How to Use Data Driven Marketing and Cookies

By David Semmelroth

The data driven marketing information you have about your customer is spread out across your enterprise, and not all of it is easily associated with individual customers. If your website is designed as an e-commerce site — that is, customers can purchase online — then many of the problems of the offline world go away.

There isn’t a problem linking transaction data to the customer profile that is created when a customer registers. But identifying users, even if they are registered, can sometimes be a problem.

Using cookies to identify users in data driven marketing

A cookie is a file that a website deposits on a user’s machine. It’s basically the website’s way of writing itself a reminder note about something. Sometimes cookies are used to facilitate the login process on your website. When a user registers on your site, you can drop a cookie on their machine that remembers the username they registered under.

Then when the user returns to your site, you can serve up a login page that has the username pre-populated. Cookies can also be used as a routine security check. If a registered user tries to log in from a machine that doesn’t contain your username cookie, you can prompt them to answer a security question to validate that they’re really who you think they are.

You can use cookies to link together information about different browsing sessions. Knowing what the user typically browses for allows you to serve up relevant content. Ideally you would like to have the user registered, because that gives you a full picture of their contact information and preferences.

But there is a situation in between. For example, someone can register on your site and provide you all the information you want. But if they log off and later return, they may not bother to log in.

In this situation, a cookie can be very helpful. When they come back to your site, the cookie remembers their username, even though they haven’t logged in. This allows you to access their information in the customer’s registration profile and serve up content accordingly.

If they decide to make a purchase, you need to get them to log in to verify that it’s really them. But while they are shopping, there’s nothing wrong with looking up their registration information and addressing them as Mr. Semmelroth, as opposed to dave3784.

The data driven marketing deleted cookie problem

Cookies aren’t a magic bullet for identifying and tracking web browsing behavior. Many users choose to delete cookies for one reason or other. Different browsers treat cookies differently. It’s also possible for users to completely block websites from depositing cookies.

Estimates of the percentage of users who delete or block cookies run as high as 40 percent. But there are some nuances to cookies that make these types of estimates a little hard to interpret. First of all, cookies come in a couple different varieties.

Your online banking website probably deposits cookies on your computer to aid in security and identification and to allow you to customize certain features of your session. These cookies, deposited by the website you’re visiting, are known as first-party cookies.

Most people don’t generally block or delete these cookies. Deleting them frequently makes sites more inconvenient to use. For example, if a user blocked or deleted cookies on their machine, they’d have to re-enter their location every time they checked the weather forecast rather than having it appear automatically.

The stocks they follow, the baseball scores, and a host of other things that appear automatically when they visit certain sites would all have to be re-entered on every visit without these first-party cookies.

The cookies that are more frequently blocked or deleted are third-party cookies. These are cookies that are placed on your machine by websites other than the one you’re visiting — typically websites who are paying for advertising or tracking web surfing behavior. People are far more likely to block these cookies altogether. In fact, Apple’s Safari web browser blocks all third-party cookies by default.

Most of the studies that have been done regarding cookie blocking and deletion take this third-party versus first-party cookie distinction into account. These studies also have a time frame associated with them. For example, 40 percent of users either block third-party cookies altogether or delete third-party cookies at least once a month. In contrast, users rarely block first-party cookies because that makes web surfing difficult.

The data driven marketing device problem

Fully understanding your customer’s online behavior requires knowing what they’re doing on all their devices. This is no small task.

These devices are all connected to our private wireless network and from there to the Internet. And that’s just while we’re at home. When we’re away, eight of those devices can be connected to the internet via wireless hotspots, and six of them frequently use cellphone networks to access the web.

It’s extremely difficult for marketers to connect the myriad browsing, shopping, and purchasing behavior among all these devices and access points. There is no magic bullet for it. The most effective way of tying customer browsing behavior together is still to get them to log in to your site when they’re browsing. Short of that, you need to take advantage of the browsing information that you do have available.

Another challenge related to mobile devices is that content needs to be designed differently. It isn’t just a matter of serving up web content on a smartphone. Companies create separate, pared-down, “mobile friendly” websites for smartphones and tablets, for example. These sites typically have limited content compared to the full-blown website.