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Who can forget 2020? It’s when Google dropped the bombshell it would be blocking third party cookies on its Chrome browser by 2022.

This phase out was delayed (twice, in fact) as the tech giant took more time to test its Sandbox Privacy solution. For the time being, third party cookies will continue to exist on the search engine, and the deadline has been pushed back to 2024. Meanwhile, Apple and Firefox are also working toward robust privacy features.

So, for the past few months, marketers around the world have been fearing “the cookieless future”, a land in which web tracking is incredibly uncertain. But anyone looking to understand the cookieless future needs a more nuanced understanding of consumer attitudes toward privacy and tracking. Let’s dive in.

Privacy concerns have flatlined

If you care about cookie tracking, you care about online privacy.

How you think consumers feel about privacy, and how they really feel about it, are two different things. You’ll often hear how online privacy is a growing concern for consumers; it’s a statement which is difficult to question given the recent history of sweeping privacy laws and data breaches.

The truth is, the proportion of consumers worrying about their online privacy hasn’t budged in 3 years – remaining at just over 40%. It’s a static trend, looming over online business activities. 

Yet by nature it’s still a hot button issue. 

You can think of it as a hygiene factor for businesses. Respect for privacy is a necessity.  Disregard it and consumer outrage can easily flare up, even among those who aren’t actively concerned on a day-to-day basis.

The complexity of data tracking doesn’t help the situation. If consumers’ privacy is violated in a way they can’t understand, of course they’ll be outraged.

Do people really care about cookies?

Today, around 1 in 5 say they regularly decline cookies on a website. This is fairly unaffected by age or even location, though Western consumers are typically more likely to say this; around a quarter in both North America and Europe do. 

With the general picture staying the same, it’s worth taking a step back and thinking about why people reject cookie pop-ups in the first place, and the effect this has on their online behavior.

Before cookies were introduced, people weren’t necessarily familiar with the concept of web tracking. The advent of these pop-ups made this reality known to consumers, but the chances are many still don’t know exactly how this process happens. So, privacy concerns picked up, in a way that understanding didn’t.

One study revealed internet users were typically more guarded after reading cookie notifications, being less likely to “express opinions, search for information, or go against the status quo”. If you’re a marketer relying on robust profiles to distinguish individual users, then that’s a bit of a problem. Participants didn’t spend long reading these pop-ups either, which suggests a lot of scrollers are intimidated by the information they contain.

Chart showing how Western consumers who decline cookies regularly would describe themselves

Our data builds on this. Those who regularly decline cookies are more likely to write online reviews, share blog/vlog posts, or post about their lives on social media. On the whole, it seems cookie pop-ups often confuse consumers and drive them to behave differently, a barrier that’s only overcome when they reject them. 

And concerns around how data is being used are a big motivation for deleting cookies in the first place. In the West, those who reject cookies regularly are 40% more likely to worry about how companies use their data online, while just 1 in 5 feel in control of it.

To put all this simply: a large number of consumers worry about their data, which drives many to reject tracking requests, especially in EU and American markets where the issue has been spotlighted by regulations. People don’t always understand why they’re worried, but they feel they should be.

The privacy paradox won’t go away

The shift away from individual tracking aims to give power to consumers rather than companies. It centers on the concept of “privacy by design”; namely, that systems, tools, and programs are constructed with a robust approach to user privacy from the get-go. 

This is necessary if consumer empowerment is the goal, as despite being concerned about technology tracking us, we still want the daily conveniences that are only made available when we allow technology to track us. 

We call this the privacy paradox. 

It’s a consumer contradiction we’ve seen in our data for many years, and it’s still going strong. 

Chart showing how people feel about online privacy actions

For example, just 26% of consumers say they feel in control of their personal data online, but less than 1 in 4 say they regularly delete cookies, use VPNs, or private browsers. 

Those who are concerned about tracking are also more likely to discover brands  via personalized purchase recommendations. 

A fifth of those who would rather pay for a service and keep their data are using an ad-supported Spotify account. The list goes on.

Occasionally, when you reject a cookie, the website won’t even work, so if people want a smooth experience online, they often feel like they need to give up their right to decline. 

Convince the vanguard, and you’ll convince others

Empowerment and transparency are necessary ingredients in the future privacy landscape, but we have to be realistic about this. It’s a complex matter, and it affects billions of people, most of whom aren’t time-rich enough to scroll through privacy notices.  

Over half of global consumers always accept default cookie settings on these notices. Significantly less (30%) actually make the effort to change the cookies.

People now have the benefit of privacy features embedded in their devices or apps, regardless of whether or not they care about the subject. 

Passive data from Flurry Analytics revealed nearly every US Apple device user chose to opt out of app-tracking when the new feature was rolled out. Now consider this: only half of iOS users in the US tell us they’re actually concerned about tracking.

Give anyone a convenient anti-tracking tool, and they’ll use it.

You could say brands will need to focus on explaining why sharing their data is beneficial to them. This may be true, but don’t expect an honest notice to stop someone from selecting the “ask app not to track” option on their iPhone.

An honest privacy approach is the way forward for companies, you just need to accept not everyone will absorb the message. Many won’t fully understand it, many might not care that much to appreciate the transparency. For all the noise surrounding transparency, it’s about a third of consumers who say they expect brands to be transparent about data collection techniques. 

So it’s a minority of people demanding transparency, but it’s an influential minority. They’re much more likely to go online to share their opinion and to use social media to share their thoughts. More specifically, they’re a lot more likely to be talking about online services and apps, as well as politics and social issues when they’re posting online. 

These are the vanguard in the consumer privacy movement; they help shape wider attitudes. In Asia Pacific and LatAm, these are typically younger individuals. In Europe and North America, it’s older consumers who are pushing for more transparency.

Companies have little control

One minute there’s a promising solution to replace third party cookies. The next, hopes are dashed and we’re back to square one. It’s seemingly impossible for companies to prepare, because they have little control.

Data compliance continues to grow in importance. In 2019, business professionals ranked data protection compliance (e.g. CCPA, GDPR) 24th on a list of the 25 biggest company challenges across 10 markets. In 2022, it moved up to 16th. 

Small and medium sized businesses could be harder hit if third party cookies were to be phased out, because they don’t have the reach to build a reliable first party data hub. 

Only a small share of marketers, apps, publishers, and platforms have the traffic to navigate a cookieless future using first party data.

No matter how big or small your company is, you need to understand your audience on a deeper level. Who they are, where they are, where they spend their time, how their behaviors are changing, and what they’re thinking – these are the building blocks of an effective marketing strategy. 
Regardless of which identity technology becomes the dominant solution, understanding your audience at a deeper level and how to connect with them is one of the few things you can control. That’s where we come in.

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