What cookies mean for marketing

You may (or may not) have heard about the recent changes to the law regarding cookies - those little files left on your computer when you visit a website.

UK law now requires websites to explain to visitors what cookies are and give them the option to opt-out of accepting them onto their PC.

The law on how a website complies varies depending on the type of website and the number/type of cookies used (in other words an e-commerce website will often have more cookies to track how users interact with baskets and checkouts).

To find out more about the law surrounding cookies, you can visit the ICO website - http://www.ico.gov.uk/cookies

If you'd like a quick explanation of what cookies are and how we use them, you can read about them in our privacy policy. The idea of this article is discuss the impact of this change in the law to the marketing of websites.

No Cookies = Bad User Experience?

Tracking cookies (the sort left by Google Analytics) are there to help monitor how a user interacts with your website. Through the Google Analytics programme they provide (anonymous) data on how the user came to the site (directly, through PPC or via organic search terms), what pages they viewed, how long they spent on the site, whether they bought anything and where they left.

Even without knowing anything about cookies (from a technical stance) it's quite obvious that not accepting cookies could cause problems from a marketing perspective. If you follow the law strictly and do as the ICO do, you'll have a banner announcing the existence of cookies and requiring people to accept them before continuing to use the site.

ICO Cookies

It's quite obvious that the average person won't accept or if given the chance they'll decline cookies (most likely through fear of being 'tracked' and their personal data not being 'private' online. Of course in the ICO example, you can use the site without even ticking the box and cookies won't be set onto your computer until you do.

Using this model, it's easy to see that the majority of users won't set a cookie and you'll be unable to track how visitors are using your site. Working out the value of conversions, revenue generated and monetising keywords and phrases relevant to your site could become a next to impossible task; A nightmare for every website owner and marketer.

Of course cookies are not just a way to monetise your site. They can also be used to improve your website and tailor your user experience. You might note that the bounce rate on certain pages is especially high, so you'll change the layout of the page, improve the copy and enhance the call-to-action or you might wish to tailor the adverts on your page to a specific sort of person. Sites with 'recommendations' can make use of cookies when certain types of people who buy one thing might be interested in other products/services.

So cookies are important for multiple reasons.

Implied Consent

Fortunately, slight changes to the cookie laws have raised the possibility of 'implied consent'. As long as you can show that your website users know what cookies are and understand what happens when they accept them, then you can claim implied consent. As long as the fact that cookies exist and there is a page that explains what they are that is cleared marked then you can continue to set cookies on their computers.

Amazon, as an example, has a link in their footer to a page titled 'Cookies & Internet Advertising' where they state:

"Visiting Amazon's websites with your browser settings adjusted to accept cookies tells us that you want to use Amazon's products and services and that you consent to our use of cookies and other technologies to provide them to you as described in this notice and in our Privacy Notice."

So, they are therefore implying that the average user has enough knowledge about cookies (and browser settings) to choose to turn them off (or not) and thus this implies consent. Whether this is enough to be compliant with the law would of course up to the Information Commissioner's Office, but you can see the logic in doing it this way. As a default, the site sets a cookie and people have to opt out of it. If you do it the other way round (that is provide a cookie-less website until people 'accept' them) then you'll be far less likely to ever get any data to track.

Cookies are very important to digital marketing, but getting a fine from the ICO of up-to £500,000 is something best avoided (that's worst case scenario) so a careful balance has to be struck between informing the user and helping them in the right direction.

Of course we'd also recommend keeping it short and simple when explaining what cookies are and how they affect the visitor. Otherwise you risk scaring people into declining cookies or worse.

Business link has a good sample privacy policy (with a cookies section) that would be a good template to start from if you're worried that your site might not be compliant.

Just remember who your audience are.