The impending death of the third-party cookie has understandably received a lot of attention from marketers, media agencies and measurement companies – particularly in the pharma industry.
Cookies – those little pieces of information
left by websites and saved on browsers, allowing marketers to track online
behavior and browsing history – have formed the backbone of many of the digital
media tactics pharma marketers have relied on in recent years. Moreover, they
provided the industry with countless insights that made our jobs more
efficient, helped us to better understand our audiences and got us closer to
the truth behind the numbers.
Just five or so years ago, cookies provided us
with fantastic new measurement tools that both opened our eyes to new realities
and confirmed old assumptions about digital media. Cookies-based measurement
helped marketers realize that organic traffic, especially from social channels
like Facebook and Twitter, was most impactful. Cookies showed us that endemic
advertising drove action and that programmatic advertising could be
Not everything about cookies has been perfect
from a measurement perspective; in some cases, for example, cookies-based
measurement has facilitated an environment that favors efficiency over context.
However, as new privacy controls and regulations continue to crumble away
third-party cookies, so does some of the progress, solutions and the insights
they’ve yielded. As a result, pharma marketers, media agencies and measurement
companies are searching for cookie-less tactics to ensure they can still reach
their target audiences.
There has already been some headway, with some
companies reaching back to old solutions, namely relying on email addresses to
identify and connect users through active opt-ins. While this is a logical
first step – go with what you know – we learned from experience that opt-in
only measurement makes it difficult to discern traffic that is truly
representative of actual audiences. This runs the risks of compounding problems
we are already experiencing in terms of representation in measurement.
Therefore, it is important for pharma
marketers to keep in mind that a few numbers from a results report may not tell
the whole story about target audiences and their online – or offline –
behaviors. As such, it is necessary for the industry as a whole, including
measurement companies, to find ways to measure – possibly through re-weighted
analysis and first-party data integrations – that are clearly representative of
audience behaviors and needs.
Death of Social Traffic Measurement, Or the Canary in the Cookies Coal Mine
Safari, which represents a majority of mobile
browser usage, hasn’t allowed use of third-party cookies since September 2018.
And Google, which represents two-thirds of desktop browser usage via Chrome,
has been gradually modifying its cookies policy and plans to eliminate them
entirely by 2022. As calls for increased privacy continue to get louder and
more public – logically and understandably – even more tech companies will
But the dissolution of cookies is not new, as
publishers who count on social traffic know very well. Following the Cambridge
publishers from collecting personal information, including cookies and device
IDs, from users browsing in-app. As a result, it became increasingly difficult
for publishers who received traffic to their content from Facebook to recognize
and identify those visitors, and near-impossible for measurement companies to
connect those advertising impressions to identifiers that enable marketers to
track downstream impact. For pharma marketers, it meant social-driven traffic
to their advertising campaigns was under-represented (or ignored) in impact
analyses, potentially affecting willingness to invest in similar campaigns in
Social channels can be useful for driving organic traffic, where a person sees content, identifies with it, and chooses to visit the site. Additionally, social platforms like Facebook have algorithms that help identify people who have interest in certain types of content and then serve them with more, relevant articles. Taken together, early analytic measurement showed the value of social in driving audiences and action.
However, once Facebook eliminated use of
third-party cookies to collect personal information, the positive impact of
social traffic on ad campaigns began to dissipate, with search – the main
driver for measurable traffic – becoming the proxy for performance. As a
result, social measurement is essentially living in a “cookie-less”
world today. Social publishers are being measured mainly by the value of the
search traffic they receive, which is not representative of the business model
In the end, clients lose the ability to
optimize media funds accurately, leaving them in a pickle as measurement is
only as good as the sample it can collect. Without cookies, current media
measurement methods can potentially overlook the context and behaviors of
people who find content via social vs. search or other methods.
Fortunately, measurement companies recognize
these issues with social measurement and are actively working on solutions.
These companies see the trends in social measurement as a canary in the coal
mine, an indicator of the issues to come when cookies officially disappear
completely, not just for social publishers.
Going Back to the Future, Or Email Opt-Ins Are Our Density… Umm, Destiny
Not too long ago, before the industry realized
how to harness cookies in a more analytical way, registered users who provided
an email address were a key tool to measure ROI for pharma marketers. At that
time, email addresses were the only way to link to patients’ health records in
a way that was HIPAA-compliant.
As the reign of cookies comes to an end, I
have read and heard a lot about turning back to measurement methods that rely
on a website’s opted-in members who provide emails. Because registered users
agree to privacy terms, this measurement allows for privacy-compliant methods
to collect and connect personal information. So it makes sense that email
identification is a leading candidate for the future of pharma digital
Up until about five years ago, when digital
measurement based on cookies became widespread, it was well-known that
measurement based on registered users was lacking. The limitations were simple:
registered users are often not representative of a site’s traffic.
What’s frustrating to the pharma marketer is
that, with increasing barriers to third-party cookies, the measurement data
available from 2015 to 2017 was more representative than it is today. And
today’s data is going to be better than what’s coming next. As measurement
enhancements and methodologies evolve to safeguard privacy of personal
information, it appears we are (unfortunately) regressing in our ability to
measure a fully representative audience.
