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As consumers, we have grown used to being bombarded with ads everywhere we go online – Instagram, Facebook, Amazon, YouTube, Google search results, news sites, and practically every web page intended for the general public are all rife with advertisements.

But banner blindness, headlines criticising the business models of social networks and the imminent end of third-party cookies mean that businesses need to begin looking for alternatives to ensure their digital marketing activities follow a future-oriented and ethical strategy. 

In the third part of our series on cookies, we will share some creative alternatives to paid advertising that other companies have already used to great success.

To learn more about third-party cookies and cookie tracking, read the first two articles here:

  1. Data protection: Third-party cookies vs. first-party cookies
  2. Cookieless tracking: How to prepare for a web without cookies

The facts in a nutshell

  • Most online advertisements run on display networks from Google, Meta, and Amazon, where a third-party algorithm running in the background analyses visitors to ‘decide’ who will see what ad.
  • Widely criticised, this method has been dubbed ‘surveillance capitalism’.
  • Calls for alternatives that use cookieless tracking are becoming louder and louder.
  • A few such alternatives include building brand- or product-centred communities, co-marketing campaigns or (native) podcast ads and influencer marketing.
  • This article provides a description and examples of each.


In this article


The (privacy) problem with online ads and cookies 

Most online advertising is based on a simple principle: Companies pay third parties to place their ads online – using Google’s Display Network, the Meta (formerly Facebook) Audience Network, the Amazon Publisher Service and other ad networks such as Outbrain, AdRoll and TrafficForce.

On these sites, a third-party algorithm running in the background predicts which ads might interest individual site visitors. The more visitors that click ads, the more money the third-party network makes. In order to make accurate predictions, such algorithms collect data on site visitors – usually using third-party cookies. And these third-party cookies are on the way out, not the least due to the serious privacy concerns they entail.  

In her much-lauded 2019 work of non-fiction “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism”, economist Shoshana Zuboff levelled strong criticism against such web tracking methods, condemning them collectively as ‘surveillance capitalism’. And not only privacy advocates bemoan this approach – web surfers and companies alike have called for alternatives.

But simply forgoing advertising altogether is certainly not the solution. At least not for businesses that wish to succeed. Thankfully, there are a number of exciting marketing concepts that respect the privacy of potential customers and might even save you some money.


Community building instead of cookie tracking

Cookie tracking employs algorithms that study user behaviour to predict their interests and needs. The community building approach inverts this to offer potential buyers exactly what they’re looking for. Instead of tracking customers, companies opt for organic reach to build communities of customers loyal to a brand or product.


B2C example

In addition to high-intensity influencer marketing and advertising, the yoga and athletic apparel retailer Lululemon has built a vibrant community centred around its brand. Lululemon hosts free yoga events at its locations, where the focus is not on the apparel itself but on the shared interests of participants. The events are an opportunity for people to come together and build a sense of community. The strategy has helped Lululemon create brand awareness as well as a loyal following of customers united by their shared passions.

The outdoor route planning platform Komoot takes an entirely ads-free approach to marketing, opting instead for direct contact with existing outdoor communities such as hiking and mountain biking clubs. As a product-driven business, Komoot relies on the strength of its product to convince community members to join. Satisfied users recommending the app to fellow athletes generate enough buzz that Komoot can do without paid advertising altogether.


B2B example

Hosting meetups and other small-scale events are great ways for businesses to build a B2B community. There are countless examples. For instance, the French fintech company Spendesk created CFO Connect, an online community for finance leaders to share helpful resources and connect with their peers.


Advantages over paid advertising

Building a community around your brand is an exciting way to put your customers at the centre of your marketing activities, giving them real added value decoupled from actual sales. But it’s also a great way for companies to save money. Buzz advertising is not only the most effective and sustainable way of increasing your reach, but also the cheapest.

By the way: A similar approach, referral programs offer customers (financial) incentives to recommend a product or service to friends and family. 


Co-marketing campaigns to reach new customers

The ingenious idea behind co-marketing: One business profits from the reach of another that, while not a direct competitor, appeals to a similar customer audience.  

Thus, co-marketing campaigns allow two companies to pool their resources and expertise so each benefits from the reach of the other.


