The End of Third-Party Cookies: What Event Marketers Need to Know

While there have always been discrepancies between real and reported conversions in analytics platforms, that gap has widened considerably and likely for good. Where do you go from here?

Author: Ben McRae       

Privacy legislation around the world has required tech companies to exercise more restraint in the information they capture about users, and its buzzword-iest consequence has been the slow deprecation of third-party cookies.

What are cookies?

Cookies are bits of data that websites can attach to a user’s browser. “Third-party cookies” refers to situations where one website leaves a cookie in a user’s browser, and a different website reads that cookie — like when a website shows you an ad for another website you visited earlier.

How does conversion tracking actually work?

Conversion tracking has two “parts,” one of which is fairly easy to understand — namely, the conversion itself. In simple terms, we set up a code that goes “ping!” whenever a user takes a relevant action.

The second part is arguably more valuable: We want to know how or why someone has converted, and that’s where attribution comes in.

How do platforms track attribution?

There are two methods. The first is via UTMs — a type of code that tracks and measures digital marketing campaigns across a multitude of platforms — or other out-of-the-box channel tracking. Unfortunately, these methods pose a unique challenge: Whenever you hop from one website to another, your attribution tracking “resets.”

Say you want to attribute event registrations and you have a registration platform that lives on another domain. If you send an email that directs users to a registration page on your website and they convert, you’d want the conversion to be attributed to the email, right? Alas, the second the user clicks on the “Register” button on your website and heads to the registration platform, your analytics platform “forgets” that user came from an email originally.

Historically, we’ve used cross-domain tracking to get around this, a kind of handshake between domains that passes attribution data. But this only works when we have access to all domains a user touches, which is rarer than ever. By far the most disruptive case in our industry is payment processors. When a user enters payment information, they are almost always routed through an external domain, even if only for an instant. And payment processors are usually (understandably) unwilling to give anyone access to their domain, so we lose all attribution tracking — right before the conversion would trigger!

So, what’s the second method?

The other method is much more reliable, and simpler, too. It’s (drumroll…) using third-party cookies — those things that are going away.

What do we do about it?

Until the tech industry at large figures out how to address the issue in a standardized fashion, there’s little we can do to recreate the “old world” of easy conversion tracking. And they may never find a solution; less-perfect data is an inevitable consequence of valuing user privacy.

Two Things to Try

With cookies off the table, as event marketers we should be changing: 1) the mechanics of what we track as a conversion. For example, if we can’t track across payment portals, we can add an additional “checkpoint” event right before payment is processed. 2) the way we think about data analysis. Instead of fixating on absolute counts, which we can usually pull directly from registration or form platforms, we need to focus on trendlines and percentages.

Work with a web specialist to modernize your conversion-tracking strategy in this new analytics landscape, so that you’re not caught with your hand stuck in the cookie jar.

Ben McRae is senior director of web strategy at mdg, a Freeman Company, a full-service marketing and public relations firm specializing in B2B events.

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