November 1, 2023

An expert Q&A about data privacy

Santana Blanchette

Sometimes (ok, lots of times) us marketers deal with a whole lot of conflicting information and rapid changes. This is absolutely the case when it comes to the potentially cookieless future. We don’t know everything, but we do know these two things to be true:

  1. Consumer privacy is important and the laws/company policies protecting the privacy of those consumers are changing. Fast. 
  2. The impact of marketing spend needs to be measurable. We can’t report on vibes.

So what’s a good business leader and/or marketer to do with these two, seemingly at odds, facts? Well, that’s exactly what I sat down to interview our Associate Director of Strategy, Gemma Phillpot, about. For the sake of accuracy, we ask that you read Gemma’s answers in a delightful, British accent. 

Santana Blanchette: Oh hi Gemma! Can you give me an overview of what the current data privacy landscape is like?

Gemma Phillpot: Over the last, I'd say, 10 years, we’ve been on quite a journey. There really has been an increase in concern from consumers in regards to the privacy of their data. Where it’s being used, shared, stored — and who it’s being used and shared by. That increase in concern has meant ad publishers, browsers, app stores have really started to try to enforce their own restrictions on the data and pass power back to the consumer. Alongside that, we’ve also seen the rise of ad blockers. As you can imagine, this isn’t ideal for a marketer. 

There have been some really landmark moments in the privacy space, the first being GDPR which is a set of European privacy policies that really did forge the way forward for a lot of these privacy changes. Especially when it comes to onsite behavior. And then the CCPA (California Consumer Privacy Act) followed a few years later, changing the privacy landscape in the United States as well.  

Beyond that is the recent ios 14.5 rollout which really shook up the industry and started to coin this term of “a cookieless future” being ahead of us. What this has meant for marketers is that it’s harder than ever to accurately track user behavior. Particularly when a user lands on your site and you’re trying to gauge the success of your marketing efforts but can’t track their data and therefore can’t find your target audience as a result. When people aren’t accepting cookie policies, or they’re choosing not to share their data on a website, it really means that the ad platforms and the algorithms are having trouble finding those users at the right moment in time which obviously has a large impact on the ad industry. 

And from your perspective, what are common misconceptions about data privacy?

I would say there are a number of misconceptions but at the same time there is so much to this subject that it can snowball pretty quickly. So first, let’s look at it from a user perspective. Now more than ever the user has the ability to control what they opt in to and what they opt out of including what information a website collects via browser setting and website banners. Cookies now, for the most part, only really collect the data given to them via first-party data collection, information like an email address or your name. Some of this can come in handy because it has meant that websites in the past would remember that information so the user doesn’t have to return to that site and re-add it in any way. So one misconception here is that all cookies are bad or take all types of information.

As an agency we have biannual mandatory training around data compliance which tries to debunk a lot of myths from the client's perspective or a project's perspective in order for us to correctly advise our clients. Some of these myths include things like if a user doesn’t click accept or not accept on a site, or takes some affirmative action when it comes to their cookie banner, it assumes positive intent. This is actually completely illegal in the eyes of consent laws such as GDPR. A user has to click accept or accept the terms and conditions of data privacy in order for you to use their data. 

Additionally, at Thrive a majority of our clients are based in North America so there is this assumption that because these websites are not EU websites, they do not comply with the same cookie consent for something like GDPR. Again, completely illegal. If you are any website in the world receiving traffic from the EU or any other part of the world with specific data privacy laws, you are still subject to those compliances. So for us, we really need to make sure that our clients are adhering to these data privacy laws because it can be pretty catastrophic if they don't. Just from a legal and a compliance perspective it can result in some hefty fines. 

Finally, I think it’s important to say, this isn’t the end of the world for the marketing world. When a lot of this was happening and bubbling over with some of the Apple consent policies coming through, the cookieless future was very much a buzzword. It is something that we need to pay attention to but even now in a very short space of time, the marketing world has really started to adapt and think creatively around how they are collecting a lot of this data in a privacy safe way. One that’s not only useful to them from a business perspective but also has that user first mentality around how they’re using their data, where it’s being stored, and really making sure they’re being ethical around data privacy. So yeah, there’s definitely a good balance going on between data security and privacy vs ad marketing right now and a lot of the ad platforms have really started pivoting that way.

So how can marketers prepare for a cookieless future?

I would say, and I cannot stress this enough, first-party data is key. That first-party data gets collected and helps feed the ad platforms and algorithms. A lot of these ad platforms are using modeled conversion data to give directional insight on how platform tactics are performing. 

It’s important to implement some of those server side solutions to aid those ad platforms as well. For example Google introduced enhanced conversion tracking or the conversion API across Meta. Also make sure you’re using the most up to date attribution models like data driven attribution on the Google side.

And then finally, as it has been a hot topic, the transition over to GA4 from Google Universal Analytics. Make the swap over, but ensure all of your data is being piped in correctly and you’re really leaning on first-party data to drive your platform algorithms. 

We actually wrote a couple of blogs on preparing for the cookieless future and how to measure performance in a cookieless world . You should read for more in-depth advice and understanding. 

How does the cookieless future impact our ability to measure marketing?

For Thrive in particular, the difficulties we’ve had as a result of the data privacy changes and the incoming cookieless future have really meant that we’ve had to find more creative ways to measure the impact of performance marketing on our clients' business. So far we’ve leaned into our data and analytics service, folding in incrementality tests across all our clients on a periodic basis because this really is the most accurate way to measure performance marketing. It isn’t reliant on the data we’re feeding ad platforms or on what the ad platforms are telling us. We can clearly see when we turn one part of our marketing off we see a certain amount of revenue decline for our clients.

It’s just making sure we’re adapting our service and our service offering so our clients are getting the most out of performance marketing tactics in the most accurate way.


Stay up to Date

Sign up for our mailing list to get our blogs straight to your inbox when we publish them.