The cookie nears its sell-by date - but it's not down to the EU

The public face of the impact of the EU cookie law in the UK has been a seemingly never-ending clicking of ‘I agree’ to read content or make a purchase since the Directive was implemented. But what has been the impact on the industry?


Certainly there hasn’t been any formal enforcement action from the Information Commissioners’ Office. In comparison to the 39,000 complaints the ICO received about unsolicited marketing communications (ie spam) between July and September 2013, only 73 cookie complaints were logged over the same period. That was down from 250 between April and June 2012, when the Directive came into force. In turn this has prompted the ICO to write to 265 organisations under a strategy in which it says it is prioritising the 200 most-viewed web sites.


“We haven’t taken any formal enforcement action to date, as we have been able to informally resolve all cases,” a spokesperson for the ICO said.


So the truth is, there hasn’t been very much of an impact at all. Privacy campaigners may one day look back on the Directive as being a pivotal point in the fight against the cookie but when the cookie does finally get consigned to digital marketing history it will have very little to do with any law.


Different sources offer varying insights in to the prevalence of cookie deletion. One blogger, Teague Dugan from digital measurement and analytics consultancy Semphonic, believes that between 0.5% and 4% of first party cookies are blocked and deleted and this has stayed relatively stable. However, for a range of digital advertising clients, third party cookie deletion rates have risen, approximately by half, between October 2010 and October 2012 from 8%-9% to 12%-16%.


ComScore has also calculated that around one in three computers are routinely scanned for cookies which are deleted, leading to around a quarter of first party cookies and a third of third party cookies being deleted as a European average. Furthermore, considering that two in three computers are shared, the efficacy of cookies in tracking a single person is increasingly coming in to question.


Is the cookie crumbling?


Whatever the figures, the future of the cookie is pretty clear, and as Tom Wood, managing director at web and app developer and marketing agency OneBite points out, has been so for quite some time.


“The cookie’s going to be usurped not because of any privacy legislation but because they’re of no use for cross-device analysis and attribution,” he says. “Technology such as IP resolution, which looks at IP addresses, and technology which can identify and differentiate people by the devices they’re logged on to will take the cookie’s place.”


Indeed, for David Schruers, country manager for mobile advertising delivery business Sam4Mobile, the writing is on the wall for the cookie. Not only does it not apply to the mobile sector but even on the desktop the main browser provides are turning their backs on it.


“The main browsers are moving to a position where they’re not going to share universal cookies, so third parties are going to find they don’t have access to them,” he says. “When you consider that mobile browsing doesn’t have cookies, then it’s clear something else will be needed. It’s likely that Microsoft and Google will still have a lot of cookie data you can tap in to through their own advertising businesses or perhaps pay to get access to through a potential service in the future.


“I think people are increasingly going to be tracked by what they’re logged on to when on their devices, such as Google or Facebook or any other social media network, in combination with ‘finger printing’ technologies which can recognise a device.”


This prediction is shared by Victor Milligan, chief marketing officer, at mobile advertising exchange Nexage.


“Technology which can correlate mobile activity with desktop activity is coming on at great pace so advertisers can track a person anonymously and see which activity on one device or channel has led to which action on another,” he says. “This will definitely replace the cookie, not because the cookie is particularly bad but just because the emphasis is moving over to mobile and tablets now and the cookie has never been a part of that world.”


Death reports exaggerated


For the time being, though, it would appear the cookie is hanging on. Stuart Brann, head of marketing at cashback site, Quidco, points out the initial hype that “the EU cookie law would kill affiliate marketing hasn’t materialised”. In fact, because of a slight increase in cookie deletion he believes the service works better, because fewer cookies are accepted and only the latest are applied. Hence he reports the number of failed or queried transactions has reduced in recent months.


What did happen, though, according to Rex Lakhani, head of social at digital marketing agency Lucre, was that a lot of web developers and consultants made a lot of money from frightened brands who wanted to remain compliant.


“The only potential impact could be that from a budgetary perspective; some marketers had to spend contingency pots of money on the implementation of cookie consent notifications and as such have had to claw money back from other pots earmarked for digital marketing,” he postulates.


While the vast majority of digital marketers expect the cookie to be replaced, the main disagreement comes over timing. Mobile marketers play up the likelihood that their tracking tools, developed in a cookie-free environment, are destined to become the de facto standard. On the other hand, those from a desktop background point out that, while not perfect, the cookie has lasted for years and has many years left.


Interestingly, nobody is talking in terms of less than years. So even despite the EU Cookie Law, and the accompanying talk of doom, the cookie isn’t so much crumbling as ever-so-gently flaking as e-commerce, and hence advertising, transitions to encompass mobile platforms.

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