developing higher-quality audience targets and establishing transparency in marketing performance metrics.

How Will the Loss of Third-Party Cookies Impact Your Marketing?

The good news is that marketers aren’t alone in navigating the loss of third-party cookies. Ad platforms like Google are developing stronger ways to connect with audiences, and marketing tech companies are evolving techniques for exchanging data with consumer privacy top-of-mind. This means we will all benefit from safer, higher-quality audience targeting techniques, and clarity when it comes to measuring the return on our marketing investment. 

With the death of third-party cookies, marketers will have new tools for targeting audiences, measuring campaign performance, optimizing advertising investments, and making the most out of first-party data. 

What is Replacing Third-Party Cookies?

Several technologies and systems have emerged over the last few years to replace third-party cookies. As one of the largest ad platforms in the world, Google has led the way in addressing consumer privacy, announcing the Google Privacy Sandbox initiative in 2019. The Privacy Sandbox protects online users' privacy and provides numerous tools that empower marketers and developers in the new digital landscape. And they're in good company, as many other ad platforms and publishers have been collecting first-party audience data for years in anticipation of this change.

The New Way of Targeting Audiences

Advertisers are relying more heavily on contextual targeting tactics, which leverage a publisher’s first-party data about web users’ interests to hone in on the right audience. 

Along similar lines, Google developed the Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC), which groups users with common interests into anonymous target cohorts, eliminating the use of third-party cookies. 

Google is also expected to introduce the Protected Audience API in early 2024 as a new approach to remarketing to audiences. The technology essentially allows browsers to store the advertiser’s intent and user behavior, putting the control of data sharing in the users' hands instead of ad platforms and publishers. Browsers will show relevant ads from sites the user previously visited without the websites tracking the user's behavior.  

Taking Control of Campaign Measurement

Server-side conversion tracking was a solution that Google and others recommended early on. This allows ad platform servers to connect directly to the server that hosts an advertiser's website - think Meta’s server connecting to the server that hosts your college’s website. This enables the ad platform to understand the conversions and events that resulted from your ads. The process prevents the browser from storing sensitive user data and encrypts data along the way, further ensuring user privacy.

To support server-side conversion tracking, Meta introduced the Conversions API, which connects your website or CRM and Meta to exchange information about website events, conversions, and messaging events. This direct connection elevates campaign optimization and personalization as well as measuring campaign success.

Google’s enhanced conversions can further support in measuring the effectiveness of your marketing efforts by sending hashed, or anonymized, first-party conversion data from your website to Google.

All of these tools bypass the third parties, providing you direct access to your conversion data. 

What Should Marketers Do Now 

What do we do now that third-party cookies are going away? Prioritize collecting first-party information.

Ad platforms are solving how to target users and gain access to audiences intelligently. So, while they’re developing new ways for you to utilize contextual targeting and leverage anonymized or hashed IDs and like-minded audience cohorts, you can focus on collecting audience data and engaging directly with your audience. Now is the time to prepare your strategies for collecting, storing, and processing first-party information.

Provide Helpful Resources That Inspire Audiences to Connect With You

With each virtual or in-person event registration and each program inquiry, you generate a piece of data that you can leverage in your marketing. Additionally, you may offer career guides and helpful resources that users download in exchange for their contact information. Chat widgets and chatbots are another valuable resource to employ on your website that can both answer questions and collect first-party data for you. This data can be used within your lead nurture campaign, and to build lookalike audiences on many ad platforms. Lookalike audiences are a popular way to marry your first-party data with an ad platform's first-party data to connect with like-minded individuals.

Synchronize and Enhance Your Website Analytics and CRM

Prioritize setting up enhanced analytics to collect more information about website visitors. This will help you paint a better picture of your audience. It is equally important to set up every piece of information to synchronize from marketing platform to UTM to website analytics to CRM. Through a bit of text you add to your landing page URL, your UTM (Urchin Tracking Module) can collect campaign data that tells you which platform, campaign, content, and terms your audiences respond to. Feeding this information into your CRM is crucial to understanding the complete user journey. 

Up Your Marketing Technology Game

Advanced marketers have already transitioned to server-side tracking and API platform integrations. While this may require more web development skills, it empowers universities to be more independent through transparent and higher-quality conversion data. 

Digital marketing is evolving to bypass reliance on third-party information. By turning your attention to collecting, storing, and processing your information directly, you will better understand your audience, marketing performance, and your return on investment. It’s time to prioritize your first-party data and take your marketing to the next level.