It used to be so easy.
Laeticia Abril of Mexico City visits the Huffington Post at 12:28 AM Eastern Time using the Safari browser. She stays on the same page for five minutes. Chances are, she sees an ad for Wunder Under High-Rise Tights in heathered black by Lululemon (a third-party vendor with a display ad on the HuffPost).
This isn’t the first time she’s seen a Lululemon ad and it won’t be the last.
That’s because whenever Laeticia enters a website via Safari, she’s greeted by a hoard of very well-behaved, but invisible brand ambassadors, just like the Lululemon ad, who are so discreet they don’t even tell Laeticia they’re there or make the faintest noise.
Instead, they gobble up her IP address, slap a time and location stamp on it along with a record of any other interesting online behaviors they notice, and spit that information back into their private data farms before Laeticia even knows what’s going on.
When Laeiticia leaves the HuffPost, her digital entourage follows her around like a second skin. They gather more data, feed her better deals, in the hopes that eventually she’ll click on one.
Laeticia may be a unique visitor, but she isn’t special. You can multiply Laeticia by a thousand, or ten thousand, depending on a website’s daily traffic.
Developers call these little super polite hangers-on that follow Laeticia around from website to website third-party cross-domain tracking. Most of us just call them “cookies”, and they’re collecting our data every second of our online day, 24/7.
Sound invasive? Creepy? Totally unnecessary? (I can find my own deals, thank you, Lululemon!)
In fact, you’d have to look pretty hard to find someone who doesn’t have misgivings about cross-domain tracking. Smart cookie-blocking tech like Apple’s ITP (Intelligent Tracking Protection) and Mozilla’s ETP (Enhanced Tracking Protection) wouldn’t exist if users didn’t take their right to browse in private seriously.
But we’re also digital marketers, and we depend on the cookie-based diet our measurement tools have been thriving on for the past two decades.
So what now? Serious changes are coming. Should we be looking for new jobs?
Definitely not. But we do need to understand what exactly has changed and what that means for those of us who have used cookies to build stellar digital experiences for so long.
Browser ad-blocking features aren’t new, even to Safari and Firefox, which, unlike Google, never had much of a stake in digital advertising and so sold users on privacy early on.
It was a smart bet. Even Google has now come around to the inevitability of tracking-free browsing.
The challenge for Apple and Mozilla now is to build ad blockers sophisticated enough to foil advertisers, ad-driven social platforms like Facebook and Google, and partner marketing schemes bent on ferreting out their loopholes.
They’re almost there.
Remember Laeticia Abril?
The next time Laeticia visits the HuffPost, Lululemon (third-party) won’t be able to track her unless she interacts with one of their ads. The HuffPost (first-party) will, but they can only keep a record of Laeticia’s visit for a day. After that, she’ll be showing up as a new visitor.
This is good news for Laeticia, but it’s probably a huge concern for anyone whose livelihood depends on being able to deliver the best possible digital advertising experiences to Laeticia.
While we don’t want to freak anyone out—ITP 2.2 is fresh off the press and we’re still feeling our way around it—broadly speaking this is what you can expect.
You’d have to look pretty hard to find someone who doesn’t have misgivings about cross-browser tracking. Smart cookie-blocking tech like Apple’s ITP (Intelligent Tracking Protection) and Mozilla’s ETP (Enhanced Tracking Protection) wouldn’t exist if users didn’t take their right to browse in private seriously.
The shelf life of your cookies is no longer what it once was. Depending on the browser, it could be as short as one day (Safari). That means that if you use a platform like Google Analytics to process your cookies, any data you capture on visitors using Safari now disappears within 24 hours.
If you’re already one step ahead of us, yes, these super fresh cookies can skew numbers and yield misleading results.
Say you clocked in 200 unique website visitors on Safari last November. In January, those specific users all visit again, still on Safari. 50 fill out a form to set up an appointment with you. Your conversion rate for that 2-month period is 25%.
Now let’s try that with ITP 2.2.
200 users re-visit your site 2 months after their first visit. The same 25% convert. Except, this time, Google treats the second wave of visitors as new visitors, giving you a total of 400 visitors (when in fact they were the same 200 people.)
Since the conversion rate is actually the same (25%), but the user count is inflated, the data will indicate that your conversion rate actually split in half.
Have you actually lost that much business?
Only if you’re solely dependent on cookies to track conversions.
You just launched a new landing page via a newsletter campaign and it’s already driving a sizable chunk of traffic your way. You’re starting to see conversions. Your LinkedIn ad for the same landing page, on the other hand, isn’t showing any results. You can’t figure out what’s going on.
Here’s what might be happening if enough of your traffic comes from Safari or Firefox.
Your client-side cookies are no longer tracking multiple user sessions over time, so you no longer see a link between your bottom-of-the-funnel and top-of-the-funnel campaigns.
And without that information, you’re like Hansel and Gretel throwing breadcrumbs in the forest at twilight.
The bottom line?
If a user doesn’t convert by the time your “fresh” cookies expire, you won’t be able to trace or attribute the conversion. Direct conversions, like landing page, email campaign and paid search clicks, will show up as sourceless events without connections to higher funnel activities like display ads when you’re looking at traffic coming from Safari, Firefox, and now even Edge browsers.
Browser ad-blocking features aren’t new, even to Safari and Firefox, which, unlike Google, never had a stake in digital advertising and so sold users on privacy early on.
Safari may be the poor man’s Chrome to some of us, but globally it accounts for 15% of all web traffic and 21% of all mobile web traffic. (In the States, Safari mobile traffic owns a whopping 49% of the market!) Either way, losing tracking on 21% of your mobile traffic isn’t loose change.
We also know that about 87% of Safari conversions occur within 24 hours after the last click, which may seem good since ITP 2.2’s shortened cookie lifespans will only cost us tracking on 2% of our conversions.
But don’t forget that Mozilla and Microsoft have developed their own versions of ITP and that Google itself will soon be jumping into the fray.
If you don’t already keep an eye on your mobile traffic pie—how it’s divided up and where the typical sales cycle for your mobile conversions falls—it’s time to head over to your Mobile App Overview Report and take a careful look under the hood.
We won’t lie. Tracking user behaviors isn’t going to be getting any easier, no matter what browser we’re talking about. The cookies we know (and love) with indefinite shelf lives and limitless tracking powers will soon be a thing of the past.
We may even have some things to be excited about, like going deeper into Google Tag Manager and Google Cloud to track server-side cookies, which will allow us to set and track our cookies on our own servers rather than relying on third-party measurement tools.
And actually for digital strategists the implications of ITP 2.2 are more far-reaching.
Apple’s proactive stance on digital privacy follows a greater global trend (the EU’s GDPR, efforts by the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), and now the California Consumer Privacy Act) towards company transparency and consumer data control.
So the market for privacy is there, and the tools to deliver a different data experience are in place (or getting there.)
The question for digital marketers now isn’t how do we track better despite the obstacles, but how do we create the best personalized, real-time digital experiences for our customers while honoring the data transparency and accessibility we owe them.