Cookieless retargeting is possible, and it might just be better

So the world is going cookieless and you are afraid your retargeting strategy will no longer work? Fear not. Retargeting is here to stay and in a cookieless setup it might even be better. Unfortunately there is some misleading information on how retargeting works without third-party cookies, and we want to shed some light. But one thing should be clear: retargeting without relying on third-party cookies is entirely feasible and many industry experts believe that the post-cookie era presents a more accurate and efficient way to reach out to potential customers.

TL:DR – Two ways to run cookieless retargeting

  1. In-platform retargeting
  2. Based on server-side events

How Traditional Retargeting Worked Until Now

For context, let’s briefly understand how retargeting has traditionally functioned with third-party cookies.

Imagine a shopper visiting an online shoe store, looking at a pair of sneakers, but leaving without making a purchase. The website drops a ‘cookie’ (a tiny piece of data) on the visitor’s computer. Later, when the shopper is reading news or browsing through another site, that ‘cookie’ informs an ad network, and voilà! They see an ad for the same sneakers, enticing them to revisit the store and complete the purchase.

An example: Retargeting on Meta

This is what cookie-based retargeting. looks like for Meta platforms like Facebook and Instagram Ads.

  1. Pixel Installation: The website owner installs the Facebook Pixel on their site. This pixel is essentially a third-party cookie that tracks users’ actions on the website.
  2. User Interaction: When a user visits the website and takes specific actions (like viewing a product), the pixel “fires” and logs this activity. The pixel then sends this data back to Facebook.
  3. Data Collection: Facebook matches the data from the pixel with its user profiles. This means that if the user is logged into their Facebook account (or any other Facebook-owned platform like Instagram) on the same browser, Facebook can identify them and associate their website activity with their profile.
  4. Ad Creation: The website owner can then create Facebook ad campaigns targeting users based on their interactions on the site. For instance, if a user viewed a product but didn’t purchase it, the website owner can set up a retargeting ad showing that specific product, encouraging the user to complete the purchase.
  5. Ad Display: When the user next logs into Facebook or Instagram, they’ll see the retargeting ad in their feed or as a sidebar ad. This is possible because the third-party cookie (the Facebook Pixel) has tracked their activity on the external website and communicated it to Facebook.
  6. Additional Targeting Criteria: The website owner can decide to only show ads to users that performed certain actions and belong to a specific demographic (for example by age group, location, interests and so on).
  7. Continuous Learning: The pixel also tracks if the user interacts with the ad, clicks on it, and eventually makes a purchase. This data helps in refining ad strategies, understanding return on ad spend, and optimizing for better results.

While this approach has been the industry-standard, there are several limits to it, including:

  • challenges when it comes to cross-device tracking
  • ad blockers
  • browser blocking third-party cookies by default
  • cookie banner acceptance/rejection

So the time to switch to cookieless retargeting is in fact… now. Or yesterday maybe.

There are several benefit to retargeting

  1. Higher Conversion Rates: Retargeted users are already familiar with the brand, making them more likely to convert.
  2. Brand Recall: Retargeting keeps the brand at the top of the user’s mind, reinforcing brand awareness.
  3. Cost-Effective: By targeting users who have already shown interest, businesses often see a higher ROI on their ad spend.
  4. Personalized User Experience: With the data available, ads can be tailored to the user’s behavior and preferences, making them more relevant.

This is probably stuff you already know, but we want to stress how important it can be to prioritize this form of targeting while transitioning to cookieless environments.

First approach

In-Platform Retargeting: Going Beyond Website Visits

Now, traditional retargeting has mostly been about luring back website visitors. But in today’s interconnected digital world, potential touchpoints with customers are vast.

Take LinkedIn, for instance. If you have a business page on the platform, users can visit and engage with your content, even if they’ve never been to your website. With LinkedIn Ads, you can specifically retarget users who’ve shown interest in your brand on LinkedIn, creating a specialized ad experience for them. This approach signifies that retargeting is not confined to website visits but encompasses all digital touchpoints where users interact with your brand. And just like other forms of retargeting, it can be combined with other targeting criteria offered by the platform (for example in the case of LinkedIn to focus on prospects and exclude job seekers).

Second approach

Server-Side: A New Dawn for Retargeting

One of the most promising cookieless retargeting strategies is leveraging server-side settings. Let’s explore this with an example, once again from Meta: the Meta Conversions API (formerly Facebook’s Conversions API).

Instead of relying on browser-based cookies, server-side tracking directly communicates user interactions from your server to the advertising platform. This means that even if a user has ad blockers or their browser restricts third-party cookies, you can still capture and send that data for retargeting.

For example, when a user adds an item to their cart on your website but doesn’t complete the purchase, this action is directly communicated to the ad platform through the server. Later, this user can be shown a targeted ad, reminding them of their abandoned cart.

This method is not only more resilient but also more accurate, as it reduces the chances of data loss due to browser restrictions.

The same can be done for other platforms and for those that do not offer such server-side set ups, we expect those to come very soon.

Embracing the Future: Why It’s Time to Test Cookieless Retargeting

Change can be daunting, especially when it affects tried-and-tested strategies. But as the saying goes, when one door closes, another opens.

The shift away from third-party cookies is not the end of retargeting but a new beginning. With cookieless methods, businesses have the opportunity to engage in more authentic, precise, and privacy-compliant ways.

It’s crucial, now more than ever, to be ahead of the curve. Start testing and integrating cookieless retargeting strategies today. By understanding and adapting to this new landscape, businesses can ensure they continue to connect meaningfully with their audience and achieve the desired marketing outcomes.

In conclusion, as the digital world continues to prioritize user privacy, it’s imperative for businesses to adapt. Major browsers are phasing out third-party cookies, and regulations like GDPR and CCPA are setting stricter guidelines for user data collection and usage. Whether it is in-platform retargeting or server-side based, cookieless retargeting offers a way forward, ensuring brands can still reach their audience effectively while respecting their privacy. Embrace this change, and your brand might just find new avenues for success in the post-cookie era.

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