Third-Party Cookie Phase-Out: What Marketers Need to Know

Cookies are an essential part of internet usage, allowing websites to remember you and provide a more personalized experience. This browser-based technology can be used to identify a device or a specific user. Although primarily designed to streamline a user’s web experience, cookies also play an integral role in digital marketing. Tracking activity across the web like websites frequently visited, interests shown and purchases made gives marketers insight into consumer behaviors that can be used to build robust visitor profiles to improve ad targeting relevancy.

Cookies were never really meant to do as much work or contain and share as much information as they currently do. As a result, consumers have grown increasingly concerned about the privacy of their personal information and are demanding greater transparency, choice and control over how their data is used. This has become a driving force behind major players like Apple, Mozilla and Google modifying their support of the tracking technology, creating a need for digital advertisers to adapt with innovative solutions that do not rely on cookies.

But not all cookies are going away. First-party cookies will remain (at least for now). Potentially troubling third-party cookies are what will soon become obsolete. There is no reprieve. It’s coming and is unavoidable. The technology that provides the foundation for online marketing as we know it today will cease. So, what exactly does that mean for the advertising industry and your brand’s digital campaigns?

First-Party Cookies vs. Third-Party Cookies

Let’s start with a quick refresher on the difference between first-party cookies and third-party cookies. A first-party cookie is code generated by the website being used. In general, these are considered safe and allow the site to gather basic analytics about the user’s visit(s). The data is limited to the user’s behavior on that website; their activity on other websites not affiliated with that domain is not shared.

Third-party cookies are placed by another website that is not the website the user is browsing (hence the name third-party). These cookies track a visitor’s activity as they browse the web collecting information like sites visited and even potentially contact information like name, email address, street address and phone number.

This data is used to help understand a user’s interests, preferences and traits allowing brands to target more effectively based on that information. Third-party cookies also enhance attribution capabilities by providing a more holistic view of what goes into a conversion which facilitates campaign optimization.

Data Privacy Concerns

Until recently, most users didn’t realize they were being tracked by third parties and the depth of information collected. In an effort to promote data privacy, major browsers either already are or will soon significantly limit both the persistence and utilization of third-party cookies.

A series of laws and government regulations designed to protect user information have evolved over time as well. The two most significant policies worldwide are the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA). GDPR was designed to protect the personal information of users in the European Union (EU) and European Economic Area (EEA) while CCPA gives consumers in California more control over the personal information a business collects about them. Voters recently approved Proposition 24, the California Privacy Rights and Enforcement Act (CPRA). It amends key elements of the CCPA and will replace it effective 2023.

As a result, some companies have chosen to implement permission-based third-party cookies, while others have begun to phase them out completely and are seeking new solutions. Regardless, third-party cookies are living on borrowed time challenging marketers to find an alternative that balances consumer privacy and personalization.

Third-Party Cookie Phase-Out

Apple Safari and Mozilla Firefox already block all third-party cookie tracking on their browsers. Although Google has now postponed removing support of third-party cookies on Chrome, the three-month phase-out period is expected to be complete by late 2023.

As of Q2 2020, the top three desktop web browsers, Chrome, Safari and Firefox held 68.3 percent, 9.3 percent and 8.9 percent of the market share respectively. In terms of mobile browser traffic, Chrome held 61.9 percent and Safari held 26.9 percent of the market share as of June 2020. Consequently, Chrome’s removal of third-party cookies will have the strongest impact on the advertising industry to date.

Then there’s the mobile app world where IDFA (Identifier for Advertisers) is used to track user behavior. This randomly generated and generally anonymous identifier enables addressable advertising and conversion tracking online. Apple dealt a crushing blow to this technology with its iOS 14.5 launch in April 2021 by disabling it by default. Originally scheduled to go into effect with the release of iOS 14 in September 2020, the delay gave partners a brief reprieve. However, users are now required to opt-in before apps can collect and share data using the device identifier. Despite an ad campaign in defense of the personalization enabled by this tracking, Facebook was forced to comply and request permission to track user activity beyond the app.

Since the iOS 14.5 release, users can configure data privacy settings with one tap.

Advertising Implications

So, what does this mean for your brand’s digital advertising campaigns? It’s an end to current cookie-based targeting and measurement across the digital ecosystem that provides insight into which channels, creative, messages and placements deliver the best ROI. Although the loss of third-party cookies doesn’t mean this ability is gone forever, it does make tracking and performance measurement more challenging.

