Cookies Crumbling on Firefox, iPads

Dutch HollisThere has been a lot of talk lately on the ineffectiveness of cookies, especially in the mobile space. Add to this the recent announcement by the Mozilla team that the next Firefox will block third-party cookies by default and there is some panic settling in. So is it time to panic? Is this the zombie apocalypse for online marketers?
The short answer is… no – but it may be time to make some changes.
The Web, wired or mobile, relies on cookies to run. Without cookies, sites and the experiences they provide start to breakdown pretty quickly. In a cookie-less world, cart experiences stop working, websites quickly forget who you are, and you’re constantly re-logging in to the same sites. It’s not pretty. Despite what you may have heard, though, it isn’t all cookies that aren’t effective on mobile (or the next Firefox version).

The answer lies in the difference between first-party and third-party cookies. (Hit the archives for a refresher if you need one.) First-party cookies are the ones the Web needs to thrive and provide services that are vital to easy and enjoyable experiences online. Third-party cookies are often used by ad networks and tracking tools. These are the ones that are already suffering on mobile devices and will continue to suffer on the next version of Firefox. And these are the ones upon which many marketing decisions are forced to rely.

Look at the screen grabs below. The first is the litany of cookies that are served on my laptop browser (Chrome, in this case) for the site USAtoday.com. Notice all the cookies that are not in the first party; only the last two rows of usatoday.com cookies are first-party cookies.

usatodayshot

The next screen shows the domains from which cookies have been accepted on the iPad in its default setting. If a user changes the default settings he/she can get cookies from the other third-party domains, but few users will do this or even know that they can. By default, the iPad and iPhone are ignoring third-party cookies (and Firefox will soon follow).

usatoday2

I can tell you’re not convinced – this may still be the aforementioned apocalypse for digital marketers, right? Well, the good news is that you, too, can operate in the first party for your marketing efforts. That is, you need to operate in the first party.

What does that mean? Well, the first step is to make sure the tags you’re using to track consumer behavior across your site are in the first party. This should be the easiest part to address.

Beyond that, you need to look at other channels and activation points. Is your retargeting program underperforming? Is it due to not being able to identify the right targets on mobile devices? What about email? If the click lands a customer somewhere on your site, you’re probably OK, but don’t miss the same opportunity by using landing pages with third-party cookies. The same can be said for links from SMS and social media. In short, you want every digital touchpoint possible, from display media through customer conversion to be trackable in the first party.

The “Why’s” here are probably obvious, but in case they are not, let me give you some facts and figures that may help persuade you. Tablet shipments are expected to grow significantly over the next three years – it is the computer device with the fastest adoption in history. While projections have iPad at around 50% of tablet shipments for the next three years, the iPad accounted for over 88% of tablet traffic last holiday season.

The default Android browser currently does support third-party cookies, but the recent Firefox announcement may be a sign of a shift toward more browsers/ platforms switching to a default “off” for third-party cookie acceptance. A world where you can’t target, retarget, segment or provide relevant messaging for this rapidly growing user base is not the one where you want to be the marketer.

A final thought… you may be asking whether marketers should operate in the first-party cookie space. Yes, we should. First, because part of our job as marketers is to make the user experience of the highest relevance and highest value to that customer, to do so we need the data. Second, you should have (and honor) an opt-out or “do not track” policy that is easy for customers to understand and use if they so choose. Finally, while there are certainly privacy concerns when it comes to tracking users across the Web, we are talking about your properties and your creative here. You need to understand how your customers are interacting with you.

“…And that’s the way the cookie crumbles.”

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