Publishers, Now Is Not the Time to Kick the Cookie Can Down the Road

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By Stephanie Himoff | Vice President, Global Publishers and Platforms at Outbrain 

If you’re a media owner who breathed a heavy sigh of relief when you heard that Google would be delaying the deprecation of third-party cookies on Chrome for another two years, your relief is perfectly understandable. Unfortunately, it’s also dangerous.

The move to a cookieless world isn’t like the dozens of other tech pivots that have kept publishers on their toes in recent years. This isn’t just a bridge to be crossed when publishers come to it. This move is the big one, and today’s publishers have been granted a gift they’ve rarely received in the past: time. It’s imperative that this gift not be squandered.

A History of Trauma

First off, let’s acknowledge that it’s entirely natural for publishers today to view Google’s delay announcement as a reason to relax their races toward solutions. Having worked with hundreds and hundreds of publishers during my time at Outbrain, I’ve seen firsthand how they have been conditioned in this fashion for more than a decade. Every algorithm change, every platform update, every privacy policy shift and every back-end tech tweak that has had an appreciable effect on publishers’ monetization models for more than a decade has come with little if any, warning. Publishers have become accustomed to living in a state of perpetual panic, and the result has been a pervasive culture of short-termism. Why plan for a change that’s years in the future when the injuries of a change that happened yesterday still require bandaging?


The problem is that the move to a cookieless reality isn’t a tweak. It’s not a recalibration or a pivot. It’s a wholesale upending of how the open web is monetized. And yes, it’s going to take a lot of work to overhaul the digital publishing landscape for what’s coming down the pike.

But here’s the good news: although this change is inevitable, publishers will be better off for it. In preparing for the deprecation of cookies, publishers are preparing for so much more. It’s about readying an entire industry for a healthier, cleaner, more sustainable and privacy-first future. The changes publishers make today will be the ones that give them a competitive edge in two years—and chart a course to furthering that edge into the foreseeable future.

Time to Accelerate Preparations

What publishers choose to do with the time that’s been granted to them will effectively reset the online publishing playing field for the decade to come. Those that accelerate preparations for a cookieless future now, versus two years from now, will emerge as industry leaders. And even if Google decides to alter course or push cookie deprecation out further, publishers who make the following key critical changes will start reaping the benefits of them immediately:

Employ novel ways to bolster first-party data: By now, most publishers realize they need to be devising new ways to tap into reader’s first-party data in order to strengthen their advertising and subscription programs going forward. But these efforts need to go further than log-in and freemium subscription prompts. They need to examine novel content integrations and partnerships that expand their first-party data understanding beyond what happens on their own sites. 

Develop an actionable timeline: As previously stated, it’s going to be a bigger chore than many publishers realise to not perceive this time as a bonus to be enjoyed, rather than an opportunity for trial and error. Resting on their laurels isn’t something publishers are accustomed to, making this is the perfect time to harness that unease into technical discovery and long-term preparation. Create a structured calendar for the next two years, wherein trial and error, new products, services, algorithms, approaches, etc. are tested, reviewed and encouraged. The old adage that “time is money” has never been truer than it is today and Google’s gift of time can be a gift of revenue if budgeted correctly. 

Identify and reward loyal readers. As a part of gaining a better understanding of readers, publishers also need to be drawing their highest-value readers closer to them and seeking more like them. This loyalty and lifetime value focus is commonly and effectively employed by brands looking to market their products to consumers or create opportunities to connect with readers beyond just digital offerings. It’s also a perfect (albeit often overlooked) strategy that can be employed by publishers to drive value among existing readers and find new ones like them. But to reward loyal readers, you first need to be able to identify who they are and what they care about. For many publishers, there’s substantial work to be done in this regard.

Above all, publishers need to maintain momentum behind their efforts to prepare for a privacy-first, cookieless world. The last 10 years of fire drills have conditioned the entire industry against longer-term planning cycles, but the forthcoming changes are unlike anything we’ve seen before. Publishers have been granted a reprieve, and they need to make the most of it. Now is the time to test, tinker and explore new solutions for a privacy-first world—ones that will lead to greater first-party data insights and deeper reader relationships. Don’t miss this unprecedented opportunity to emerge as a leader in the publishing world of the future.