It’s important to note the change will have a limited impact on advertising within large platforms like Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Pinterest. These walled gardens where users log in to accounts and accept detailed terms and conditions around data usage can still collect data from users and easily advertise within their own domain without much restriction. However, once a visitor navigates off these platforms, standard privacy restrictions apply.

A Replacement for Third-Party Cookies

Discussions are underway among various industry bodies such as the IAB and key stakeholders to develop new technical standards and guidelines. Although independent ad tech firms are working feverishly to develop their own solutions, all eyes are on Google for a new standardized replacement.

Google has, in fact, has been working on an alternative solution called the Privacy Sandbox that would curtail improper tracking while continuing to allow ad targeting within the Chrome browser. It seeks to strike a balance between personalization and privacy by anonymously aggregating user information and keeping more of it on the device itself rather than storing it in the cloud. As a Google Premier Partner, Mindstream Media Group has access to resources to keep us on top of developments like this that will impact our clients’ current and future campaigns.

Source:  Google

Apple has a solution as well that was actually released in 2018 and is now experiencing increased adoption since iOS 14.5. The SKAdNetwork, or simply “ad network API,” is an integration between advertising platforms and Apple’s App Store that attributes mobile app installations and post-install activity to advertising campaigns in a privacy-compliant manner. However, it comes with its own challenges – namely, it aggregates users and is not delivered in real-time, complicating attribution and optimization.

Facebook has released an updated version of the Facebook SDK to provide support for Apple’s SKAdNetwork API. However, because of its heavy dependence on app advertising, these changes have had a significant impact on Facebook’s Audience Network.

Targeting Alternatives

Although third-party cookies have become a pillar for behavioral targeting, it’s important to remember that is just one targeting option. Viable alternatives include the following:

  1. Focus on first-party data.

Leverage your brand’s customer data platform (CDP) to get to know who your customers really are and target them directly. Because the data collected is more personalized than third-party cookies, this option can generate even better sales and conversions.

  1. Establish a direct partnership with publishers.

“As third-party data disappears with cookies and GDPR compliance, publisher audience knowledge is now being seen as a viable data source for segmentation and targeting and deeper insights in audience and brand engagement,” says Damon Reeve, CEO at The Ozone Project.

  1. Optimize retargeting and owned media.

Upload your own contact list to a platform such as a social media network or search engine to enable targeting to those contacts or a mirror audience that shares similar demographics. Owned media, such as websites and social platforms, should also be strengthened to engage visitors tapped through retargeting efforts.

  1. Utilize contextual targeting.

Contextual methods that reach consumers at key moments of research and inspiration will not be affected since they broadly target device type, brand, operating system or mobile carrier. This option also provides control over the type of content the ad will run adjacent to such as Health, News or Sports and includes parameters for geography and time of day.

The ability to track, measure and target across sites, screens and channels is imperative to crafting efficient and effective media strategies. Although a radical shift, the phase-out of third-party cookies could open the door to entirely new methods we have yet to imagine and create a more engaging, fraud-limited environment.

We view this change as an opportunity to reach an audience that chooses to see our clients’ ads by the nature of opting-in to tracking within apps they find valuable and trustworthy. The publishers and apps we partner with can distribute – and limit – content, features and ads based on an individual’s opt-in settings, involving the user in an unprecedented tracking relationship, a deeper level of trust and an enhanced online advertising experience.

Now more than ever, agile marketing strategies are a must. Connect with us to learn how we can Fast-Forward Your Business and deliver meaningful progress on your goals amidst the continual evolution of digital media.

Editor’s Note:  This post was originally published in February 2021 and has been updated for freshness and accuracy.

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[Case Study]: Media Restructure Delivers 55% Lead Efficiency in Pandemic Year

The Graduate Management Admission CouncilTM (GMAC) is a global, mission-driven association of leading graduate business schools. They own and administer the Graduate Management Admission TestTM (GMATTM), the most widely used exam for graduate business school admissions. Mindstream Media Group has had the pleasure of partnering with GMAC for several years to hone strategic media initiatives that grow their business, even in spite of the difficulties created by the coronavirus pandemic.


GMAC found themselves facing simultaneous challenges. The issue of potential MBA candidates opting out of business school to go straight to the workforce, combined with the increase in schools dismissing the need for the exam when recruiting new students, were already a trend impacting the business over the last several years; moreover, the 2020 pandemic caused all global test centers to shut down for months at different times as the virus progressed in each country. This resulted in a large decrease of their primary revenue source (in-person testing), considering at that point all tests were conducted in person.

