Don’t panic: Embracing the privacy-first internet

Posted on 09/09/2021 by Jon Martin

Marketers - don’t panic! Embrace the privacy-first internet as an opportunity to evolve your marketing approach

First, there was cookie compliance regulation, then there was GDPR, then there was user awareness of privacy through documentaries (like the Social Dilemma) and now there is the death of third-party cookies. All of these landmarks are part of one zeitgeist, pushing us toward a privacy-first internet.

Many marketers are – unsurprisingly – panicking about the death of third party cookies and what it means for how we market to our customers and prospects.

But shifting user rights towards privacy is not something we should be panicking about: instead, they provide a brilliant opportunity to evolve and grow. In this article, we’ll dig a bit deeper into what you can do to embrace the changes and become better at marketing our businesses.

Third-party cookies: Stalky McStalkerson

In reality, third party cookies aren’t as reliable as they seem. Even before ad blockers, users have been able to clear their cache rendering data incomplete and inaccurate, as well as sharing devices with others in their household. How can this be used as a reliable method of tracking an individual user?


In fact, cookies are a pretty poor proxy for consumer identity. This change should be seen as an opportunity to improve on this previously flawed model.

For too long, marketers and advertisers have relied upon this technology which has caused a huge erosion in consumer trust and has, at times, neglected basic marketing principles, offering little to nothing in the way of value to users who, in many cases, feel like they’re being ‘stalked’ around the internet.

Google themselves have taken this stance in the past with algorithm changes that have forced website owners to place extra focus on load speed or page UX. The web is a better place for these changes with a focus on the user rather than trying to game the system to our advantage with technical optimisation that adds little value to the user experience. This is all part of the inevitable pendulum swing that follows any major industry change or zeitgeist.

These changes put the rights in user’s hands to control what they share, and this also gives us a great opportunity to provide a genuine value exchange with our customers in order to build a more sustainable bank of first-party data – more on that later…

In the short term, there will be disruption. You will lose data. Cross-platform measurement will become much more difficult, the ad targeting you’ve been used to for the past decade will evolve and rely less on third-party cookies, and you will rely more on ‘matched audiences’ with the first-party data you’re able to feed into each platform.

Don’t panic and fight these changes. Embrace them and adapt.

You will lose data, and that’s OK

One thing we can guarantee with the shifting landscape to privacy-first web is that we will all lose first-party marketing data. A number of our clients have recently implemented compliant cookie pop-ups which give users the right to opt out of those tracking tools we love, like Google Analytics.


Again, this data boat has sailed. We need to accept, grow and adapt.

After implementing these compliant cookie pop-ups, some of our clients saw a ~30% drop in users showing up in Google Analytics and, through some careful UX tweaks, have seen this rise back to more acceptable levels.

It’s also important to remember that this isn’t a new thing: users have been able to opt out of cookies for a long time through certain browsers or browser controls. Cookie pop-ups are there to make it easier for everyone, rather than those that are more tech savvy.

However, there are several things that you can do to limit data loss and adapt to work without it.

There is hope!

1 – Cookie consent experience

We wrote a blog a short while ago about how to make the best of giving users the choice which you can read here. We need to recognise that users fall into broadly three categories:

  • Those that don’t care about privacy and just want to use the website
  • Those that care about privacy, but not enough to opt out of everything
  • Those that deeply care about privacy and will always opt-out

Through good user experience, we can capitalise on capturing data from the first two groups.

  • It should be easy for the first group to accept and get on with using your site.
  • It should be easy for the second group to customise what cookies people opt in to.
  • The third group are those that don’t want to be hounded online, and we can earn their trust by being fair to them and giving them easy access for staying opted out.

I personally fall into the third category, and having complex cookie consent popups that (for example) opt-in to certain cookie categories or legitimate consent will usually drive me away from a site. Embrace these customers and earn their trust as, ultimately we want to sell to them, not just market to them: trust is a huge part of the buying process.

2 – Focus on incredible creative

As it becomes harder to reach audiences and measure the success of campaigns, you have to make your ads count.

Brands are competing for our customers’ attention all the time; the quality of creative work can help your ads sit above the competition.

The best creative comes from the collaboration of experts in their field: Paid Media specialists, copywriting experts and visual designers, all underpinned by a solid campaign strategy.

Work with your in or out house teams to see how you can push things further. Do you need to focus on brand building, specific product campaigns or both?

3 – Use Google Analytics’ Consent Mode

As we’ve come to expect from Google, they’re adapting well to the changes. In 2020, they released Google Consent Mode, which provides additional flexibility of Google’s tools based on the user’s consent.

This mode is more aligned to the sharing of personal data rather than cookies, but works well to ensure we’re not losing data where possible.

Benefits include:

  • Controlling what data is and isn’t collected by Google based on user consent, rather than just turning analytics on and off
  • Remembering user’s previous consent settings

Other tracking cookies, such as Facebook’s pixel, bypass this mode. It would be ideal if cookie consent was controlled at the browser level instead of at the script level to resolve this issue and no doubt they’ll move this way in the future.

4 – Get your 1PD strategy up to scratch

My colleague, Ben Wood, wrote a brief blog about this very subject. You need to invest time and effort into understanding what first-party data you have – and what else you can collect. Third-party providers may not be able to collect the same information on your customers as before, but you can, provided you have consent.

For me, this is one of the best opportunities to come out of the Age of Privacy: it has helped focus the mind on what data we collect on our customers, without relying on third parties. That data can still be used with third party systems to market effectively, such as better segmentation and ad targeting.

You know your customers, their needs, wants and desires. Capture that information in a suitable place, such as your CRM, and use it to make better decisions. You may not have been doing that before and there was nothing stopping you. You now have the focus you need to make it work.

5 – Fill in the blanks

This is where things get a little tougher. Using predictive analysis and some very clever maths wizardry (I’m fortunate to work with some great maths wizards), it’s possible to work out trends that can help fill in the blanks that now exist from people not opting in. It’s not exact, but it’s good enough to look for trends: ultimately, we don’t care about individual metrics but we do care about trends.

If you want to be really clever, there is a certain level of tracking not covered by cookie policies and this is server sidetracking. Hosting servers track, for a short period of time, some basic metrics on visitors to your site and users don’t have the right to opt of this (yet). Those logs will give you a pure view of how many have visited your site and help improve your analysis around filling in the blanks.

If you want to get really, really clever and have enough data, there are machine learning algorithms that can be fed a constant stream of data to gradually get better at predicting the trends and filling in those blanks. If you don’t have that skill at your company, there are some companies that can, including Hallam.

Don’t Panic

Hopefully, by now you can realise that you don’t need to continue to panic; there are multiple options and no doubt more will become clear over the coming months and years.

I, for one, welcome the changes. It’s an opportunity for marketing and advertising to grow, give customers more rights over their data and shake off the legacy of being internet stalkers. And isn’t that a good thing?

If you have any questions about data privacy, don’t hesitate to get in touch with us.

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