Marketing

How to Maximize Your Paid Advertising ROI in a World Without Cookies

With third-party cookies going away, where should marketers turn? We consulted the experts on how to perform paid marketing without cookies.

Melissa King Melissa King on November 28, 2022 (last modified on November 19, 2022) • 17 minute read

We’re at a turning point in online advertising.

Advertisers used to count on third-party cookies to target and personalize their ads. But, browsers like Safari no longer allow cookies to protect user privacy. Google Chrome, one of the most popular browsers out there, will also phase them out in 2024.

When we surveyed 101 online advertisers, we found them taking one of three strategies: stick to third-party cookies, try non-cookie solutions, or avoid third-party data entirely.

Marketing with third party cookies

The vast majority of respondents — 82.18% — already skip third-party cookies in their advertising. If you’re part of the 17.82% who still count on them, what will you do when browsers drop them entirely?

We consulted our survey responses and thought leaders on LinkedIn for their advice on paid marketing without cookies. Through these means, we learned about the following topics to share with you today:

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Most Popular Channels Marketers Use for Online Advertising

When we asked marketers about their top online advertising channels, more than 50% reported using these options:

Most Popular Channels Marketers Use for Online Advertising
  • Google Ads (87.13%)
  • Facebook (77.23%)
  • LinkedIn (57.43%)
  • Instagram (50.50%)

Popularity seemed to correspond with each platform’s depth of advertising options and user base size. For example, while Twitter has a large user base, it doesn’t have as many unique ad formats as Facebook or Instagram. Meanwhile, Microsoft Advertising offers a decent selection of ad formats, but its search engines don’t have nearly as many users as Google.

For context, the advertisers we polled had an even distribution of industries. Nearly 40% worked in business-to-consumer (B2C) products and services (39.60%), while 25.74% represented business-to-business (B2B) organizations. The remaining 34.65% consisted of agencies and consultants managing ads for other businesses.

Related: Clicks but no Conversions? 19 Tips on How to Convert Paid Traffic into Qualified Leads

Best Alternatives to Third-Party Cookies

With the above platform preferences in mind, what do advertisers suggest using as an alternative to cookies?

Best Alternatives to Third-Party Cookies

The vast majority of respondents (78.22%) recommend digging into first-party data. It’s also worth mentioning that when asked to elaborate on their choices, many mentioned zero-party data. The topic also came up in our LinkedIn discussion.

Both first-party and zero-party data differ from third-party data from cookies in that they involve a more direct connection between you and the customer. Let’s look at each definition:

  • First-party data is data collected from customer interactions with your content and product, such as purchases or subscriptions
  • Zero-party data is data the customer directly provides to you, such as mailing list contact info and survey data

Here’s how Palaleather UK’s Christine Brownstein explains the difference: 

“I’d say that any information acquired by a corporation or institution that does not have direct contact with customers, such as an online marketing provider or collector, is considered third-party data. Understanding data from the first and zero parties is a crucial component of this strategy. First-party information is collected from user interactions that are more dependable and precise than data provided by another source.”

Brownstein continues, “Zero-party data is much more trustworthy, and it is frequently regarded as the benchmark of consumer data. I think that customers deliberately share this type of information with your company, generally because you’re providing them with something worthwhile in return. Zero-party data includes survey research, restricted form fills, email subscriptions, and rewards program choices, which can be a tactic for marketers to restrategize.”

Ty Wilson from CustomMade calls the practice of using first-party data “focusing on people-based marketing.” Wilson says, “People-based marketing is a data-driven (and more privacy-conscious) approach that uses first-party data to identify and target customers based on their individual interests and needs.” While people-based marketing will involve investing in new tools and targeted marketing campaigns, it’ll pay off with higher efficiency than a cookie-based approach.

5 Ways to Successfully Perform Paid Marketing Without Cookies

On LinkedIn, we asked advertising experts a simple question: How do you get effective and profitable results from paid ads without using third-party data?

Their answers fell into five different takeaways:

  1. Work With the Data You Still Have
  2. Use a Third-Party Account Intelligence Tool
  3. Collect Zero-Party Data Through Interactive Experiences and Lead Magnets
  4. Get to Know Your Audience
  5. Lean Into New Advertising Algorithms

1. Work With the Data You Still Have

With talk of the “cookie apocalypse” going around, it can be easy to forget that we as marketers still have plenty of data to work with. Advertising platforms won’t stop giving us data altogether — they’ll just provide different data.

