Cookieless Advertising for a Cookieless World — Programmatic Solutions

Kinga Gawron

Being witness to major technological advancements taking place in the last couple of decades, the programmatic advertising industry has slowly but surely become a vital channel of communication for brands and their customers. Until at one point, consumer privacy and data safety started being questioned.

After a few years of an ongoing debate as to what should be done about third-party data tracking, one of the big players in the ad-tech world decided to give its users a choice. Apple’s decision to allow third-party ad blockers on Safari in 2015 triggered a whole new approach to handling consumer data in the advertising world. 

Fast-forward to 2021, the global discussion of whether to keep or cease third-party data usage is slowly coming to an end. No one needs nor wants 3rd party cookies to be associated with their brand when data privacy and web safety are at the forefront of consumer-oriented businesses.

Apple, Mozilla, Google, and many others have either completely blocked 3rd party cookies already, or are in the process of doing so. This leaves marketers and brands in need of new programmatic solutions that don’t rely on third-party cookies as well as comply with brand safety and user privacy regulations. And we’re here to tell you more about it.

Why brands and marketers don’t need third-party cookies.

There are many reasons why brands and marketers don’t need third-party cookie tracking to succeed with programmatic ad targeting or media buying. One of them is that relying on third-party data has never been a perfect solution for the ad-tech world.

To better understand the difference between first-party and third-party data tracking without getting into technicalities, it’s enough to think of playing Chinese whispers. The more people pass on the message, the less precise and more faulty it becomes. 

Programmatic ad serving is all about showing the right ad, to the right user, at the right place, and at the right time. That’s why there is no room for mistargeting, which has been one of the main issues with third-party cookie tracking right from the start, even before the consumer privacy and data safety issue has been raised. 

After almost two decades on the market, this method of targeting users has become obsolete and doesn’t meet current trends, or demand. And given the recent shift in attitudes towards data safety for all Internet users, brands simply cannot afford to rely on outdated solutions. 

The second reason why brands and marketers don’t need 3rd party cookies is that 1st party cookies aren’t going anywhere. This data allows brands to improve user experience, deliver customized content, and collect user information needed to nurture their clients down the sales funnel. Yes, 1st party data does come at a much smaller scale but at the same time, it allows for more direct and precise targeting while also ensuring that users receive content they agreed on. 

The third reason why brands and marketers don’t need third-party cookies to succeed in the ad-tech world is that there are various solutions available on the market already, and new ones are being developed as we speak. 

Third-party cookie tracking has never been the only way to reach wider audiences, nor the perfect one. Given the rapid evolution of the programmatic advertising industry, and how dynamically the online media landscape has changed in recent years, alternative solutions for online ad targeting have been already developed, even if not yet globally adopted. 

How to target your ads in a new, cookieless world.

As mentioned, there are ways for brands to target users on a large scale that don’t involve 3rd party data sharing. In that case, why has the news on phasing out third-party cookies by all major browsers wreaked such havoc within the digital marketing community? 

Cookieless identifiers 

Although cookieless ad tracking methods have been indeed available, external cookie sharing became a default go-to method because of its scale and global adoption in the ad-tech business. Due to the recent shift in data collection trends, now seems like an excellent time for brands and marketers to learn more about other options that help identify users and serve them ads that resonate.

1st party cookiesDirect and accurate data. Consumer privacy-friendly solution.Limited data sharing.
IP addressAllows for identifying specific users and their geo-location.IP addresses may change per user location or refer to more than one user at a time.
Email addressUser-consented, allows cross-device tracking.Fragmented data due to multiple emails used.
Device ID / mobile ad ID Identifies a specific mobile device and its user. Stores information on geo-location or app engagement. Fragmented data due to various device use. Limitations already imposed (Apple IDFA)
Transactional dataVery accurate, and identifies specific users and their behavior.Very limited, difficult to match to online behavior.

Another thing to be remembered is that marketers shouldn’t rely on one method of user targeting only. Using just one channel of communication with potential audiences can never provide all the necessary information, nor answer all of the brand’s needs. The key to a healthy system and a holistic view of one’s audience is relying not on a single but combined methodology. 

Brands and marketers who want to nurture a more holistic view of their customer base need to team up with all the players in the programmatic advertising ecosystem. That also includes partnering up with businesses that have both the technology and experience to deliver desired results.

Cookieless advertising strategies.

Total deprecation of 3rd party cookies will surely affect the whole of the digital industry, yet consequences can be leveraged with several cookieless advertising strategies. Some of the tried and tested solutions include the enhanced use of 1st party data, other forms of cookieless targeting, or going back to long-neglected contextual advertising. 

1st party data tracking

First-party cookies or first-party data has always been the safest and most stable way for brands and marketers to reach their customers. Now more than ever the industry needs to embrace the importance of the direct relationship with consumers and accept what information people actually do want to share and what data they’d rather keep private.

Although this may seem like a limited solution, again, the industry has been evolving and so has the first-party data tracking. Even a simple piece of data like an email address can go a long way in the programmatic landscape, without any mistrust and murky data sharing. 

