Experts from Internet Brands and WebMD separate myths from facts on the cookie apocalypse.

As internet users demand greater privacy, including control over their data, search platforms are announcing plans to phase out third-party cookies—leaving many marketers questioning how they’ll deliver customer-centric content experiences. Dorrit Trate, MBA, MHA, vice president of health system marketing solutions, and Nate Andrews, vice president of technology, separate myths from facts on the cookie apocalypse.

Q: The countdown to the “cookie apocalypse” is underway. Are you ready?

Video transcript

DORRIT TRATE: Hi everyone. Thanks for joining us today. My name is Dorrit Trate. I'm an executive director of health systems marketing solutions at WebMD, Medscape and Krames. 2020 was certainly the year of change and disruption for hospital marketers. It was a really tough year for everyone in the industry and it looks like we need to gear up for some more change here. Marketers have used cookies for years to track website visitors and to collect data that improves ad targeting. But now with reports of an impending cookie apocalypse, many marketers have questions about what this means for their campaigns and measurement models. I'm joined today by my colleague, Nate Andrews, vice-president of technology with Internet Brands, who’s going to help us better understand and plan for this shift in the industry. Thanks for joining us, Nate.

NATE ANDREWS: Yeah, of course. Thank you.

DORRIT TRATE: So, let's start out with just kind of the basic overview. When people are talking about cookie apocalypse or privacy, I've seen the latest Apple TV spots about their push for user privacy. What are we talking about here? What's happening?

NATE ANDREWS: Yeah. So, I think to start out, there are two types of cookies we should be worried, or we should be thinking about here. So, cookies are essentially little bits of information that get shared between your computer and a server that you may be requesting webpages from. And those little bits of information kind of primarily, they were designed to serve, to help things like log-in experiences. So they persist with your computer, and so every time, let's say you've logged into Facebook's website. Every time you go back to Facebook's website, your computer can send that little bit of information to Facebook that tells Facebook that you've already logged in. They don't need to ask for your username and password again, and you can just go directly to that experience. So those kinds of cookies are not being affected by what we're calling the third party cookie apocalypse, the cookie cliff, however you want to frame this up. The cookies that you use on your website to just make it work. Those cookies, all stay in place, the cookies that you use for your analytics, those stay, those will work exactly the way that they work today.

The second type of cookie though, are third-party cookies. And these come from pixels that you may drop on your site to facilitate retargeting for example, or to associate users with certain kinds of lookalike audiences. Any kind of analytics that is really driven by a third party’s platform and being tied to a specific user's information in a third party’s platform, they might end up being affected by these new third-party cookie policies. And the what's happening is that, and there's not a necessarily a specific kind of cross industry standard that's being applied here. Different browser makers are enforcing different kinds of policies for these third-party cookies. So, Firefox has a policy that they've put in place to try to limit web tracking. Safari has limited the amount that you can use cookies and third-party context, and is requiring you to use other kinds of browser storage capabilities. And then the biggie, the real white whale of browser technologies is the Chrome browser. And by 2022, they've said that they expect to be limiting your ability to use third party cookies.

DORRIT TRATE: And that's really the lion's share of the market, right?

NATE ANDREWS: It really is. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Especially on your laptop, your desktop computer.

DORRIT TRATE: Interesting. So it's really the difference between first and third party. So as a hospital marketer, whatever they're doing within their own environment, their own landscape, their own websites, keep it up, you know, stay the course, do what you can within your own environment to really understand your audience, user behavior journeys, things of that nature. But when you're really leveraging third-party data, you're building those lookalike audiences, that's what you're reliant on for your advertising, your digital advertising, that's going to be the most disruptive in terms of what's happening in the market.

NATE ANDREWS: That's exactly right. So essentially what will be much, much harder now is to tie a user's behavior on one website to their behavior on other websites around the internet. You know, if you think about classic retargeting, the real power of it is that you're able to use information about how they interacted with your website and then on thousands or millions of other websites, you can be dropping ads that help drive them back to that behavior on your website. That's how this becomes harder, is because now you won't be able to identify all of the millions of websites that it's the user that did this thing over on your website.

