Why email targeting is the perfect tonic for a cookieless future

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esbconnect CEO Suzanna Chaplin on why cookies always underwhelmed, how to build a first-party data strategy – and why email should be a go-to for effective audience targeting

So, the cookie is finally meeting its maker. Will we miss cookies, when it comes to audience targeting?

“I don’t think we will. Cookies underwhelm on a number of fronts, often simultaneously. For example, they artificially inflate audiences because they are designed to assume that a cookie represents an individual, rather than a device. Nowadays, the minimum number of devices the average person owns is two: a laptop and a smartphone. But for many, there is often also a work computer, a tablet, a smart household device such as an Amazon Echo, perhaps a connected TV. Each of these is likely to report a variety of different behaviours about the same person, meaning that a brand risks over-targeting an individual. 

“This can lead to basic, fundamental targeting errors. For example, cookies are used to measure web browsing and online shopping basket abandonment. So, if you browse for a purchase on your smartphone, but make the purchase on your laptop, advertisers will continue to retarget you regarding the product on your smartphone, despite the fact you’ve already made the purchase elsewhere. This can quickly become irritating for the consumer.

“Cookies also assume a device is purely personal, which is often not the case. Many households share a TV, smart device or computer. A parent is even likely to share their phone with a child. Cookies cannot handle the nuances of a shared device set-up, and as a result wrongly categorise people for targeting.”

How would you define a first-party data strategy? Is there a best practice for building one?

“For me, there are three characteristics that define a first-party data strategy. First, it must facilitate meaningful conversations with a brand’s potential audience, and help a brand understand who its consumers are. Secondly, the strategy must allow marketers to use information on their potential audience to find like-minded individuals. And thirdly, a first-party data strategy must use data to create personalised journeys across multiple channels and devices.

“There are a couple of steps to building a first-party strategy. First up, decide what data you want to collect from your customers. Start with the essentials – you’ll only put consumers off if you ask for too much information too soon. Next, look at what data attributes would enhance your targeting – for example: age, gender or salary. 

“Now consider why a consumer would give you this information. What is your justification for using it, and what value do they get in return?

“Think about how you can use external data to augment the information in your new database. If you have consumer postal addresses, can you map potential customers to the nearest store that stocks your brand?

“Once you understand what data you need to collect, focus on how you will use it. Create segments within your CRM to run different campaigns (email, SMS, social etc.), because it’s only once you start using the data that it will be apparent you’re missing information you may need.

“In all this, the most important thing is to demonstrate to the consumer why they benefit from giving you their data, and show them you intend to respect it.”

Why should email be the go-to channel for effective audience targeting… and what are the format’s unique benefits?

“A consumer’s inbox is a very personal space, and a place where people electively choose to browse marketing material. Googlemail has a whole tab dedicated to it, after all. 

“As a channel, email offers numerous benefits. From a brand awareness perspective, even if a consumer chooses not to open your email, they’ve read the subject line and ‘from’ address before deciding on a course of action. You’re getting your name out there.

“If an email is opened, a brand is now in a safe environment with 100% share of voice and huge potential for engagement. Consumers can opt out of an email database quickly, making it easy for marketers to understand what about their emails is or isn’t resonating. Email is also deterministic – the data has been provided by users, and is relevant to their preferences and actions.

“However, email is also powerful because it is both a channel and a form of ID, meaning you can take the data you have and elevate targeting in other channels.”

User consent is one of the hottest topics in digital marketing, but what makes email so good at protecting consumer privacy? 

“By its inherent nature, email is a channel that is built around respecting consumer privacy while incentivising engagement for marketers. As I’ve just mentioned, an email inbox is a private place. Brands are invited into these spaces via an opt-in system that also features a very simple opt-out opportunity for audiences. There aren’t many marketing channels that offer this kind of simplistic form of data control for the public, who also have a greater degree of control over the adverts they see.”

What does 2024 hold for email in the context of first party data and consent? 

“For marketers, email will become an increasingly important component in an ID spine. The consumer will have greater control over their data because of this, and if they choose to opt out at an email level – a concept the majority of consumers understand – this will also remove their consent from many other tracking IDs, protecting their information. 

“Any brands not collecting email data will suffer; they will find it difficult to know their audience, and attribution modelling will be harder as a result. That is because they will rely on weak probabilistic signals to guess how to target consumers and grow their revenues. 

“And while big players will continue to use privacy as a way to maintain a competitive advantage, those that build relationships with their customers and acquire their data through trust will ensure they control their own destiny.”