For that reason, to further enhance the process of 1st party cookie tracking, brands and publishers globally are now working to maximize data collection and improve consumer privacy and data safety in advertising technology (Google Chrome’s Topic API, Facebook Walled Gardens, Apple’s IDFA, LiveRamp).

Cookieless targeting

Given the rising concerns about consumer privacy in the digital age, ad-tech giants rolled out their own cookieless targeting solutions for brands and advertisers that will still allow for reaching large segments of users. Of course, the biggest hopes were put with Google’s FLoC proposal.

The FLoC (Federated Learning of Cohorts) system has been designed specifically to answer data protection concerns and address user safety demands. 

But how was Google’s FLoC supposed to save the day in the new, cookieless era?

Google’s initial solution aimed to enable ads to be targeted to users based on their web browsing history alone. This would mean a cease to tracking specific actions like user clicks and purchases, which lately have been seen as tactics that breach the level of privacy users should hold while engaging online. Collecting the web-browsing data on a large scale could then allow FLoC to group users into targetable segments, rather than tracking individual users.

This solution, however, was almost immediately rejected by all major browsers. What’s more, the Electronic Frontier Foundation was able to point out a defect in which fingerprinting techniques could be used to distinguish users from the cohort and establish unique identifiers.

Eventually, the short-lived project has been scrapped and replaced with Topics API

What’s the advantage of Topics API over Google’s FLoC?

In Topics API websites are labeled with topics taken from an established pool of IAB & Google-approved topics. The browsers that choose to adopt Topics API will collect information on visitors by saving a short list of Topics attached to the visited sites. The set of topics would then be shared with advertisers to facilitate ad targeting. 

While losing on the accuracy, the Topics API solution is said to be an improvement over FLoC when it comes to user privacy. However, there is a lot of skepticism around Topics API. As reported by The Drum:

 “For some of the large brand advertisers who want to reach broad audiences, this is something, but for the majority, this has no value whatsoever as the category is too broad for their targeting criteria or campaign budgets.”

It is yet to be decided whether Google’s answer to the privacy-first world of advertising in the new, cookieless era will be sufficient.

Contextual advertising

Another way of targeting broad audiences without 3rd party data or any specific information on user activity is contextual advertising.  It’s worth remembering that before 3rd party cookie tracking took its momentum, most of the ads served online were context-based. This proves that although data sharing is a vital element of the online advertising ecosystem, it’s not essential. 

Contextual targeting doesn’t need nor involve any specific information on a single user. The three elements for this method to work are:

  • page context — allows for understanding the language, whole sentences, as well as word segments. This leads to creating vertical and niche segmentation, which can be used for both targeting or blocking for brand safety reasons.
  • user context — this allows us to better understand user behavior on a given page, tied mostly to distinguishing between high or low user engagements and CTR rates. 
  • request context — allows for understanding more technical aspects of user targeting such as time and geo-location that can be then combined with real-time advertising.

That way contextual advertising allows for broad, non-intrusive ad serving that can also be narrowed down to more specific segments or niches. As with everything in the ad-tech world, context-based targeting has also come a long way since the first banner ads were placed online. But as with every method, there are some pros and cons to it.

No 3rd party cookies needed
Broad targeting available
Advanced keyword targeting
Low-risk of over-targeting
False-positive results
Occurs across UGC content

The end of third-party cookie tracking is near, and the programmatic advertising industry must prepare for it. This might mean that contextual advertising will once again become a primary choice for many brands and marketers out there, especially those searching for broader reach and large scale for their programmatic advertising strategies.

New programmatic solutions for brands and marketers.

Today’s landscape of programmatic advertising provides brands with a whole array of modern solutions. The challenge that such brands seem to be facing at the moment is making the right choices to meet their advertising goals. But one remains the same, and it’s reaching your customers before the competitors do. 

That’s why delivering brand-safe and user-friendly ads to customers before they even complete their search might be the key to advertising your brand. Commerce Media lets you acquire customers by capitalizing on their intent during their entire customer journey. 

And what’s especially important given recent developments in the ad-tech space, programmatic solutions don’t rely on cookies or any other third-party tags and trackers. Working with top publisher partners (browsers, search engines, mobile apps, and more) brands ensure both scalable performance and protection of consumer privacy, making it a brand-safe and future-proof choice for a new cookieless world. 


Digital advertising is facing a cookieless future where privacy laws need to be respected by everyone joining the table — publishers, advertisers, brands, and marketers of all kinds. 

Even when third-party cookies become a thing of the past, precise ad targeting will still be possible, just like data collected from first-party cookies will still allow for creating audience segments to better understand consumer behavior and deliver ads that convert. Whether brands decide to engage in transparent advertising that gives consumers the freedom to decide what content they want to receive and what happens with their data is the brand’s call. And for those willing to take up the challenge of the new cookieless era, new programmatic solutions are awaiting. 

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Kinga Gawron

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