These challenges needed to be overcome with less resources compared to previous years, due to the impact of the pandemic.


In order to solve these complex challenges, we gathered data and insights from previous years of campaigns and built a robust, yet lean, paid media funnel where the target audience (potential MBA candidates) could be nurtured through their journey from initial awareness and engagement, to the purchase of test preparation products, all the way through to the exam registration.

Based on the historical data, we completely restructured GMAC’s campaigns across all platforms involved, resulting in a channel mix allocation which included paid search, paid social and programmatic display. Creative focused on each step in the customer journey to resonate with users whether they had not yet considered graduate management education, were merely considering it or were ready to purchase study materials or register for the GMAT exam. Specific and measurable KPIs were identified within each stage to gauge campaign success.

The carefully planned funnel, along with remarkably close monitoring of data through our analytics technology and intel, allowed for agile adjustments on all types of allocations from channels, to creatives, to global regions, with the objective of maximizing the efficiency of every marketing dollar.


At the end of the most challenging year in recent times, the overhauled marketing strategy and implementation of the paid media funnel yielded extraordinary results. In 2020, there was up to a 55 percent improvement (decrease) in Cost per Lead and a 70 percent improvement (decrease) in Cost per Registration compared to the previous year (2019). We anticipate continued improvement throughout 2021 as well as funnel stage allocations are adjusted to fine-tune the structure.

55% YoY Decrease in Cost per Lead


70% YoY Decrease in Cost per Registration


Julie Slovin, GMAC Senior Director of Strategic Marketing notes, “The funnel performed so well that the performance gains that we saw this year I think were so significant that they sort of outweighed the market losses that resulted from the pandemic, from an advertising and marketing effectiveness and efficiency standpoint.” Click here for the full interview.




New Performance Reporting for Google My Business

Google has kicked off the new year with updated Google My Business performance reporting. The new reports appear in the Insights section and include metrics detailing how consumers discovered listings and business profile interactions. The time frame has also been extended with data now available for up to six months rather than three months.


When listing managers log into their Google My Business accounts and view the Insights section, they will be greeted with a message that says, “Your insights are moving.” Once users click through to the new performance reporting they will see a pop-up window allowing them to choose a date range to view their metrics within a six-month timeframe.

Source:  Google

The number of business profile interactions including calls received and messages sent are displayed. A breakdown of search terms visitors used to find the business profile is included as well.


Source:  Google

Business Profile Focus

Google has released a help document to provide information about the new performance reporting and the refocus on the Business Profile. One of the changes within the updated performance reporting is a change in frequency. The searches detailed in the report will now be updated monthly, instead of quarterly. While metrics that are included in the current Insights, such as driving direction requests and website clicks, are not included in the new performance reporting, Google notes that this version of performance reporting is still evolving, and we will see the appearance of additional metrics in the coming months.

Source:  Google

What’s Next?

Google says that interactions within the new performance reporting are just the start. New metrics will be coming soon and the old versions will be removed from Google My Business. Although the new performance reporting is only available on Search, it will soon be available on Maps as well with the same six-month data timeframe.

We believe the evolution of these Insights will prove to be helpful in managing Google My Business profiles and evaluating the value they provide to our clients. Stay tuned for more updates to the GMB platform throughout 2021.

Tackling Restaurant Challenges Through the Pandemic

There have not been many industries more severely impacted by the pandemic than the restaurant industry. Coming into 2020, the restaurant industry was projected to gross $899 billion. As of the first week of December 2020, the restaurant industry was estimated to have grossed only $659 billion. This $200 billion shortfall impacts small business owners, restaurant workers, industry partners and subcontractors, and even advertising partners.

As an experienced digital marketer responsible for national restaurant campaigns at Mindstream Media Group, I wanted to share my learnings from this experience in order to help any restaurant or marketer out there in some small capacity.

It may be obvious to point out, but the pandemic has seismically affected user behavior, both in real life and online. Under normal circumstances, 60 percent of dining is done off-site. During the pandemic, that figure has swelled to 90 percent.

This shift in consumer behavior increases the importance of placing a greater emphasis on carryout, catering and delivery. Unsurprisingly, restaurants with drive-throughs have generated a noticeably higher portion of visitors and sales than those without drive-throughs. 90 percent of Wendy’s 2020 sales is attributed to their drive-through business.

