Skip to main content

Digital Acceleration Brings Cookieless Future Into Focus

grid of user data

Once a ubiquitous way to track Internet users, the era of cookies is ending. Ushering in this evolution is a multidevice world where new channels like over-the-top (OTT) and connected TV (CTV) are experiencing significant growth.

Many solutions — universal IDs, walled gardens, device graphs, contextual targeting — have been proposed ahead of our cookieless future. I believe Winterberry Group’s latest research, Identity Outlook 2020, summarized the most likely outcome best: “No one solution will rule them all.” I agree—all of these tactics are likely to play a role. Marketers and the companies serving them only need to look at our current climate of accelerated digitization to understand why the next phase will support a variety of solutions.

Recent months saw a surge in consumer streaming, news and social media content consumption. While these trends were prompted by the pandemic, the accelerated adoption of digital technology may shift brands’ approach to a cookieless world. Short- and long-term-minded brands are likely to refocus on identity-driven activation across the media ecosystem.

The immediate need for efficiency

Walled gardens like Facebook, Amazon, Google and Apple continue seizing bits of the open web, creating a bifurcated view of digital defined by logged in and anonymous users. This creates two challenges. First, proprietary IDs exist within walled gardens and don’t allow for interoperability or spend optimization across channels at a time when ROI is king. Secondly, as cookies depart, anonymous users will be more difficult to capture.

A tough market ahead will favor solutions that translate to bottom-line efficiencies. Brands’ recent uptick in audience targeting demonstrates an interest in portability where a single solution can be implemented and measured across platforms and even closed ecosystems. This portability requires an understanding and linking of the identifiers proliferating the media landscape in response to the demise of the cookie.

In the short term, those data partners with identifiers such as mobile advertising IDs (MAIDs) and hashed emails that sync audiences across ecosystem platforms will win. As a more pronounced and disparate media landscape of logged in users forms, however, no single identity component can guide us forward without some risk and missed opportunities. As marketers look to diversify the identity assets by which they activate campaigns, it’s important to note a key takeaway from Winterberry Group’s research, that cooperation will best position identity solutions, media owners and publishers to compete against the scale of the walled gardens.

Mid-term calls for longevity

Industry experts, in their interviews with Winterberry Group, recently suggested identifiers like MAIDs and hashed emails could face a similar fate to cookies. Proxy device and behavior tracking like fingerprinting also drew doubts, which should caution marketers against over-reliance on a single identifier.

On the other hand, the buy-in and standardization needed for a universal ID becomes complicated by factors like mergers and acquisition – particularly in areas like convergent TV and first-party data – and that existing universal and shared IDs (see Advertising ID Consortium or Digitrust) are falling by the wayside due to their stock in cookies.

Any singular identifier or tactic such as contextual targeting can certainly be one step to understanding users. However, at the most basic level, identity traces back to primary name and address. This people-based identity — not devices — is critical in the evaluation of longevity.

ID graphs are based on person-level data to connect signals from devices, platforms and channels to a single, persistent view, recognizing users as the same person or household across the places they interact with content.

It’s clear marketers need support in validating, resolving and expanding their understanding of identity, as some estimates show only half feel fully capable identifying customers across devices or building a single customer profile from disjointed data points. Further, the sensitive nature of identity components requires a basis of trust between marketers and partners to establish and enforce privacy-safe standards and frameworks that enable solutions.

Long-term play for trust

The progress of proposed state legislation, and even a potential federal privacy law, will eventually resume. Partners with the expertise to address stringent data security and privacy requirements are best positioned to rise to the challenge of this heightened scrutiny.

Given current marketplace trends, any path forward must take an integrated approach with the customer data many brands have made a cornerstone of their digital strategy. As Winterberry pointed out, the focus on first-party data is accelerating across the ad tech ecosystem and becoming one of the main factors impacting the identity landscape. This strengthens the need for an identity solution and partner that can address the processes and procedures to steward data with the same care brands apply to their own customer data.

Identity as the foundation to compete

Consumer identity is the long-term, constant foundation to reach across a proliferation of devices and platforms.

At its core, identity can help marketers survive a transitory market fueled by accelerated digitization, economic downturns, and the waves of change taking place as all market players seek a cookie alternative. Especially after the pandemic proved how quickly consumer sentiment, content consumption and buying behaviors can shift, brands are more likely than ever to consider investing in solutions offering more targeting flexibility at a time of rapid change.

It’s clear solutions capable of matching offline profiles to online users in a privacy-safe way have staying power. In going up against walled gardens and a bifurcated open web, the major differentiator will be the ability to precisely identify and securely pass depersonalized audiences across the ecosystem in a measurable way.


The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of TransUnion. The information contained in this blog is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal or financial advice.  You should consult your own attorney or financial adviser regarding your particular situation.  TransUnion does not guarantee the accuracy or completeness of the information provided.  The appearance of external hyperlinks does not constitute an endorsement by TransUnion.  TransUnion LLC and its subsidiaries and affiliates (“TransUnion”) make no endorsement, recommendation, or representation with respect to the information provided herein. For complete details of TransUnion products, visit

Do you have questions? Our team is ready to help.