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Marketing Analytics Are About to Get (Even More) Complicated

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Anyone who’s tried the DIY approach to end-to-end marketing analytics understands that it’s #complicated.

On average, B2B enterprise marketers use 91 cloud-based applications. In the world of data, this means 91 unique identifiers and at least 8 different ways of looking at identifying prospects interacting with different marketing collateral (email address, IP address, third-party cookie, first-party cookie, and more are used to identify unique visitors). 

It gets messy faster than a toddler with a bowl of spaghetti.

As usual, the B2C sector has been nervous about the inevitable changes rolling out across browsers since GDP was on the horizon. (As a reminder, these browser changes hit B2C and B2B all at B2B should be just as worried.) Google has rolled out a series of announcements that are pretty ominous for anyone in marketing or revenue operations departments trying to tie advertising to revenue and ferret out performance data.

What’s a Cookie?

Cookies are tiny text-only files deposited in your browser. They can be instrumental when trying to personalize a user’s experience. For example, if you’ve been on the website and have been browsing their RevOps articles, they may use a first-party cookie to suggest similar content for you based on your browsing history on their website. These cookies contain a unique ID for you so that as you jump from page to page, the website can make more intelligent suggestions.

Third-party cookies go a step further and transfer data across browsers. Third-party cookies are generated by a different domain than the URL you are visiting when it’s deposited on your browser. In contrast, first-party cookies are cookies generated by the domain the visitor was on at the time. 

To illustrate how third-party cookies work:

A visitor lands on your company’s website, and because you hired a retargeting vendor, you’ve added code to the header of your website that deposits a third-party cookie on their browser. That cookie passes information back to the retargeting vendor so they know when the end-user is on CNN, Forbes, or other major publishers and can present your ad.

Retargeting and display vendors have almost entirely relied on third-party cookies for their business model, although some have been shifting to hashed email. Some vendors have pivoted to using hashed or encrypted email, passed in the URL string or HTML as an alternative.

What’s the Hubbub, Bub?

Two very contradictory things are happening in the digital world:

  1. People expect personalization and grow frustrated when they are presented with content not related to them
  2. People don’t want to be tracked online

Because of the increased awareness and regulations around end-user privacy, things have quietly been changing in the background. Firefox and Safari have discontinued third-party cookies. 

If you’ve seen retargeting and display ads be less effective, it’s because a decent chunk of the market fell away. These browsers have also limited the duration of first-party cookies.

On Firefox and Safari, first-party cookies generally stick around for seven days. If someone revisits the site within those seven days, the expiration is kicked out another seven days. If you have URL string identifiers like UTM codes or hashed email, that timeline gets shortened to 24 hours, with a 24-hour extension if they visit again within 24 hours.

By comparison, Google’s cookies expire after two years if they don’t manually delete them or shut them off.

For those of us with a long sales cycle, this cuts down on how much web activity we can track on our own website prior to an opportunity being created. This means the issues we had tracking the buyer journey just got a little more complicated.

On March 3, Google announced it was also doing away with third-party cookies and would not support alternative means of identification (such as hashed email) as of 2022. This was a huge blow to the advertising industry. Google is also signaling that they will be limiting the duration of first-party cookies, which is worrisome. If you’re a pessimist, you may start to wonder if all cookies will be gone in a number of years.

Why Care?

Marketers have already had a heck of a time tying their efforts to results. As someone who has sat in the marketing analytics and systems trenches, it is darn near impossible to tie marketing data together without a customer data platform to cleanse data and assign a universal id across data sources. Most of us only have the budget to slap an analytics tool on top of our CRM (if we’re lucky), which leaves out swathes of relevant data (such as web activity, digital advertising, and more) and is only as good as the data it stands on.

This new Google announcement means marketers will need to:

  1. Work directly with publishers or agents to advertise to anonymous audiences in their ICP
  2. Target specific users by providing lists of email addresses to publishers 
  3. Weigh the risks and benefits of using URL string identifiers
  4. Clean up their first-party data 
  5. Consider acquiring or building a customer data platform

Most major advertisers are now using walled gardens that use demographic data to narrow in on a target audience. Google’s new FLoC (Federated Learning of Cohorts) is meant to replace their traditional search advertising offering with demographics-based advertising. Essentially, they’re still collecting user information, but that data will no longer be available to other advertisers.

We don’t yet know if FLoC will be as effective as traditional Google Ads. Marketers (both B2C and B2B) should start figuring out ways to track advertising effectiveness. They need to realize that UTM parameters and hashed email will drastically reduce the longevity of their first-party cookies, which will impact tracking of non-form fill related web activity.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say the sky is falling à la Chicken Little. I will say that it’s high time we figure out how to make the most out of first-party data.

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