It is likely that whatever pharma measurement tool the industry lands on, whether that be email opt-ins or new tech integrations, will have some consequences that could – at least temporarily – set back our understanding of how online advertising impacts offline health behaviors. Measurement has extraordinary value, but the best way forward is to recognize that big data solutions require critical understanding of how data collection and methodology impact results.
If I have heard it once, I have heard it a thousand times: organic marketing on Facebook is dead. Pay-to-play, experts say, is the only way to really reach desired audiences. Regardless of industry, this has been the overall takeaway.
This clarion call has only gotten louder since Facebook announced in January that it would further prioritize content from friends and family on users’ News Feeds (see here for Facebook’s current commercial). This effectively makes it nearly impossible for brands’ organic content to rank high enough to be seen and forces them to spend more on paid ads.
Well, to paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the death of organic Facebook marketing have been greatly exaggerated. The first step to successfully fighting off that organic content death knell is identifying what connects Facebook users to those friends and family whose content will be prioritized: relationship.
Relationship Required for Effective Organic AND Paid
The challenge – for brands, at least – is that Facebook feeds effectively reflect what we want to do and see in real life. As users, we are interested in what our family members are up to; get excited about friends’ baby announcements; and engage with people on their opinion about new movies.
All of these things are built around our unique relationships, and, to be blunt, reading a post from a pharmaceutical campaign doesn’t typically rise to that same level. In general, a brand’s priorities are not about the Facebook user; they’re about the brand. It’s possible for a brand to establish a trustworthy relationship with users, but it requires commitment.
What exactly do I mean when I talk about a relationship on Facebook? Despite Facebook being a technology platform, the relationships are still human. They can be emotional, educational and supportive. Ultimately, two-way conversations are the cost of entry for a true relationship.
If a brand creates content that allows for meaningful conversation and has a clear benefit to users, it will start to receive likes, comments, and shares. As that brand’s content consistently receives engagement, Facebook will increasingly deem this a real relationship and make it more likely for that content to appear organically in the feed.
Organic growth will slowly occur as people share posts with their friends, who then share the posts with their friends. Eventually, brands will begin to build relationships via these people who are connected by shared interests. For those with patience, there is power in organic growth.
Of course, for those with less patience who want to reach more people quickly, it then is necessary to pay to promote content. However, a marketer with good Facebook user relationships – and, as a result, successful organic content – won’t need to pay as much. Facebook understands the value of relationships to users, as well as the value of those relationships to the relevance of the entire platform. Therefore, it doesn’t want to waste feed real estate – no matter how much brands pay them – on poor relationships.
How Most DTC Marketing Content Falls Short
Unfortunately, pharmaceutical brands don’t necessarily have the infrastructure to create authentic, relationship-building content that truly meets patients where they are. For a multitude of reasons – including risk, regulatory issues, and the lack of a core competency in creating content – it is nearly impossible for marketers to engage in open-ended conversations via social and digital platforms, including via unbranded campaigns. This reality limits the organic potential.
Marketers of unbranded campaigns often create generic content relevant to a perceived majority of people living with a specific condition or focused around a celebrity with some relationship to that condition.
However, not every person has the same experience with a specific condition. From symptoms to family life dynamics, people are as diverse as their feeds. Regardless, pharma brands spend a lot of money and resources forcing generic content into people’s Facebook feeds that doesn’t truly foster a relationship. Making matters worse, it creates a vicious cycle of overpaying.
What Marketers Need to Do
As marketers, we need to create a range of personal content that speaks to people at various stages of their journeys. This content must encompass a wide variety of emotional, educational and comprehension levels. For example, it’s important to include posts about clinical trials for those who are more inquisitive and proactive about treatments along with lifestyle articles about how tough it can be to wake up in the morning for the newly diagnosed.
The intent behind this is not simply to increase reach, which it still does. On a greater scale, it establishes that a brand is willing to understand where people are in their patient journeys, as well as the information, resources, and conversations they need. This increases the likelihood that a Facebook user with a specific condition will find content relevant and worthy of engagement. That engagement then makes it more likely to push that marketer’s content toward the top of that user’s feed.
There are two major obstacles here. First, it’s not easy to just start creating relatable posts, engaging around it on Facebook, and assuming it will have impact as organic content. Marketers need to be fully committed to having a two-way relationship with people and everything that entails.
Second, as mentioned previously, pharmaceutical brands can only do so much on social and digital channels, due to the regulatory environment. Therefore, the first step is to get into the mindset of “meeting people where they are.” This is done by being open to and then creating promotional campaigns, tools, and ads that show the brand understands various aspects of the patient journey, as opposed to creating a single ad or promoted post that might only be relevant to a subset of people with a condition.
However, to truly get the desired organic reach on Facebook, brands should invest in the necessary resources to understand people’s needs. The best way to do this is by partnering with companies adept at listening to relevant condition-specific conversations, moderating engagement, and adapting messaging. In short, these partnerships are the relationships brands need to create and maintain meaningful relationships on Facebook.