“This is a doozy of a topic,” admits Gabriel Ehrlich, CEO of Remotion, a LinkedIn advertising agency. But the Remotion team has a plan.

They take two different approaches, depending on the campaign type. “For performance campaigns, we mainly rely on first-party data (ie, Leadgen Forms) so we don’t have to use cookies or third-party tracking. We’ve also been doing more and more brand campaigns, ungated, and untracked,” Ehrlich says. “There’s still plenty of stuff to track and measure, though.”

For example, Remotion keeps an eye out for what Ehrlich calls “unattributed traffic.” “We’re looking at ‘Direct’ traffic and branded organic search traffic to try to understand how much ‘unattributed traffic’ is being generated, and trying to model out what we believe is being driven from various campaigns and channels,” Ehrlich tells us.

Remotion also asks customers how they heard about the company on its website and during demo calls.

Ehrlich also suggests trying different targeting strategies and reading between the lines. “You can do other things as well, like run campaigns in some [geographic areas], but not in others. Measure the uplift in SQLs in that market over 3 months and then switch the [geographic areas]. This should tell you something,” he advises.

Related: How Can Small Business Owners Leverage Location-Based Marketing? 10 Tips and Examples

According to Ehrlich, it’s “very important that you make sure to communicate all of this internally — especially to the CEO and CFO.” He explains that leadership might assume that the data you have shows the full picture. As part of this communication process, you need to find ways to calculate your return on investment using measurable results. “You MUST come up with models to take into account the ‘unattributed’ successes as well,” he adds.

Scott Ellis, who serves as president of agency operations as well as COO and SVP of product delivery at Adworthy, agrees with working with what you’ve got. Since Adworthy offers first-party data products and services for online advertising, he would know.

“There is a treasure trove of first-party data that isn’t currently being utilized/mined to inform content marketing, SEO, and paid advertising,” Ellis says. “Search term data from paid ads, not keywords, as well as organic search data, provide a wealth of contextually relevant data as to customer wants and needs.”

Google’s search term data shows you what terms people searched to find your content. It gives the user privacy while demonstrating what keywords will help you get better results.

“When you truly listen to customers’ needs, you don’t need to know who they are — they’ll tell you when they’re ready and you’re relevant. You just need to provide contextually relevant ads/content that put the customers’/clients’ needs first.”

Scott Ellis

Scott Ellis

President of Agency Operations and COO & SVP of Product Delivery at Adworthy

2. Use a Second-Party Account Intelligence Tool

While third-party cookies will fall out of use, you still have other third-party data options. Third-party account intelligence tools use alternative methods to get user data.

Gary Gower is a HubSpot Solutions Partner at Lead Forensics, a tool that extrapolates data on your website visitors. He shared the usage patterns he noticed from the company’s clients.

“One solution many of our agency partners have been doing is leveraging our second-party account intelligence data to supplement their first-party databases. This data can be used for targeting, measurement, and more,” Gower says.

How can you try this strategy? “You can do this with a reverse IP tracking tool like Lead Forensics to identify the businesses that visit your website and add that data to your CRM. This way, you can target them with personalized messages through retargeting campaigns or outbound efforts. Then you can further track their future engagement with your site.’

Keep in mind that tools like Lead Forensics are B2B focused. They detect details like the industry or business someone works with. As second-party data tools, they use data that businesses willingly share with their partners.

3. Collect Zero-Party Data Through Lead Magnets and Interactive Experiences

With first- and second-party data explored, what can we do with zero-party data as an alternative to third-party cookies? You have both traditional and unconventional routes to take.

Lead magnets are your traditional choice. These marketing assets consist of downloadable resources, such as reports or ebooks, that the user receives in exchange for providing their contact information.

But, you can also try your hand at an interactive experience like a quiz or online tool. You don’t see this tactic taken as often as traditional lead magnets, but they offer a different way to get information consensually.