Source:  Wall-Street Journal

Many restaurants were not preemptively equipped to handle this increase in carryout and drive-through business initially, so they got creative. Several restaurants we work with have added meal kits and unusual carryout items (like charcuterie boards) to their menus to help boost sales. Some restaurants are now selling wholesale ingredients to ensure their surplus inventory does not spoil. And I would say many of us are thankful that some restaurants now offer alcohol for carryout and delivery.

Adjust Keyword Targeting

With an additional 30 percent of diners choosing to eat at home, how does that affect their online behavior? Simply put, user search behavior has shifted to what is local, and what is available. Searches that include the words “available near me” have increased 100 percent globally year over year, and searches that include the words “restaurants open for” have increased 1,000 percent year over year.

Based on these statistics, one of the most important changes we’ve implemented in our client campaigns is to make sure keyword targeting reflects these consumer behavior changes, both for SEO and SEM. Some examples of these keywords include: “local restaurants open for delivery,” “restaurants open near me” and “nearest restaurant open.”

It is important to also keep in mind that other restaurants have taken this into consideration as well, which has led to a noticeable increase in SEM cost per click due to the increased competition among these keywords. In order to mitigate these cost increases, smart digital marketers are now looking for opportunities to add both exact match and longtail keywords and putting less emphasis on phrase match keywords. Another best practice is identifying variations of these more popular searches that are less competitive, by adding in the specific city or street name into campaign keywords.

Google Ads’ Keyword Planner can be used for ideas and estimates of keyword costs, as well as perform frequent search query reports within search campaigns to see which search terms are performing well, and which aren’t. If certain keywords aren’t performing well over a long period of time, the decision can be made to pause them, or look for opportunities to add negative keywords to the campaign.

Google keyword research also shows an uptick in search behavior that includes the words “safe” and “safety,” so those keywords are worth exploring as well. With that being said, I would encourage marketers to watch the performance of any ad text or messaging that focuses on “safety” closely. At the beginning of the pandemic, safety messaging performed extremely well. However, as the pandemic has continued, we are seeing across multiple campaigns that consumers have become less and less responsive to safety messaging, and more responsive to general brand messaging and Limited Time Offers.

Leverage Google Offerings

In addition to adjusting your SEM and SEO, it’s also critical that each Business Profile of all Google My Business restaurant locations are kept up to date. Make sure to update any changes to business information due to the pandemic, including hours of operation, menu limitations and safety measures you have taken. Users can reserve tables and order online through your business profiles, so this is just another avenue that can be can utilized to generate business and keep customers informed.

Another option Google offers small businesses that has helped greatly with the onset of the pandemic are Google Local Campaigns. Local Campaigns run dynamic creative across 4 different Google platforms: Google Search, YouTube, the Google Display Network and Google Maps to local customers in a business location’s service area. The campaign optimizes in real-time, mixing and matching the different headlines, descriptions, images and logos uploaded to the campaign, and automatically shows the best performing combinations. These algorithms utilize 7 million data points in a split second, determining when, where and to whom to show your ads, based on performance.

There is a caveat for running Local Campaigns: Google does recommend that a business run Local Campaigns with a Store Visit-focused strategy in an account that has at least 10 different restaurant locations, so this option lends itself more toward medium and large sized businesses. However, there is a separate bidding strategy for smaller businesses to run Local Campaigns: optimize towards phone calls and/or Google Maps driving direction clicks. So, while the primary option of Local Campaigns is to drive as much foot traffic as possible, Local Campaigns can use the same algorithmic data points to optimize towards driving customers to call and/or search for directions to your restaurant. Even during a pandemic, Local Campaigns remain one of the best digital marketing tactics a restaurant business can leverage – whether big or small.

Overall, marketing budgets are going to be much tighter in 2021 than they would be under normal circumstances, and marketers may not be able to execute all the digital marketing tactics they would otherwise. Being flexible and staying up to date with Google’s offerings and best practices can help businesses succeed and thrive in a changing environment.

Stay Creative

Saying that 2020 has been an unpredictable year would be an insulting understatement. It is difficult to tell if consumer behavior will return to normalcy in the long-term, or if this will drastically affect customer behavior permanently going forward. Regardless of that answer, it is important for all of us to remain creative and ensure that we’re not stagnant in our strategies. If I have learned anything from both digital marketing and 2020, it is that flexibility is imperative.


–Brian Pappas is a Sr. Digital Manager at Mindstream Media Group. An experienced digital marketer for over 7 years, Brian enjoys helping clients with their goals, voice acting and taking long walks on the beach.