A guide to cookie-less advertising in the age of digital privacy

Cookies are the most common tool for companies to track users across the Web. But while some cookies are essential to how a website works, many exist outside the core functionality of a site. Cookies are often used to track users’ Internet activity, and build profiles for personalized ad targeting. Because this can damage personal privacy, many people block cookies via browser settings or other tools. The use of cookies has even become a focus of privacy legislation.

In response to mounting user demands, third-party cookies may become much less common on the Web. Google will phase out third-party cookies in Chrome, the world’s most widely-used browser, by the end of 2024. This will be a huge change for the digital ads industry—altering how ads function, and how they create ROI for advertisers.

In other words, the traditional online ad model—built on tracking technologies—is fundamentally changing. And soon. To survive the shift to a cookie-less world, advertisers will need better, more nuanced advertising strategies. And the sink-or-swim moment is coming sooner than you think.

Cookie-less advertising refers to ad targeting that doesn’t rely on third-party cookies. That means companies will still be able to collect user data (by asking permission, and only on websites they actually own). But cross-site tracking will be slowly phased out.

This change will force brands to build relationships with users and customers based on trust and consent, rather than using ad tech that engages in shady data collection practices. With this in mind, savvy advertisers should look toward:

  • Zero- and first-party data
  • Native advertising
  • Privacy-preserving ads

Let’s weigh the merits of these three options.

Zero- and first-party data

Zero-party data comes from a direct request of—or interaction with—the user. This can take the form of surveys, quizzes, webforms, and questionnaires (rather than trying to glean the same information through tracking). And because zero-party data comes from a direct dialogue between brands and users/customers, it can help establish trust. Many brands include zero-party data requests in their sites and apps, and even so-called “unreachable” users may opt to share it because:

  • The data can directly improve their experience
  • They like that brands are demonstrating honesty and transparency

First-party data, by contrast, is gleaned indirectly. But it still comes from direct interactions between a user and a company’s own sites or apps. First-party data can include Web metrics like time spent on a page, clicks, device and browser info, and more—data that’s often gathered via first-party cookies on a webpage (i.e. cookies that belong to that site, not third-party cookies designed for cross-site tracking).

First-party data can be (though isn’t always) collected in a privacy-preserving way. In many jurisdictions, sites are legally required to ask for user permission before using any sort of cookies (first- or third-party) that aren’t “strictly necessary” (thanks to legislation like Europe’s GDPR and California’s CCPA). These requests for permission come in the form of a “cookie consent form”—usually a pop-up when visiting a site.

While first-party data is better from a privacy perspective than third-party data, many people still reject non-essential cookies regardless of if they’re first- or third-party. The Brave browser, for example, blocks everything other than “strictly necessary” cookies (i.e. those that are necessary for a site to function); it also blocks the often annoying consent forms that ask you about these non-essential cookies. But if users do consent, then this type of data can still be useful to brands.

Native advertising

People are increasingly using ad blockers, private search engines, and privacy browsers to block ads altogether. That’s search ads, display/banner ads, even pre-roll and mid-roll ads on video and streaming sites. There is, however, an opportunity for brands to leverage native advertising strategies that aren’t affected by traditional ad blockers.

Native advertising, or “sponsored content,” is integrated directly into a site, and doesn’t function like a normal ad unit. This type of content doesn’t rely on clickable images chock full of trackers and scripts to follow users across the Web. Instead, sponsored content is usually designed to be nearly indistinguishable from a site’s regular content. It’s intended to provide real value to audiences (and, of course, inject a bit of marketing). Examples of native advertising include things like read-aloud ads in podcasts or videos, “listicles,” sponsored articles, or content that otherwise blends into the platform that’s delivering it (e.g. a newsfeed ad) as opposed to being intrusive (e.g. popup ads).

Native advertising is common to news and marketing sites, and is generally considered less intrusive to users than traditional ads because it’s not just about driving sales. And while sponsored content is highly integrated with a site, users often still need to choose to interact, which incentivizes advertisers to supply a real value-add. Brands that publish sponsored content also benefit from the trust users already have in the hosting site. If a popular news outlet publishes sponsored content, for example, audiences might be more likely to read it because they trust the news site.

Privacy-preserving ads

Utilizing native advertising and first- and zero-party data are two good strategies for brands looking to gain insights about their users, start conversations that build relationships, and advertise in a non-intrusive way. But these options can fall short when it comes to growing with new users that aren’t already visiting a brand’s website or using its app. (This is typically when brands turn to third-party data that’s generated by cross-site tracking—the very practice users are rebelling against.)

There is, however, an opportunity for privacy-respecting advertising that’s still capable of reaching new audiences. Ads that preserve privacy refrain from tracking users or building profiles, but can still be personalized and targeted. Private ads collect data that’s aggregated and anonymous, but still deliver insightful performance analytics to advertisers.

In other words, it’s possible to have a thriving, healthy, and private online ad economy—third-party tracking isn’t a necessary part of the equation.

Brave Ads, for example, is the first global digital ads platform built for privacy and a cookie-less future. It enables brands to carry out ad campaigns that reach otherwise unreachable audiences in a privacy-preserving way. It’s highly effective advertising without the trackers, cookies, and other creepy stuff that follows users across the Web.

Those who make up the Brave Ads audience also happen to be the same people who are unreachable via traditional ad channels. They’re privacy seekers who use the Brave browser to block ads. They’re cord-cutters—80% don’t pay for cable or satellite TV. And they’re disconnectors—only 20% use Snapchat, TikTok, or Pinterest.

And while this may sound like the profile of vanguard users, it’s in fact becoming the norm.

How Brave Ads work

Brave offers familiar ad units, like keyword-based search ads in Brave’s independent search engine, Brave Search. Brave’s search ads are privacy-preserving, text-based ads that appear at the top of a user’s search engine results page (SERP). Brave also offers a variety of other ad units that include full-page images that appear on new browser tabs, native ads in the Brave News feed, and familiar, device-level push notifications.

The bundle of available Brave Ads are downloaded to the browser (and refreshed nearly every hour). But the ad matching only happens locally on-device, and ad performance isn’t associated with any given individual. No personal data makes it back to Brave’s servers (or even leaves the user’s device). Users get privacy; advertisers still get actionable insights on ad performance and ROI. And audiences are highly engaged.

The aggregated reporting that Brave Ads generate provides useful details about views, clicks, site-visits, and conversions. More insights are available via privacy-respecting surveys that measure brand lift. Brands that advertise with Brave also enjoy boosted perception among unreachable audiences for making the effort to advertise in a privacy-respecting way. It’s a win-win ad model geared for the privacy-first future.

Note: Brave Ads don’t replace the on-page, third-party ads that are blocked by Brave Shields. Instead, they’re unobtrusive, native ad units woven seamlessly into the Brave browser and search engine.

The future of digital advertising will require respect for user privacy and data autonomy; brands (and ad platforms) that don’t evolve will see a real drop in ROI for their ad spend. They might be seeing this drop already. The privacy-focused evolution of the Web is shifting the expectations that users have of brands. People don’t just want to be “users,” they want to be active participants that have control over their data. This new privacy-focused Internet is all about trust and consent. It’s about being honest with users, and letting them make their own decisions about tracking, cookies, and how their data can be used.

With more users and customers opting for more data control and privacy, brands will find it harder and harder to advertise to this ever-growing population of privacy-minded people. Brands that work with users during this shift (rather than against them) will boost brand awareness, trust, and loyalty. And this trust will support increased ad engagement, and open the door to unreachable audiences.

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