Traci Reuter, CEO and founder of social media consultancy Divine Social, stresses the importance of using lead magnets and interactive experiences as part of a top-of-funnel approach. At this stage of the marketing funnel, customers have low awareness of your brand, making lead magnets ideal for bringing them into the loop.

“Part of the challenge is that for close to a decade advertisers could get away with pretty weak strategy because of how powerful third-party cookies made targeting options on paid social. We’re in this weird place where we still remember ‘the good old days’ and we’re expecting and measuring results based on how things used to be. We believe that brands that start focusing NOW on using paid social channels to collect and use first-party data will have a huge advantage in the future,” Reuter explains.

She says of her current strategy, “Over the last several months we’ve been doing a lot of testing of top-of-funnel campaigns designed to drive traffic to compelling and irresistible lead magnets for most of our clients. Compelling and irresistible is key. The other key is top-of-funnel.”

Many of Divine Social’s clients are direct-to-consumer brands that try to offer free shipping or a coupon. But, these offers only work with people already intending to buy from them. A top-of-funnel approach includes people who don’t know about the brands yet.

“So, the idea is to test something like a quiz, a compelling and juicy digital download, calculators, checklists, etc. Then optimize for CPL (cost per lead) and double down on your email marketing efforts to nurture those leads through the customer journey.”

Pamela Erlichman serves as chief marketing officer at Jebbit, a tool for designing interactive experiences for collecting zero-party data. She shares how Jebbit’s clients benefit from the zero-party approach: “Our clients at Jebbit are capturing zero-party data through our experiences and then uploading that data to build a look-a-like audience in platforms instead. On average, they are seeing a five-times improvement when testing against platform intent-based audiences,” Erlichman says.

In a discussion with our community development manager, Nikos Ntirlis, she also mentioned that interactive experiences can boost engagement, lead captures, and conversions on top of providing zero-party data.

4. Get to Know Your Audience

Without third-party cookies collecting audience data for you, you’ll need to do the heavy lifting yourself. Many of the experts who participated in our discussion stressed the importance of learning about your audience.

Brandon Coward, Head of Google at media tech company Rodizio Media Ventures, tells us how we’ll need a shift in mindset to get the audience data we need. “Third-party data deprecation is going to hurt everyone who is running paid ads. Many marketers have focused on leveraging the pixel data to do a lot of the heavy lifting for them, and that’s likely going to need to change.”

When we asked him about his take on third-party pixel tracking tools, he responded, “I think you’ll see those continue to pop, more so aggregate events. So anything with personal info and identifiers will likely be deprecated. But I imagine you’ll see more aggregate data added back in, see google’s recent similar audience update. Using aggregate data points and conversion data will continue to be used, just less effectively than we’ve been used to.”

Aggregate data like Google’s Similar Audience feature analyzes visitor behavior as a whole, removing any directly identifying details. So, you’ll need to use a lot more consideration in narrowing down specific target audiences.

“What are the best alternatives to third-party cookies? Know. Your. Audience.”

Brandon Coward

Brandon Coward

Head of Google at Rodizio Media Ventures

He emphasizes the importance of getting as much data as possible on your audience and using it to improve your performance. This approach can enhance your creative, help you test different channel combinations, and deliver more relevant content to your audience.

“Think about cookie deprecation the same way you do with branding/awareness campaigns. Your creativity sets you apart and ultimately will determine the effectiveness of your paid media efforts,” Coward explains.

Nathan Yerian, president at marketing and advertising agency Adhere Creative, also believes in the power of thorough audience research. He points out how many marketers wonder how technology will fill the gap left by third-party cookies disappearing. “Although I think technology can and will play a major role, I think there’s a larger opportunity here for companies to understand their customers through primary research more deeply,” he says.

For Yerian, primary research delivers a wide range of benefits to advertising campaigns. “When you understand the customer, and the things that they need to see, hear and experience for you to be included in their solution set, things get a bit more clear. Combine that with an understanding of where your target audience exists and you have a really nice platform to reach your target in an authentic and noninvasive way. Paid advertising will still play a dominant role, it will just look a lot different,” he says.

Yerian concludes, “Companies need to get back to basics and understand their customer so they can align their brand and solution to be the preferred option, even before the start of a buying journey.”

