How to Prepare for a Cookieless Future

The biggest change to the marketing landscape in years is approaching — and if you don’t have a plan, you’re already behind.

Back in January 2020, Google announced it would phase out third-party cookies within two years (a change that is now slated to happen by late 2023). This means marketers will have to find another way to track and analyze users’ online behavior in order to serve up relevant ads. Shortly thereafter in March 2020, Apple’s Safari began blocking all third-party tracking cookies by default.  

Fast forward to April 2021: Apple announced that its iOS 14.5 software would include App Tracking Transparency — an update that “requires apps to get the user’s permission before tracking their data across apps or websites owned by other companies for advertising.” In other words, iPhone users are now opted out of data tracking by default.

Privacy concerns are at an all-time high and tech giants are cracking down like never before, which poses a big problem for marketers who want to display relevant, targeted ads online. We’re here to break down what you need to know about this industry-wide change and help you prepare for a cookieless future.

What are Cookies, and How are They Used?

If you already have a solid understanding of cookies in advertising, feel free to skip this section. But if not, we’re here to help.

“Essentially, cookies are small files that contain a string of ones and zeros that get dropped onto your computer whenever you visit a website,” explains Hussam AlMukhtar, senior director of demand generation at ZoomInfo. 

There are two types of cookies: first-party and third-party. 

First-party cookies are dropped by the website you’re visiting. So, for example, if you visit, Amazon may drop a cookie to track your behavior while you’re on the site. This can include storing your information to make your experience better, such as “remembering” your language preferences or log-in information. 

Third-party cookies are dropped by a website other than the one you’re visiting. For example, if you visit, any marketing or advertising network that partners with the site will drop a cookie to track your behavior not only on Amazon, but also across the internet. This helps marketers achieve a relevant level of targeting within display advertising across the web.

Are Third-Party Cookies Going Away?

First-party cookies are sticking around; however, third-party cookies are going away due to data privacy threats.

“Right now, the majority of data exchange across ad tech and martech platforms happens using third-party cookies,” says Harry Maugans, vice president of product management at ZoomInfo. “But as marketers started using them more and more, eventually we crossed a line where as an industry, cookies became so good that they invaded people’s privacy.”

If you’re a marketer trying to figure out what’s going to happen to your campaigns when third-party cookies are gone for good, it’s time to explore your options. 

How to Track Users Without Cookies

The good news is that it’s possible to track user behavior without using third-party cookies or infringing on user privacy. 

“There are a lot of solutions out there. So if you’re nervous, don’t be,” says Jim Donovan, vice president of emerging markets at ZoomInfo. “But you do need to start honing in on your replacement strategy.”

As the industry continues to evolve, privacy policies will, too. As a marketer, your best course of action is to find a cookie replacement strategy that is future-proof and can stand the test of time. 

Three primary solutions are emerging.

The first is to identify prospects based on probability. Maugans explains: “This is where a company looks at a broad swath of technographic data coming in from a network, like an IP address, and then associates that data with a person, persona, or device.” With this approach, there’s a lot of fuzziness and mistargeting because you’re conducting guesswork at scale.

The second solution is to replace cookies with identities. Once cookies are gone, marketers will lose their one-to-one level of targeting, meaning they can no longer target specific devices. Instead, many data vendors are targeting identities.

“The issue with this approach is you lose your ability to scale because you can only do this on sites that have a log-in or authentication layer to see someone’s identity,” says Maugans. “The whole point of ending cookies is to move away from one-to-one targeting. So if you replace a cookie with an individual identifier to track a person, there’s a whole other side of informed consent and compliance that needs to take place.” 

This solution is a viable option for those who want to target at a lower scale with higher targeting accuracy. However, this approach likely isn’t future-proof, as it’s similar to third-party cookies and could pose issues down the road.

The third approach is what we use here at ZoomInfo: privacy clusters. Similarly to Google’s FLoCs, instead of one-to-one level targeting, we zoom out a tiny bit to target micro-clusters of three to twelve devices that are bound together to act as a single, trackable, and targetable entity. 

How does this work? We narrow down devices that share similar technical traits — like operating system and screen size — stamp it as a “cluster,” and then append all the same relevant behavioral observations that we did previously with cookies. 

The best part? With privacy clusters, we can reach any browser on any device — including iOS devices. This is because we’re not tracking specific individuals, but simply observing a group of patterns and behaviors and dropping ads based on those observations. Plus, our technology has “circuit breakers” which prevent us from getting too close to personally identifiable information. It’s cookieless and built entirely from technographic data.

“If you look at all the devices in the world, we start slicing them up into small groups,” says Maugans. “We’re the only company in the world that can effectively retarget an iPhone across any device in any platform in any ecosystem.”

In an ideal world, people would voluntarily opt in to one-to-one level targeting; but in cases where they don’t, this approach is your next best bet. 

Plus, with privacy clusters, we have access to web analytics without cookies, including click-through and view-through attribution metrics on any device. 

How to Evaluate a Cookieless Tracking Solution 

First and foremost: Make sure any vendor you work with actually puts privacy first. 

“Almost every vendor in the space says they’re privacy compliant,” cautions Maugans. “But that can mean different things to different people. So ask the hard questions. Get in there and say, ‘Prove it.’”

If you’re not sure what questions to ask, start here:

  • Do you have user consent? 
  • Can people opt out?
  • Where do you source your data? Is it ethical and legal?
  • Do your policies stand up against GDPR and CCPA?

An excellent way to assess a vendor’s legitimacy is to ask them to A/B test their data against other vendors. If they’re not willing to or don’t seem excited at the prospect, that’s a red flag. 

Additionally, read use cases and testimonials from previous customers. Take advantage of any opportunity to learn from and listen to your industry peers. 

“Data underpins everything your company is going to invest in and do. Make sure you’re working with people you trust and get along with,” advises Donovan.

It’s important to begin planning now if you haven’t already. Talk with your team internally, and make sure you have an omni-channel strategy to increase the likelihood of your target audience seeing your ad. 

For example, you may want to invest in content syndication, an email marketing campaign, and a direct mail campaign, all communicating the same message. The more channels you use to display your ad, the more likely it will be seen by the right people.

“Don’t underestimate the impact the end of third-party cookies will have on your job, your marketing org, and the industry at large,” concludes Maugans. 

Looking for a long-lasting solution for the cookieless future? We can help.