DORRIT TRATE: I would imagine in healthcare, right, there's that added layer of complexity and complication with HIPAA, with privacy, with you know, I don't want to research something related to my healthcare or my loved one's healthcare and necessarily be retargeted all over the internet. But when should they gear up when as a hospital marketer, when should you be gearing up for these changes to really kind of hit the marketplace and really start causing disruption?

NATE ANDREWS: Yeah, we're expecting this to really start showing up in 2022. You know, Google, for example, the makers of Chrome, they have a long history of setting aggressive targets for when they'll be rolling out big industry shaking changes, and they might slip some sometimes, but you want to be careful with how aggressive you get with kind of leaning into the idea that Google might slip because they might not. And so you really need to be prepared by early 2022.

DORRIT TRATE: So you have about a year left and we've been hearing rumblings of this right throughout 2020. So, you know, certainly something not to be taken lightly. It is happening. We need to be ready for it. In 2022, let's dive a little bit more into the, the impact on retargeting. So you did a great job kind of laying out how it works. What are the implications for retargeting that are coming? What's really changing about the way we can retarget.

NATE ANDREWS: So right now, the cookie matching technology that drives retargeting in your ability to kind of track a user across other websites on the internet, that's about 50 to 60% effective. So your retargeting now isn't 100% laser focused, correct, but you’ve got pretty good odds that you're retargeting the right person. As these changes roll out you can expect that to drop, you know, farther into the 10 to 20% range. And what it really means is it's going to require websites to be sharing more information with each other in order to do retargeting because the cookie itself doesn't hold all of the identifying information about the user anymore. Obviously for healthcare though, that that's a concern. You know, if you're advertising on sites that are sharing their users PII, for example, in order to make connections across websites, that runs into much stronger privacy implications. And so it becomes important to understand for all of the different advertising markets that you're engaged in, what do they do with the data? Because in healthcare, the privacy is so important you don't get to just kind of play and loose the way that for example, an e-commerce website might.


DORRIT TRATE: Sure. And definitely sensitivity around that. So being careful and kind of the partners you might choose as a hospital, understanding how they're collecting information and their kind of policies around that is important. I've been reading a little bit on the changes in pixeling and how long they're tracking people and, and really the depth of data you're going to be able to access. A lot of that is changing as well. Correct?

NATE ANDREWS: Yeah, that's right. Browser makers are reducing the length of time that they'll allow cookies to live, especially those set by third parties. And so that's just going to take that third party matching that's used for lookalike audiences and retargeting those kinds of tactics. And it will make it even harder because if somebody visited your site on day zero and visited another partner site on day 14 or day 21, you may have been able to identify that that's the same person in the current, under the current rules, but under the new rules, that's going to be a lot less likely. And again, it's going to depend on the browser manufacturer, but yes, exactly.

DORRIT TRATE: Really shortening that window, right? And, and the user, the end user is in much more control moving forward now of what they're going to allow from their own devices. And I know that's really going to rock the world of mobile devices for sure, with some of the updates Apple's rolling out, really having a hard hit and impact on Google and Facebook and just what the end user is saying. I am, and I'm not okay with, right? It's, it's more about opting in versus opting out.

NATE ANDREWS: Yeah, I think that's exactly right. So Apple has announced to that they will require app makers to get your permission to opt into certain kinds of cross app tracking. I know Google is exploring similar features for their Android platform. And so, you know, this is probably less relevant to like a hospital marketing team that's probably not selling data that they're collecting from their app, but there will certainly be a lot less data available on the market to be doing that kind of tracking of users across different websites, different platforms, different applications, and it will change your advertising options.

