How Social Platforms Use Cookie & User Data

Re-published with iOS 14.5 launch. Original publish date was March 29, 2021.

As if the iOS14 updates weren’t enough of a disruption to cause significant concern, marketers now have to prepare for another massive shift, with browser cookies set to be phased out in the months ahead. While the impending iOS14 changes present some very difficult challenges to advertisers, the news of browser cookies’ retirement has sent all digital marketers into a panicked frenzy. Cookies are fundamental to digital media. They’re a part of the primordial soup of the ‘web.’ They are what allows marketers to connect the dots in an increasingly chaotic digital world. Understanding how social platforms use cookie and user data today will help ease the transition into a cookieless world tomorrow. Let’s dive into what this lost connection means in the social media world.

How are cookies utilized by social platforms?

Cookies are used in a lot of ways that shouldn’t be surprising to anyone familiar with their basic function, being small files used to store information on web browsers. There are a number of uses for them, depending on the platform, but across most social channels, there is some common ground amongst them. Simple things like verifying your account to determine when you’re logged in so that you can access their app/site easier. They assist in security measures/verification, help load preferences like language specifications, or even UX settings you have enabled/disabled (e.g. dim or default display backgrounds on Twitter).

Most social platforms will tell you they use two different types of cookies, persistent and session. Session cookies will only last as long as your current visit to their site or browser session. Persistent cookies, however, last beyond your individual session/visit and are responsible for much more. Persistent cookies are an integral connection that helps influence a myriad of different categories, from analytics and insights to ad personalization and measurement. 

Much of the data provided by cookies has helped shape how we use social platforms today. For example: Snapchat can use cookies to learn more about which features are the most popular with users and which ones might need some tweaks. For Twitter, cookies help inform which parts of your Twitter timeline or Periscope Global Feed you have viewed already so that they can show you the appropriate, new content. 

But cookies don’t only benefit the platform developers; they are also an important element for advertising initiatives. And although there are many similarities between cookies and advertising pixels, they are different tools. While the Facebook Pixel and LinkedIn Insight tag are incredibly important for successful social media ad campaigns, it’s the cookie that helps measure things such as ad exposure, enabling platforms to limit the amount of times you see an ad, count the number of times that an ad is shown, and ultimately calculate the cost of those ads.

What happens when cookies go away?

As is the case with all yet-to-be-implemented changes, the full effect of cookies going away is hard to fully realize at this time. Cookie deprecation in conjunction with the iOS14 app transparency tracking update puts advertisers in a very difficult position. Data will be restricted. Measurement and tracking will be impacted. That’s the reality of the situation. But social media channels are in their own unique territory in these uncertain times, and that’s due to the data you willingly offer up by using the platforms themselves. 

Let’s back up. …Social media platforms are free to use. They’re free to use because they’re funded by advertising on the platform. Advertisers on the platform use the data and information you agree to provide when you sign up, for targeting purposes. If you’re an iOS user, you can easily access exactly what types of information that is, because of the data nutrition label that was rolled out in December 2020. An iOS user simply needs to go to the app store, click on an app’s details, and scroll down to the ‘App Privacy’ section.

As you’ll see, there are many different data points used by these platforms, and many are influenced by cookie information. But within the list of data collected are two important categories: ‘user content’ and ‘usage data.’ Anything you do within the app, the groups you join, the videos you watch, links you click on really, all of your engagements are captured and used to feed what is featured in your feed/timeline. It’ll impact what you see on an organic basis as well as what ads you see. 

So even though cookies may be going away and pixel data will be restricted, social advertisers will still be able to do many unique things like re-engage users who watched 15 seconds of a brand video, engaged with your Instagram account, or opened your Snap Story ad.

Having these unique features doesn’t necessarily mean social platforms will emerge unscathed from these momentous changes, they are in a far better position than programmatic media partners. It’s imperative that brands focus on collecting their most important resource, first party data. While it’s easy to assume first party data only means personally identifiable information and email addresses, native social platform data should be valued in much the same way. Now more than ever, brands should be investing in efforts in order to collect data, and pool those users who engage with their content, because even though the ‘opt-outs’ will inevitably increase and cookies will be sunsetted, your in-app social activity will always be there.