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In this post, I’ll be discussing cookies and the different options for tracking user behaviour and actions.

I will start with a summary of the humble cookie, its origin and then explore some of the different tracking types that it allows.

I'll then look at the next generation consumer and cross device tracking opportunities to see how we could operate in a cookie free world. 

So…cookies

We all know about them and their importance to the digital marketing industry. I remember designing my very first cookie ‘back in ’98’. Netscape was trialling them and I remember speaking with some developers about their potential application in the personalisation of internet experiences.

Mobile and personalisation were on all our minds, even back then, and a number of late 90s companies were using cookies in very innovative ways – even by today’s standards.

To ensure everyone is on the same page – cookies are very small units of code that sit within the software written to create this page. You can typically see the cookie – depending on how the site is designed – by selecting ‘view source’ on the right hand mouse click. In a JavaScript environment, the cookie would look something like:

document.cookie="username=Darren Goldie; expires=Thu, 15 Dec 2014 12:00:00 GMT";

To read this cookie and determine how to customize the browser experience in the future you could use:

var x = document.cookie;

The cookie contacts a piece of identifiable user information, a time stamp, an expiry date and an issuing domain (where the cookie originates from). All browsers have a cookie folder, normally located at \Cookies or within the Documents and Settings\Users\. Cookies are saved as a ‘cookie.txt’ file which can be found through your standard desktop search interface and can be removed through your browser options.

What do cookies allow?

Without cookies, the internet experience would have been a very dull place! Much like trawling through a never ending series of TV channels, you would have been subjected to a ‘broadcast’ only experience with little to no interaction from the content provider.

This is because the HTTP protocol environment is essentially ‘stateless’, with every request from your browser being completely separate to the next.

Cookies gave developers a method to overcome these limitations and, in turn, enabled the same user to have a distinct site experience based on their own individual cookie. Of course, the assumption was that cookies and users were linked, which as the internet grew in popularity, was not necessarily the case.

Types of cookies

First party cookies are those issued by the website or URL you are visiting. Third party cookies are those dropped by other companies.

This latter group is at the core of the privacy debates raging across Europe.

From their perspective, cookies are invaluable and underpin the service offering of marketing, media, tech, analytics, content and data companies who use the information stored in this little file to understand consumer behaviour, and in turn what type of product and/or services they are likely to respond to or demand in the future.

Session ID based tracking

Is the same as cookie based tracking but instead of passing user relevant details by using the cookie, the same details are passed back and forth directly between the browser and the server displaying the content.

Social/Login based tracking

This is becoming increasingly popular as a way of preparing for a ‘no cookie’ future and addressing the lack of persistency within the cookie world – as the majority of cookies only last for 30 days with consumers clearing their caches or using a browser that limits cookie collection.

Firefox, for example, includes an add-on Self-Destructing Cookies feature that has the ability to empty your cache if the consumer has not used the browser for a while.

Cache based tracking

Can be used for short term tracking by identifying an ETag ID with your individual browser and subsequently linking this to page content at a subsequent visit.

It is only useful for single session tracking and will need to be mapped against another ID to ensure the information collected can be matched against the same user when they are next seen.

Next generation tracking

A number of interesting technologies are emerging within the multi-screen marketplace to start linking users to devices outside of the session and cookie based format.

This is important as it starts to build a view of the consumer outside of solely the cookie view. This approach is normally centred around a user identity profile, based on different types of input to build certainty strength.

This profile data is then fed into the various middleware marketing technology platforms to better inform buying decision and create a more joined up media experience for the consumer.

Building a strategic owned data & media asset

The most important use of tracking data is to help build a Data Management Platform (commonly referred to as a DMP) to underpin marketing activities.

This allows companies to consolidate all their cookie, session, login & social and other customer data into a single view of the consumer, effectively a cross channel ID, that can be used as a trigger for any onsite and office activity such as personalization, optimization, content/creative experience or fed into a third party technology and tools.

This is especially important in finding new customers that look like existing audience segments. By prospecting in this way, DMPs become the backbone of balancing new and existing customer value and linked to attribution data marketeers will have both short term and long term value analysis by customer channel source.

Next time, I will explore more tracking technologies to look at viewability, dual screen synchronization and pull all this data into your analytics platform. 

Darren Goldie

Published 1 September, 2014 by Darren Goldie

Darren Goldie is Managing Partner, Digital  at Havas Media and a contributor on Econsultancy. 

9 more posts from this author

Comments (3)

Pete Austin

Pete Austin, CINO at Fresh Relevance

Couple of minor points:

(1) Companies other than the website you are visiting can drop first party cookies too - they are not restricted to third party cookies. For example my company does. There are significant advantages in this approach e.g. third party cookies are often blocked by default.

(2) The "single customer view" way of looking at customers is somewhat outdated, as more and more people use multiple devices. The link below discusses the math.

What a real-time marketing system actually has to deal with is multiple partial views of shoppers, like a bubbles on the surface of a pond, that are frothed up by by visitor activity and then merge together when the RTMS recognizes that two sessions are actually for the same person.

http://www.triggeredmessaging.com/blog/why-is-identifying-shoppers-a-huge-problem-in-todays-multichannel-world

over 2 years ago

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Darren Goldie

Appreciate your comments. Bubbles and froth aside, the single customer view is at the heart of many of our new client data management platforms for consolidating all their customer data (1st and 3rd). This ID is not based on cookie only data and the cross device mapping tech we use is 85%+ accurate for heuristic data and 98%ish accurate for login data (as you would expect). I will cover these points in more detail in the next issue. Cheers Darren

over 2 years ago

Pete Austin

Pete Austin, CINO at Fresh Relevance

Just to clarify, there seem to be two types of rates here:
* identification rate: the proportion of visitors who are recognized
* accuracy rate: of those visitors who are recognized, the proportion who are recognized correctly (and not mistaken for someone else).

over 2 years ago

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