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Digital Marketing Post-ITP: The Practitioners’ Guide

Future-Proofing Your Digital Marketing Strategy

The industry is buzzing about “cookieless marketing” and the ways that it will change the way we think about digital marketing. Despite these major shifts, fear not - the fundamental marketing principles will stay the same: putting customers first, creating meaningful interactions, and driving brand loyalty.

Consumers are demanding relevant, personalized experiences served to them in a privacy-safe environment. As digital marketers, we need to genuinely push ourselves and our marketing teams to deliver that.

Cookies, the mainstream tracking and targeting method, are facing increasing restrictions on their placement and life cycle; therefore, we need to become even more nimble and innovative to maintain our visibility and decision-making ability. There is still a lot to learn and adapt to, but this article will provide practical tips and considerations for today and the coming months to ensure that your digital marketing strategy is future-proofed.

What has changed?

Third-party cookies are created by domains other than the one being visited directly, hence the name third-party. They are used for cross-site tracking, retargeting and ad-serving. Safari has long blocked true third-party cookies by default, but Apple went after first-party cookies used in a third-party context with ITP.

Later, even compliant first-party cookies were impacted as Apple set a seven-day expiration window for them with ITP 2.1. ITP 2.2 further targeted first-party cookies, in particular when link decoration is being used, restricting client-side cookies in those cases to a window of 24 hours.

Privacy changes timeline

For marketers, new regulations and browser settings result in changes to two key areas: measurement and targeting. Let’s dissect these one at a time.

Implications for measurement

While initial ITP announcements posed a lot of uncertainty about tracking preservation, advertising platforms have found ways to work in the new framework by introducing new solutions and shifting reliance on third-party cookies to first-party. However, the more recent changes on Safari with ITP (soon after,  Firefox developed its own restrictions on cross-site tracking) introduced stronger restrictions, causing tracking loss after 24 hours in some cases.

As mobile usage continues to grow, the scale of tracking loss grows with it – even today, this is likely shifting your ability to measure effectively and could be skewing your year-over-year comparison numbers. The first thing you should do today is estimate the loss based on historical data and educate your stakeholders. Sometimes, even 5% variance can make a difference in performance trends and our feelings towards them.

Once you understand the reporting nuances, your next step should be understanding the implications to campaign management. The areas most directly impacted by ITP changes are budget allocations and bidding decisions. To remedy those, it is important to understand your platforms’ abilities to extrapolate based on what is being reported.

For budget allocations within a platform, we will need to turn to in-platform optimizations, as most of them will now leverage machine learning and have developed the ability to model on lost visibility.

While advertisers and agencies typically want to have as much control as possible, we need to get more comfortable with automation, which already shows stronger results in most cases. The continuously improving nature of true machine learning will make it the best solution for driving performance in the long run.

For cross-channel, we will be forced to look for opportunities to bring as much data as possible into a single tracking environment and a platform that’s flexible enough to track different types of interactions and model for missing visibility.

In the long run, measurement will become even more multifaceted. An analyst looking at paid search optimizations will look at a different set of reports than a display specialist deciding on budget split between paid social and video campaigns or a CMO trying to understand the health of her marketing program.

Numbers may not align exactly across different measurement tools, but they will provide different insights necessary at each step. It will force us to think more creatively and, on the positive side, may lead to more robust media plans, because bottom-of-the-funnel advertising will face the same challenges top of the funnel has faced for years.

Do now:

  • Understand your tracking loss.
  • Understand your platform measurement abilities and extrapolation.

Do later:

  • Learn about different measurement approaches and leverage appropriate ones for different activities. Convince your organization to think about it that way.

Implications for targeting

One of the first things that likely comes to mind when we hear cookie loss is concern for the livelihood of site retargeting efforts. Most of us are probably guilty of being somewhat addicted to site retargeting given the strong returns it drives, especially in a last-touch attribution system. However, it is important to evaluate the true effectiveness -- when was the last time that you examined the incrementality of your retargeting efforts, especially as it relates to different timeframes since the site visit?

As site retargeting becomes less viable, advertisers will need to leverage more options provided by platforms, and those with the strongest ability to ingest first-party data and track users--not cookies--will win.

Google has already started developing new audience offerings, like in-market, affinity, and seasonal audiences; these have been a nice alternative as remarketing lists for search ads (RLSA) audience click share has declined. To our earlier point about effectiveness, we should consider whether the decline of RLSA is a loss or perhaps an improvement. What is a stronger signal, the fact that a user came to our site a few months back or their current website browsing and search behavior? Which should be favored in our audience strategy?

Google Audience Click Share

Another factor to consider is that site retargeting is only applicable to users who click on ads. With a full-funnel approach and awareness tactics, a significant amount of budget is spent on exposing your ads to users who never clicked your ad. Even one step further, consider targeting in-market users who expressed specific intent, where an ad didn’t receive impressions or clicks, but the intent signal can still drive informed advertising (such as custom intent audiences).

Targeting these users with sequential messaging is likely driving more incrementality, and it is important to ensure that you are leveraging in-platform targeting options for video viewers or campaign sequencing to provide consistent messaging and reengage these users via tools like storytelling on DV360.

Another key part of being ready for expanded restrictions on cookie targeting is the mix of platforms with which we engage, favoring those with robust first-party data.  Platforms that can recognize and then track users at scale will be the winners. We have seen Google and Facebook take the majority share in display investment, and we are anticipating it to increase. Additionally, Amazon with its DSP abilities and strong logged-in user base will provide new opportunities for marketers.

eMarketer US Display Share

Even though first-party data match rates can be a challenge and the scale achieved, especially for SEM, has been small, as new regulations and browser settings continue to interfere with cookie targeting, advertisers will need to ensure that the right infrastructure is in place to easily extract and refresh segmented CRM lists.

For example, Google has made strides in broadening Customer Match similar audiences reach – and while CM lists themselves may have been hard to scale, introducing similar audiences will demand more segmentation for better targeting.

Do now:

  • Expand first-party data usage; rethink your audience options and test.
  • Invest in abilities to have clean CRM data available for systematic extraction and refresh.
  • Evaluate your display partners and their ability to track users across browsers and devices.

Do next:

  • Evaluate your remarketing incrementality and targeting options that are available outside of site retargeting.


In summary, the changes that advertisers and agencies are facing should not change the fundamental priorities for marketers: thinking critically, understanding the details, and testing new targeting abilities. However, digital marketing is facing new challenges in our desire to give customers seamless and relevant experiences, while also giving customers the ability to control how much they want to hear from us.

First-party data will give us the strongest indication of what they want and when; we should look at contextual signals to expand on that knowledge. Cookies are just one way to think about that, and the decline of cookie viability will force us to get even better in giving consumers what they want.

In addition, Merkle is closely monitoring enterprise solutions such as Google Ads Data Hub and Amazon’s Clean Room which will allow for even richer privacy-conscious, people based advertising. Stay tuned for further developments