Marketing   //   November 16, 2021

E-commerce brands prep for the death of the third-party cookie

Despite the fact that the third-party cookie is sticking around for two more years, e-commerce brands are already trying to prepare for its demise by collecting more first-party data. 

According to Google, the popular Chrome web browser will be free of third-party cookies by the end of 2023, as opposed to the original January 2022 deadline. As of 2021, Google Chrome accounts for over 65% of the web browser market, in turn making up a large portion of the global online traffic. 

The end of the third-party cookie, coupled with the recent Apple’s Identifier for Advertisers (IDFA) rollout, means that brands and e-commerce vendors are interested in collecting more of their own customer data, which they’ll use in ad retargeting when data collection via the cookie is no longer available. Below is a look at how e-commerce brands and marketing data providers are preparing for the delayed deadline. 

“Unifying” physical and digital customer data

Fitness gear brand Bala saw sales growth coinciding with the uptick in at-home workouts during the pandemic. The influx of customers prompted the company to start thinking of better ways to collect consumer data, said Sam Wilson, Bala’s head of growth. 

Since launching in 2018, the company has scaled primarily via organic social media engagement and word of mouth, said Wilson. When the coronavirus hit in 2020 and retailers sold out of at-home fitness equipment, Bala’s weight bangles took off. Over the past 18 months, the company added several wholesale partnerships with retailers like Bloomingdale’s, Nordstrom, Urban Outfitters, along with athletic wear retailers like Athleta and Dick’s Sporting Goods. 

With iOS14 already changing traditional digital advertising strategies, Wilson said the company is trying to be proactive about harnessing first-party data. “Given all the channels we sell through, we want to unify and mine our own data for future customer targeting,” Wilson said. Currently, nearly half of Bala’s sales come from wholesale accounts, which makes it more challenging to collect customers’ data firsthand. 

To help marry their direct-to-consumer sales with wholesale consumer data, Bala signed on retail data platform SoundCommerce six months ago. SoundCommerce works with Bala’s own existing backend technology, and integrates its retail accounts’ orders with Bala’s own customer database. This includes any information retailers share with the company — such as any second-party transaction data coming from retailers’ POS. SoundCommerce is also providing a similar data mining process for retailers like PacSun and Eddie Bauer.

Content is another big part of Bala’s experience, said Wilson, which it wants to use for customer retention and insight. “The shopper’s experiences at retailers are very different from our DTC ones, so we’re trying to draw them in with community-building tools,” said Wilson. 

The content includes social media posts and videos featured in the workout hub on Bala’s website hub. The brand offers customers free live and on-demand virtual classes, working with fitness instructors and influencers to showcase Bala equipment.

In the past year, Bala has also been trying to make its customer acquisition channels more diversified, said Wilson — whether it’s via new retail partnerships or brand ambassadors. “We’re also doing more out-of-home and direct mail campaigns,” he said.

Revisiting traditional advertising

Jacob Zuppke, president of Litter-Robot maker Whisker, said the cookie deadline is one of the reasons the company decided to move away from an all-digital ad strategy two years ago.

The company first tested linear television ads in late 2019. When rates dropped due to local businesses pulling their advertising at the beginning of the pandemic, Whisker continued to spend on TV spots throughout 2020 and this year. “We were never a big Facebook spender,” said Zuppke. “Now we spend more on TV than on Facebook and Instagram, and it’s currently on par with our Google search budget.” 

Despite the high costs of traditional television advertising, Zuppke said the brand found that the medium works well for the pet care category. “We have to create a technical litter cleaning visual, so humorous commercials lend themselves well to our product.” 

The company measures acquisition “by layering in a 5-minute attribution window on our site after every TV spot run,” said Zuppke. 

On the brick-and-mortar side, the company is using more of a geo-targeting approach to gauge customer data. The brand recently signed to open store-within-stores at 35 locations of Pet People, a regional pet shop chain. “We’re tracking those visitors with five-mile radius geolocation fencing on our website,” said Zuppke. 

In 2021, Whisker also started to invest in collecting first-party data, building out lists of customer emails and SMS numbers. The brand launched SMS marketing with provider Attentive in March 2021. “Because we don’t do discount codes, we offer bundles which is how we’ve been able to collect email addresses and SMS signups,” said Zuppke. Whisker is also laying the foundation of first-party data collection by signing on Exponea as a provider. “The goal is to continue driving top tunnel traffic up, whether it’s with ads, weekly blog posts or video content. 

Vendors rethink the browsing experience

Gauging consumer insight without cookies is already becoming the norm, according to some vendors.

Alexandre Robicquet, CEO of AI-based recommendations provider Crossing Minds, said the upcoming deadline has more digital brands interested in what it calls e-commerce “cold starts.” The process consists of Crossing Minds, whose clients include Penguin Random House and DTC temporary tattoo brand Inkbox, creating product recommendations for website visitors in real-time without the use of cookies. “Each visitor’s profile is established and built out based on their cart additions and purchases,” said Robicquet. The platform also integrates any customer email and SMS signups into the merchant’s traffic database. 

The company has been offering these services since its founding in 2018, but has seen its largest client list growth over the past year. “We sensed this is where privacy concerns would lead, so the cookie death is reaffirming our approach to e-commerce design,” said Robicquet.

Meanwhile, Dan LeBlanc, CEO of e-commerce analytics platform Daasity, said the cookie’s upcoming death is leading to more first-party sourcing — including through email marketing and loyalty programs. “So we [Daasity] help extract all that data from the merchant’s backend and help feed it back into their marketing channels,” he said. The demand for its service has led the vendor to grow 300% year-over-year in 2020, according to LeBlanc. 

Launching a cookie-less presence from scratch

Christiane Lemieux, founder of soon-to-launch homeware brand Lemieux Et Cie, said her plan is to “build a cookie-less website that helps tell the brand’s story organically.”

The brand is currently available in 180 boutiques across the U.S and Canada, as well as Anthropologie’s website. “Instead of worrying about constant ad spend, my plan is to partner with retailers where it’s mutually beneficial,” said Lemieux.

Lemieux Et Cie’s DTC website, set to launch in the coming weeks, is “completely different from how I would’ve built it two years ago,” said Lemieux. For one, the desktop and mobile versions will use an infinite scroll inspired by TikTok. “It’s how consumers naturally look for products these days,” said Lemieux.

Like other digital marketing hiccups, there are only so many solutions to face the elimination of Google’s third-party cookie head-on, said Whisker’s Zuppke. 

“My mindset on the third-party cookie death is that it’s another factor that’s out of our control,” he concluded. “I don’t stress over it, but just react accordingly.”