What Happens to Personalization Without Cookies?

A post-cookie world is just on the horizon. How should marketers prepare?

Written by Adrienne Teeley
Published on Apr. 25, 2022
What Happens to Personalization Without Cookies?
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We’ve all grown accustomed to hitting the “accept cookies” button on nearly every website we visit. Companies use third-party cookies to track our activity, the pop-up window informs us, to serve us tailored ad experiences and more relevant content. 

For marketers, this data has proven to be extremely valuable, as it allows them to learn about consumers’ preferences and better target their audience with products they might like. But not everyone is a fan. With rising data privacy concerns, many users are losing their appetite for third-party trackers that follow them around the internet, which can feel invasive, and at times, creepy.

In 2020, Google announced it would be phasing out third-party cookies on its Chrome browser, citing the “erosion of trust” users feel when their online activity is tracked. But the tech giant won’t be just replacing cookies with a new kind of ad tracking technology. Google plans to implement privacy-protecting APIs to protect users’ data, and is partnering with the tech community to develop new privacy standards through its Privacy Sandbox initiative. 

To prepare for the incoming change, marketers are testing out novel strategies that maintain users’ privacy while still aiming to deliver exceptional experiences for consumers. It may sound like a tricky line to walk, but according to Ryan May, a senior vice president of publishing strategy at customer acquisition platform System1, it’s just part of working in the rapidly-changing landscape of digital marketing and advertising. 

To learn how he and his team are preparing for a cookie-less future, Built In LA caught up with May. Read on to learn what conversion-tracking changes System1 is anticipating, and why the company is confident in its evolving digital strategies. 


Ryan May
SVP, Publishing Strategy • System1


How does the ongoing phase-out of third-party cookies affect your work as a marketer?

As a marketer, we continue to focus on understanding the product roadmaps of our upstream marketing partners to ensure we are aligned on specifications and timelines around specific areas that require updates on our side. 

For example, some of the largest marketing platforms in the industry have implemented a number of significant changes — like server-to-server tracking, which bypass the need for data collected from browsers — to preserve the durability of conversion tracking and attribution in the wake of the changes Apple has implemented over the last few years. Many of these changes required large-scale product and engineering involvement and have required a lot of focused testing to ensure the systems are functioning as intended. We see more of these types of changes on the horizon as Chrome moves closer to its planned phase-out of third-party cookies in 2023.


What are some strategies your team is using to personalize user experiences that don’t rely on third-party cookies?

One principle strategy for us is to continue to focus on what the user is looking to understand or achieve when they are interacting with our products. Ultimately, we believe the value we are able to deliver to a user is tied to what they are looking for at that moment, and we believe that positions us well for the future. 

If the user experience is directly related to what the user is seeking at that moment, whether it be via a set of search results or a long-form article about a very specific subject, we are able to service the user and can align monetization solutions that do not require personalization in order to function. We believe this will be a winning formula in a future ecosystem that is much more focused on contextual signals and the value exchange around what is happening in real time.

We are big believers in the growing importance of contextual targeting.’’


Beyond personalization, what are some best practices marketers should abide by to thrive in a world without third-party cookies?

We are big believers in the growing importance of contextual targeting, and have focused heavily on expanding our capabilities in that area across our products. Within our publishing business, our goal is to design content that provides users with information within the scope of their specific intent. In a scenario where there is no personalization, we want to aim for outcomes where we can at least deliver compelling experiences to users and advertisers, and we believe page context is the key.

Marketers should continue to closely monitor developments in this space. While we are gaining more clarity each quarter, the situation remains dynamic. For example, we are closely watching the ongoing developments within Chrome’s Privacy Sandbox testing and the proposals coming from the IAB Tech Lab as they pertain to the phase-out of third-party cookies. Providing feedback within those channels and through industry trade groups are two ways that marketers and publishers can ensure their voices are being heard.



Responses have been edited for length and clarity. Images via System1 and Shutterstock.

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