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The travel industry's growing cookie problem: What needs to happen over the next two years to solve it

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To put it simply: get to know your customers, and you’ll be able to reach them - and others like them - more effectively, even when the third-party cookie jar has been emptied.

The travel industry has certainly faced its share of hardships recently. First, travel restrictions and lockdowns imposed due to the coronavirus forced the world to a standstill, leading to over $750 billion in losses – and without any clear timeline on when travel will be able to get back to normal. Secondly, the impending loss of third-party cookies has required travel companies to completely reinvent their advertising and targeting strategies, with serious consequences if they get it wrong. 

Luckily for them - and everyone else in the marketing industry - Google has lengthened the timeline for cookie deprecation until late 2023. Travel brands that had procrastinated adopting cookieless solutions might feel as though they can breathe a sigh of relief – but the reality is that kicking the can further down the road will only make it more difficult to adjust to a new advertising reality. 

The loss of the third party cookie will only compound the existing challenges that travel brands face, from intense competition to declining customer loyalty. Without the cookie or a proper alternative, companies will struggle to achieve ROI and attract customers. Most of marketers’ current advertising tools are not built for a cookieless world – and it’s not as though they can flick a switch and be ready instantly.

So, what can the travel industry do to make the most of their additional time, and ensure they can survive and thrive in a post-cookie world?

Get personal
As anyone who’s planned or researched a trip online knows, a single Google search for a travel destination can lead to an explosion of ads for hotels, airfare deals, nearby attractions, and more. These ads are made possible by third-party cookies, which enable brands to target people who are interested or most likely to show interest in their products and services even if they lack a direct relationship with those consumers. Third-party cookies also give brands the opportunity to learn more about the behaviours and habits of their audience, which in turn fuels the delivery of personalised advertising experiences and offers. 

There’s no question that third-party cookies can be intrusive. But the reality is that personalisation is an important way for brands - especially in the travel sector - to stand out from their competitors. The best hospitality brands are those that are able to anticipate the needs of their customers and provide an experience that is tailored to each person’s preferences - not only in the physical world, but also in the digital realm. 

Without information from cookies, travel companies will have to rely more on first-party data. Luckily, the travel industry is in a better position to solicit information, because most companies have loyalty programmes in place that incentivise logging in. With that said, customer loyalty is no longer a guarantee, and plenty of people are members of multiple loyalty programmes - which means that the brand that’s able to provide the best, most personalised user experience (as well as the best deals) is the one that will benefit the most. 

To put it simply: get to know your customers, and you’ll be able to reach them - and others like them - more effectively, even when the third-party cookie jar has been emptied.

Get your addressability back on track
One of the biggest headaches generated by the loss of third-party cookies is the problem of attribution. With cookies, you could match an action - such as watching an ad or visiting a website- to an individual. This enabled marketers to get a good sense of the most effective places to spend their budgets, while steering clear of any money pits. 

According to one marketer for a major hospitality brand, the loss of third-party cookies will “make our jobs harder and harder, to justify how the marketing dollars are performing. Once we lose the ability to track who the customer is, it’s very hard for us to go back and explain.” Obviously, this is not a challenge unique to the travel industry, and I don’t think anyone questions the need for advertising in a crowded market. But it could make companies decide to fall back on “conventional wisdom” instead of pursuing new channels and opportunities, which in turn would lead to more sluggish returns all around. 

Unfortunately, there is no simple solution to this problem. Marketers will have to adopt a number of different addressability solutions, from probabilistic targeting to contextual to browser-based cohorts. Universal IDs are another vital tool that allow marketers to match authenticated individuals against their user profiles and provide assurance that they are reaching the correct audiences. 

With the extra time now allotted, brands should take this opportunity to test out various addressability alternatives to determine what mix will work best for their organisations. By experimenting now, marketers will get a better sense of what gaps in their data need to be addressed, as well as what additional tools or partners might be required to achieve maximum ROI.

Expand your digital reach
The loss of third-party cookies is particularly painful for an industry that is rife with fierce competition. For example, hotel brands currently have to compete not only amongst themselves, but also with Airbnb and any one else with a spare room to rent. As we inch closer to the cookieless future, travel companies have to speed up their digitisation strategies to make sure they can maximise the impact of their advertising budgets. 

By digitising your efforts now, you can set yourself up to activate and orchestrate personalised campaigns across multiple channels. Now is also the time to bring data captured from multiple sources - booking engines, hotel records, historical data- and unify it in one single platform in order to extract as much value as possible. That will make it easier on the addressability front, too, as you can get a better sense of who your customers are and what their customer journey looks like. 

Act now, or fall behind
By far the most important thing travel brands can do to mitigate the potential damage from the loss of cookies is to act quickly to find alternatives. Google’s recent announcement to delay the phasing out of third party cookies until late 2023 is a testament to the challenges in identifying and implementing these alternatives. Whether it’s implementing a universal identifier, investing in a CDP or doubling down on personalisation, brands need to start plotting out what their advertising will look like once third party cookies disappear for good.

Some actions to take now include:

  • Focus on first-party data collection by incentivising users to log in to provide personalised, engaging experiences
  • Invest in a data management platform like a CDP to handle your first-party data and ensure compliance with privacy regulations
  • Test out various methods of addressability to see what performs best for your organisation and what blind spots need to be taken care of before cookies are gone for good.

This is the travel industry's second chance to get ready for the cookieless future. They won't get another one.

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