Third-party cookie tracking has been the backbone of online advertising for around two decades. Now it’s going away.
Because here’s the thing: cookie-based tracking has been a problem for a long time. Cookies are like the drive-thru fast food window of digital marketing. Convenient, but as you dive into that bag of greasy third-party data, you know there’s a better choice.
We in the CXM consulting world are keen to move beyond cookie-based tracking. I’m personally encouraging clients to use this opportunity to embrace user IDs as a way to collect better customer data and offer better customer experiences.
User identifiers (IDs) are unique data strings that identify an individual user rather than tracking a device. An individual typically has several identifying attributes, which marketing software uses to link activity across devices, platforms and touchpoints.
I’ll come back to how this works. First, if you’ll indulge me, I need to get a bit technical.
Essentially, anything that’s unique to an individual can be used to create a 360° customer profile. That might be the bog-standard email, phone or customer ID, or a more creative identifier like system-generated ID data strings, product SKUs or device IDs. First-party cookies can also be user IDs, so brands can taper off cookies rather than going cold turkey.
The reason this matters is because user identifiers don’t rely on web browsers. If you can link a user’s app activity, online purchases and email engagement, you’re in a much better place to personalise marketing communications.
User IDs don’t even need a device. Identifying offline customers – for example, by using loyalty accounts or reward schemes – enables you to link that behaviour to online browsing.
Key takeaway: User identifiers enable brands to consolidate omnichannel insights, including offline interactions. Brands can stitch together previously siloed engagement – including offline data – to build a richer, more holistic picture of the customer journey that bridges platforms, properties and interactions.
Embracing user IDs isn’t so much about the technical aspects as it is the way customer data is organised. Moving beyond cookie-based tracking means moving towards customer centricity, focusing on knowing your users rather than targeting your visitors.
So, the first step is acceptance.
The second step is software. Don’t get those mixed up, or you’ll end up with a new platform and the same old cookie problem.
In a CXM consultant’s dream scenario, each touchpoint with a user would share a unified identifier. Realistically, this is rarely the case. We at TAP find it’s especially difficult for large and distributed organisations, where different teams ‘own’ different touchpoints.
This is where a good CDP (customer data platform) becomes crucial. CDPs bridge the gaps between siloed databases, and between those databases and customer engagement platforms, by using common data points to stitch a user’s unique identity.
Customer data platforms centralise ‘identities’ from owned databases, such as marketing automation, CRM, ERP and CMS. As well as connecting the dots, a good CDP will deepen an organisation’s understanding of its customers by providing context around where each ‘identity’ is in the buyer journey.
This becomes more important as it grows, because data management is often a victim of success.
Complete journey tracking = deeper analytical insight
Consolidating user profiles requires two things:
The result is a progressive, cohesive and coherent customer profile. We’re no longer dealing with static databases. We’ve graduated to dynamic engagement.
Let’s look at a real-life example.
Say somebody buys a car (in this economy?!). The dealership records information about the buyer and vehicle, which they may or may not pass on to the service department.
We’ll assume the dealer and service department share data. Good start. However, it’s unlikely that the marketing automation team has access to that data. Ditto for the digital marketing team and direct mail specialist.
Suddenly, the buyer is inundated with messaging that isn’t relevant to them, like special features packages for a car they’re not interested in (or worse, a better deal on the model they just bought). From the customer’s perspective, they made a significant purchase from a company that doesn’t know which way is up.
However, if the car manufacturer invested in a CDP to centralise customer data, the direct mail and digital marketing teams would have up-to-date information before the customer has driven out of the lot. They can now send relevant communications, such as exclusive owners’ offers, after-sales support and referral bonuses.
This was the case with a global car manufacturer that TAP CXM helped to connect customer information and simplify data management. The organisation didn’t need to overhaul its data processing policies because the CDP could translate information between online and offline channels.
It took months for the car manufacturer’s CDP to recognise many customers. With a purchase that large, interactions are few and far between. The siloed internal systems were also working with different user data schemas. But by transitioning to identity-based tracking, the organisation was doing two things:
Stitching can take time because customer data platforms need a reference point to know when to combine two separate user IDs.
But there’s no downside to ID-based tracking in the meantime. You’re still collecting valuable customer data, and user IDs are still functionally better than cookie-based tracking even if the CDP hasn’t stitched the entire user journey yet.
When the CDP determines a match, the brand’s personalised marketing capability becomes greater than the sum of its parts.
It’s hard to talk about CDPs in isolation. Most organisations invest in CDPs after overhauling their martech stack with an engagement platform.
Adobe Experience Platform is a great example of how organisations put identity-based tracking to use.
Experience Platform watches for identity signals that match organisation-defined schemas. It does this by communicating with Adobe’s Real-Time CDP (or a different CDP), which in turn receives information from every touchpoint.
(Very few, if any, engagement platforms have the processing power to do both).
Experience Platform then acts on the signals it receives to push the most relevant message through the most relevant channel at the most relevant time. Compared to one-dimensional cookie-based triggers, this is a significant improvement in terms of next-best-action marketing, customer engagement and brand loyalty.
The next iteration of ID stitching is probabilistic identity resolution, where a CDP uses an algorithm to predict a link between two different user IDs.
This isn’t generative AI, but the more intelligent older sibling, analytical AI.
Adobe’s Real-Time CDP and other leading platforms are starting to test a combination of deterministic and probabilistic matching. The technology isn’t quite there yet, but it likely won’t be too long before probabilistic identity matching takes the wheel.
In our experience as CXM consultants for enterprise organisations, login portals remain the best and most efficient way to unify customer identities.
Sorry if you were expecting something more complex. Login portals work. Not only because they’re designed to store comprehensive user information but because users aren’t scared of them.
Functionally, login portals allow users to sign in to multiple properties with a single set of credentials. This will enable omnichannel tracking and progressive profiling even if the customer uses different identifiers. It also allows brands to link historical interactions to current users.
All the information from the login portal flows to the CDP, so data is collected whether a customer browses the website, opens the app or purchases in-store using a registered card or loyalty ID.
Login portals are also a better way to manage user consent. Customers have more control over their data, and brands are better equipped to offer personalised marketing experiences.
Login portals are only a win-win if brands are transparent about how they use customer data and what benefits users receive in return.
Although transparency is a good start, our experience is that the value exchange deserves deeper thought. Users are giving up their private information. Offer them something worthwhile:
The best incentive depends on the company, product, and user. Just make sure it’s worth the user’s data without costing the organisation too much.
Transitioning from cookie-based strategies to user identifiers is not without its hurdles. However, it’s easier to overcome these hurdles with a strategic approach, fit-for-purpose martech, and guidance from the best CXM consultants in the business (that’s us).
A successful transition requires organised, clean data. Invest time to prepare data so that the CDP can deliver optimal value.
Logins are the most effective gateway to user identifiers. Build a post-login experience that makes users feel it’s worth sharing their data.
Premium content, exclusive offers, personalised support and relevant communication can all form a compelling value proposition that incentivises users to log in.
Adobe’s Real-Time CDP is a powerhouse platform, but it’s more geared to enterprise brands. Tealium is affordable for growing businesses, or myself and the TAP CXM team can help you find the right fit.
While the process of stitching IDs is time-consuming, it’s important to remember that tracking continues during the transition period.
Multi-platform marketing demands a unified customer experience. Embracing user identifiers paves the way for seamless interactions across platforms. Let’s use the opportunity.
My job as an independent CXM consultant is to help organisations understand their users and deepen customer relationships. The practical, experience-led approach to CXM that we take here at TAP means you get custom solutions and ongoing support from a team of experienced specialists, not just nice words and bright ideas.