Clare Kirlin, meltmedia

On January 14, Google announced its plan to phase out third-party cookies from its Chrome browser by 2022 — joining Mozilla, Safari and Microsoft in a movement to render third-party cookies all but extinct.

Cookie skepticism is nothing new. In 1997, the New York Times published a prescient letter to the editor that stated: “By the clever use of ‘cookies’ (tracking technology inserted in your computer without your knowledge by Web site advertisers), marketers can track your (and your child’s) Web journeys, using the data they obtain to create a cyber-profile.”

Twenty-three years later, the gravity of such concerns has tipped the scales. Whether you consider it corporate benevolence, a self-serving ploy or something in between, Google’s decision is a big deal.

In healthcare, the implications of user data collection are massive. Despite legal mandates and corporate pledges, investigations have revealed the unauthorized collection and sale of protected health information (PHI) and personally identifying information (PII) by both publishers and advertisers — enabled by third-party cookies.

Healthcare at large, and pharma in particular, hit rock bottom in Gallup’s most recent public sentiment rankings. Data management is a major driver of (mis)trust; the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer report for healthcare advises brands that the best way to earn it back is by using “the most secure data protection system available.”

But as cookie restrictions tighten, marketers have devised workarounds. Fingerprinting, for instance, combines data from multiple sources to reconcile users’ identities based on their device profile and analyzing factors like time zone, operating system and – ironically – cookie preferences. It isn’t 100% accurate, but it’s close: Only 1 in 286,777 browsers share a fingerprint. 

The tactic is controversial; it approximates third-party cookies while technically playing by the rules, often without user consent. For its part, Google derides fingerprinting as “invasive” and “opaque.”

However this situation plays out, healthcare marketing will need to adapt. Here are five things you can do to prepare for the inevitable change ahead. 

1. Shift your metrics.

Brands that rely on isolated channel metrics should reassess. Programmatic data helps you price bids and evaluate agencies, but what’s the value beyond that? Can you articulate the impact on core business objectives, or attribute revenue? If your team lacks a holistic view of marketing effectiveness, the death of third-party cookies is a useful reminder to start now.

2. Invest in contextual targeting.

Premium publisher inventory is expensive, and the disappearance of third-party cookies may cause scarcity that drives cost even higher. But don’t overlook the ‘R’ in ROI. Contextual ad placement has an especially positive effect on healthcare brand favorability. High-cost impressions are high-cost because they generate more meaningful customer connections. Which is the whole point, isn’t it?

3. Build first-party strategies.

The value of an anonymous user is… well, it’s impossible to say. A registered lead, however, is precisely quantifiable. Some brands have diluted investment across platforms that yield low-value interactions and useless data on sheer diversification principle. Owned media is not to be neglected. Incentivize users to exchange personal information for something of value, then treat their data as the precious resource that it is.

4. Lean on vendors.

There’s a reason you pay agencies. Few brands have the internal resources to stay ahead of a yottabyte-sized digital universe that changes by the millisecond. Specialist partners offer the insight, strategies and expertise you need to operate a successful marketing machine today. If they’re any good, they anticipated these changes long ago.

5. Consider it a win.

Just because we can’t predict how tracking restrictions will change marketing doesn’t mean they’ll change it for the worse. Healthcare’s reputation is tanking because customers are frustrated with the careless handling of sensitive information. Standing behind privacy-based restrictions can send a powerful signal, restore credibility, and rebuild trust with a cynical public.

Clare Kirlin is marketing director at meltmedia