DORRIT TRATE: Yeah, and I think when we think about your options, the ability to retarget the data you're able to collect today, right, before these changes. It's really allowing companies in healthcare, outside of healthcare to optimize their digital spend, to know what's converting, do A/B testing and understand really where those moments of conversion are happening. So really that downstream return on ad spend type of analysis, that's going to be massively impacted, A. Because you're not going to be able to track so far down the journey and the data that you're going to get and the inability to use this third party data. What impact do you see coming to the ability to really prove out that ROI and optimize your digital spend, what's the impact on that?

NATE ANDREWS: Yeah, that's a good question. So, I think number one is choosing your partners carefully to make sure that they have the technology in place to give you good attribution. So there will still be techniques available for attribution. You know, link decoration is one, there are other HTTP headers that you can use to do attribution, so attribution won't go away. It will for a short period of time, be harder because you'll need to be collecting data outside of the browser. Essentially doing company to company integrations, to tie your events together for attribution in a lot of cases, that today are very easy for the vendor to do all of the attribution tracking for because they have access to the entire user experience in the browser through those third party cookies.

DORRIT TRATE: That's interesting, and actually leads me into my next question, which is, you know, really what can a hospital marketer do today to prepare for this? What kind of systems can they put into effect? Where should they be focusing their energy to really make sure they're prepared for this? And it sounds like some of these partnerships and choosing your partners wisely and being able to bridge some of those connections to prove out the ROI maybe more directly than previously. So in your opinion, what's the most critical things for a hospital marketer to be worried about right now and focused on.

NATE ANDREWS: So, the first thing I would say is start talking to your technology team about their data management platforms. Because as we start getting into a world where you need to do company to company integrations for attribution, or for certain kinds of targeting capabilities, you'll need to have good tracking capabilities on your website so that you can complete the analyses and the data sharing that you need to do for attribution. And again, all of that needs to be done securely, PHI needs to be protected PII needs to be protected, but your technology team is going to become an even more important partner going forward. There are going to be certain vendors that do this, so continue to work with your data management vendors, their insights will be very important. And I would also say if you work with an agency, start talking to them early and often, because if your agency isn't prepared, then you're not prepared. So work with them closely.

DORRIT TRATE: Yeah, and just kind of see where they're at. What's your strategy, what's your game plan? How do you plan on attacking this? Hospitals you know, again, the whole layer of HIPAA just adds a complexity, but in a world where PII is king, where if you have email, if you have mobile phones, there's a lot more you can do with retention, with customization, personalization, any advice there for hospitals, you know, in terms of that strategy,

NATE ANDREWS: I think that's a great topic to bring up because the people that do really well in the new world will be the people that create experiences that are worth locking in for. If people haven't logged into your website, then you don't really have that information about them. You don't know who they are when they come back. The value of your first party cookies, which going all the way back to the beginning, the first party cookies are the ones that persist longer that are able to get people back into experiences they find valuable. So it's creating those login-able experiences that really are going to create value for your marketing efforts.

DORRIT TRATE: Customer service, customer experience, all things that we kind of need to get back to the roots of not relying on third party and really managing that journey ourselves in our own environments. And having worked for a hospital, I know there's lots of opportunity to collect personal information, emails, phone, get these folks to opt in. You know, I think there's a lot of retention strategy that can go a long way with a current patient base. It's attracting new patients I think where there's this third-party cookie apocalypse is going to come into play. But think as a hospital marketer about what you can do with your IT department, with your digital team, with your innovation team, to prepare for this. And Nate, great advice on, on working with your agency if you have one. What is their game plan? What are they doing?

But this has been a really great overview. I know we are just scratching the surface on this topic. There's a lot of swirl happening out there right now as it relates to cookies and privacy and what's happening. So we're going to stay on top of this. We will bring you updates as they kind of unfold, and we learn more and hear more from our perspective. Internet Brands has a large portfolio of websites, so trust me, we are on top of this. WebMD, Medscape, Krames, all you know, key partners here in helping to bring you as many updates and information as we can share. So stay tuned. We'll be in touch with more. Nate, thanks so much for your time and we'll talk soon, everybody.

NATE ANDREWS: Thank you, Dorrit.


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