The era of third-party cookies has already begun its sunset, and soon the roughly two-decade period where they served as the de-facto digital measurement standard will end. A new age of retail media is about to dawn, and retailers who missed the wave in the cookie age have a chance to seize success and status for themselves – but what does success look like without cookies?
For twenty years, many brands, retailers included, relied on, conversion measures provided alongside campaign reporting. The industry’s open secret is that this came as a substitute for deep, clear measurement of signals and sales. Thanks to a renewed emphasis on first-party data, retailers are poised to translate that precious checkout moment they own into a measurement solution the industry desperately needs – and maybe even become one of the media giants of tomorrow.
For any advertiser, the measurement challenge is really a question of identity. As a business, defining the criteria for success is as close to any statement of who you are as any decision you may make. Over the past two decades, retailers have surrendered measurement of this success to arbiters such as Meta and Google, essentially giving up who they are in exchange for comfort and convenience. They have largely forgotten that there are indeed other, better suited, approaches available.
Before cookies dominated the landscape, marketers and analysts spent the better part of a century refining techniques for measurement, borrowing from macroeconomics, to attribute sales to signals as varied as radio and postcards. The solution required the data for analysis and the discipline to interpret results, still rings true today. Once cookies hit the scene, businesses lost sight of this and surrendered themselves to Meta and Google’s attribution and conversion tracking, taking it as gospel despite not really being able to see or understand the methodology. In doing so, they enabled these giants and their clouded measurement of success to define them, and in essence gave up their own identity.
A century of synthesis
Any scientific enterprise is going to be built on a hypothesis with an objective measurement – it’s just the same for retail media. Measurement is critical, but retailers have become lost in the fog of third-party cookies for too long. This has resulted in an exhausting amount of anxiety, uncertainty and general hand wringing over attribution. On some level, retailers know they need to return to the tried-and-true methods of analysing what leads are truly valuable business opportunities – updated for the modern age – but it’s a monumental task, especially when many younger businesses are going to be starting from scratch.
Particularly in the rush at the start of this new era, what we’re very likely to see from more aggressive businesses is partnering up with vendors who have framework and crystal-clear modeling already in place. Especially as retailers are looking to establish themselves and catch this second wave, that kind of mobility – and simultaneous education on valuable data points and how they translate into claims – will be invaluable.
To be clear, Meta and Google are not wholly responsible for creating this two-decade era of obfuscation. These platforms never really held the final answers to questions of what their data meant for a brand’s customer success measurement lead – and to be fair, they were largely clear that the responsibility of identifying success should have rightfully fallen to the businesses themselves. Digital line of sight was never meant to be the final word, but quickly became the de-facto. .
The ultimate salve for the uncertainty and confusion of the cookie era is clarity over what data is a ‘fact’ and what is ‘claim’. Clear reporting of signals, such as impressions, views and opens, and sales as facts instead of claims is the expectation of today’s brands. We’re on the cusp of a synthesis of the learnings and experimentations of the past century of retail media, and those that recognize the opportunity and move to lead the charge will be all the better positioned when the post-cookie world fully establishes itself.
Troy Townsend is CEO of Zitcha.