Veda Ford, associate director of paid social at marketing agency Campbell Ewald, believes audience research can also help publishers that don’t have access to as much first — or zero-party data.

When we asked what publishers can do about the departure of third-party cookies, she responded, “Like some have mentioned, knowing your audience is key, diving into DEMO and interest affinities to build persona-based targets to segment the traffic will help you engage a potential audience with relevant content. If the content is valuable to the audience, you shouldn’t have issues monetizing your traffic. Another segmentation option is knowing what audience lives on what platform.”

Ford adds, “We all know each platform is different, and so are the people who use them. Keep ads looking as organic as possible on each platform, this will help with engagement, increasing the relevancy of the ad. Relevancy is always rewarded.”

5. Lean Into New Advertising Algorithms

Third-party cookies lend themselves well to strategies ad algorithms based on audience targeting. Now that you need new data sources, you also have room to experiment with new algorithms

Many advertisers are trying out contextual advertising, which matches ads to page content instead of user information. (It was also the third most popular choice as an alternative to third-party cookies in our survey.)

Veda Ford explains how contextual advertising and other alternative algorithms work in paid social: “TikTok Pulse gives brands control to be part of trends by offering contextual advertising to place branded ads next to top content. Meta’s new AI-powered feature called ‘multi-advertiser ads’ allows ads to appear in-feed by relevant ads to people who’ve recently engaged with like content.”

She continues, “With this adaptation trend, I expect more of this ID-free predictive advertising to become more of a prevalent targeting tactic. The solution to accurately target and maintain profitable results from paid channels is predictive analytics to create audiences that use historical data, online behavior modeling, and algorithms.”

This brought up a question on our end: Does the “predictive” advertising Ford mentioned refer to marketers doing the predicting, or will an algorithm do the job for us?

Ford answers, “Currently most ‘predictive’ analysis is being provided by third-party data providers like Oracle, Acxiom, Dstillery, or InMarket, who create these model-based audiences that you port into your ads managers/DSP. Snap Inc. still offers some of these audiences natively.”

She adds, “What I find interesting is channels introducing these features that are similar to ‘contextual targeting’ but instead of modeling from content to place ads, they are modeling from engagement to place ads.”

According to Scott Ellis, contextual advertising can also help publishers work with the more limited data they can access. In addition to using the first-party data we discussed previously, “they can also test contextually relevant ads — ad content in context — rather than continuing to get personalized ads wrong.”

Andy Groller, president and CEO of Dragon360, a digital marketing agency, calls attention to the fact that you can find alternative algorithms on alternative advertising platforms. Besides using first-party data to inform your targeted campaigns, you can “identify and experiment with new ad platforms and channels that have been proactively addressing third-party cookie changes — e.g. move away from the Google Display Network and other banner-based technologies towards platforms such as Connected TV.”

If you’re discouraged at the thought of trying a new advertising model or platform, Groller has encouraging words for you. “Sure, it may be harder, but guess what? Advertising has been around for decades and every time something shifts there’s always a solution that gains traction. So yeah, lack of third-party data may make targeting more difficult, but in reality, it should make your advertising more effective because there’s less wasted spend on garbage impressions and users outside of your ICP.”

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Don’t Panic — Let Databox Help

The transition out of cookie-based ad targeting can feel like a lot to handle, but marketers always find a way.

“We survived for decades before without third party data, and we’ll survive without it,” Mick Essex from POWR assures you. “Was it effective? Sure. Will we miss it? Sure. The ONE thing we must do more of, as a result, is talk more directly to the public again. And not only more, but more authentically. We must take the praise and criticism and weigh them evenly and adjust the marketing strategy accordingly.”

And with this reinvigorated focus on our customers’ needs, we as marketers will have more opportunities to connect with them as people.

With the pivot to cookie-free advertising requiring you to turn to various sources for data, a dedicated data tool will calm the chaos.

And that’s where Databox comes in.

Databox gathers all your audience and ad data in one place, giving you breathing room to craft new strategies.

Try up to three data sources and three databoards for free by signing up now.

About the author
Melissa King
Melissa King Melissa King is a freelance writer who helps B2B SaaS companies spread the word about their products through engaging content. Outside of the content marketing world, she writes about video games. Check out her work at melissakingfreelance.com.

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