B2C example

Perhaps the most legendary example of co-marketing is the Red Bull and GoPro marketing partnership. Probably everyone will recall Felix Baumgarnter’s 2012 free fall back to Earth from a stratospheric balloon. The images and videos from the jump were seen around the world. Wearing a space suit covered in Red Bull logos, Baumgartner teetered in the port of a stratospheric balloon before leaping from a height of over 24 miles above Earth’s surface. Attached to his suit were four GoPro cameras that recorded the images none of us will ever forget. Jointly sponsored by Red Bull and GoPro, the event was such a great success because both brands market their products, as different as they might be, to an overlapping audience of adventurous, athletic customers.  

You can find many more examples here.


B2B example

Typical examples of B2B co-marketing campaigns include joint webinars or e-books such as like this webinar from HubSpot and Canva or our own whitepaper published in collaboration with EQS Group. Offers like this are made available on two websites, included in two newsletters, and shared on two LinkedIn profiles at once. This synergy increases the chances of both brands to find new customers among the partner’s target audience.


Advantages over paid advertising

Adverts are meant to make your target audience aware of your company. Co-marketing campaigns serve the same goal. But here, two companies share the work, combing their strengths to promote their own brand among the other’s customer audience.

By the way: Guest articles work in a similar way. The scenario: A guest article by Company A is published on Company B’s website. Company A has the work of writing the article, while Company B profits from an article it expended no costs to write. Company A in turn benefits from accessing Company B’s reach at the relatively low cost of drafting an article.


(Native) podcast ads and influencer marketing

Businesses without the time or resources to build their own community can benefit by tapping into the community of an established influencer or thought leader. While admittedly a form of paid advertising, such marketing strategies at least forgo tracking. Native ads and influencer marketing work by identifying your target group’s ‘watering holes’. Where do the customers you are trying to reach get their information? Whom do they trust?  

In a marketing context, ‘native’ refers to ads that resemble the editorial content where they are placed. Take podcasts for example, where the difference is impossible to miss: Some adverts come in the form of traditional commercials produced by the advertiser, while native ads are read by the podcast host in their own voice. Businesses that advertise this way benefit from the trust that loyal listeners have in the host: Fans will be less sceptical of products that trusted influencers promote.


B2C example

The online health food retailer KoRo has become a global success story entirely without traditional advertising. They did it all through native podcast ads. The number of podcasts that came into question for their native marketing campaign was surely as massive as KoRo’s target audience itself. Products that appeal to a more niche audience need to be more selective.  

Take operators of surfing and yoga retreats. A niche product like this would benefit from native ads placed with influencers in the yoga scene. Famous yoga blogger Sheila Ilzhöfer wrote an article recommending various summer retreats and linking right to the operators’ websites. In Germany, the article was number one in the Google search results for “surfing and yoga retreat” all summer long. It is unlikely that any of the retreat operators would have had that kind of visibility on their own.


B2B example

Even companies that do B2B business use influencer marketing – on LinkedIn for example. But an even more promising approach is to elevate your own employees to influencers. After all, they know your company and your product better than anyone. Tech companies like IBM and HubSpot shine again here by motivating their employees to give lectures at conferences or to drive engagement by sharing exciting content on LinkedIn (content pre-approved by their internal marketing teams).


Advantages over paid advertising

Who would you trust more: An ad that has been haunting your every online move for weeks or recommendations made by a public figure whom you trust – even if you knew the recommendation was actually a paid advertisement?

If you have a strong product or service, your chances that an influencer will advertise for you are good. And it will be easy to convince your own employees to share content in their own name to help position your brand online. You can turn potential buyers into loyal customers by leveraging social proof in this way.


The future belongs to businesses that think outside the box in terms of marketing

All the above examples have one thing in common: In today’s online marketing world, it is no longer enough to input a few keywords into a marketing tool and specify bids. Pay-per-click ads have one great advantage – a third-party algorithm does the hardest part of marketing for you, namely understanding your target audience. But unfortunately, far from being your friend, the algorithm is likely also working for your direct competitors. It’s true that community building, co-marketing campaigns, and influencer marketing are more elaborate strategies. But they promise more sustainable gains.  

The moment you cut off the money supply to your preferred ad network, it stops working for you. This is not true of the alternatives we’ve laid out for you here: A flourishing community doesn’t require daily attention and will even grow on its own. At their best, joint webinars and e-publications will remain relevant as evergreen content on the websites of at least the two companies involved for years to come. And somewhere at this very moment, a potential customer is binging a new favourite podcast from 2018 – with native ads read in the trusted voice of the early adopter host.

Whatever you do, don’t let our ideas limit your imagination! Cookieless marketing knows no bounds but your own creativity.

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