Cross-Device Tracking: Have the Cookies Crumbled?

by | Analytics

Analytics are evolving from a cookie-based approach to tracking and analyzing visitors across multiple devices. And that may be just the beginning.

Numbers don’t lie. But for marketers, the big problem is figuring out exactly which numbers provide you with an accurate story. Pinpointing these metrics has always been a challenge for marketers.

Chris Madden of Matchnode, a Chicago digital marketing agency, in a recent presentation at Orbit Media’s Wine & Web, revealed that thanks to cross-device tracking, analytics can be more accurate than ever. He also shared how analytics are evolving in ways that may both excite and scare the bejabbers out of us.

Chris Madden of Matchnode

Cookie monsters: the “old” way of capturing data

The traditional method used to track website traffic and behavior was, and is, session-based. You would visit a website, and a “cookie” – i.e. digital tracking code – would be deposited on your browser. That cookie would track your behavior on the site.

This method proved to be effective until the world became overrun not only by multiple devices, but also by multiple search engine browsers.

If you visit a website in Google Chrome, then view it again in Safari, then switch over to your smartphone to check it again, your analytics would view those as three entirely different sessions by three different people. The result is data that misses the mark.

Identifying all devices provides real insights.

“Identify all the devices that belong to a visitor with your analytics and you will get real insights,” Chris explains.

Average consumer uses 3.64 digital devices

The need for this type of tracking isn’t strictly anecdotal. The average digital consumer uses 3.64 digital devices. That includes devices such as your PC, phone, tablets, laptop, smart TV, gaming devices, Alexa…the list goes on.

“I’m not picking on Google Analytics, but when you consider all the devices, you understand why cookies don’t necessarily work,” Chris says.

Is Google Analytics passe?

The need for cross-device tracking is here.  But does that mean Google Analytics is passé? What do we make of our current analytics? Most importantly, for small marketing departments, how in the world do you keep track of yet another twist in the digital marketing road?

The three types of cross-device tracking

Chris has boiled down how cross-device tracking occurs into three areas.

1. Owning an ecosystem – the “walled garden”

The “walled gardens” are digital ecosystems like Facebook or Google. They require a login to enter. When you log in to the ecosystem, you can access it across multiple devices.

For example, I’m currently logged into Facebook on my PC, phone and tablet. As a result, when I’m on Facebook, its analytics program knows the visit is linked to me, and they can track my device usage. And as long as you remain logged in, Facebook can also track your activity on other sites.

They can track your activity if you stay logged in.

According to Chris, Facebook is the leader in this, and they continue to roll out new platforms for you to experiment with — which they can also dangle out to advertisers.

Google’s ecosystem is based on their products, such as Gmail, Android, Chrome, Calendar, etc. Google Analytics does some cross-device tracking now; Chris says they’re just “scratching the surface.”

On the other hand, Google Analytics 360 is a “treasure trove of people-based data,” with the hefty price tag of more than $100,000 annually.

2. Having a product or service that requires a visitor login

Similar to the walled garden ecosystem, apps like Twitter, LinkedIn, Evernote and PayPal all require a login. They, too, can provide specific cross-device tracking, provided you’re working within their app or system.

Once you’re logged in to these companies, they can use a tool like Kissmetrics or Mixpanel for cross-device tracking. This allows them to understand how much you’re using their site, and focus on customer retention.

Unlike the walled garden, these systems don’t track your activity across websites outside their own.

3. Fingerprinting

The third method of cross-device tracking inspires thoughts of Big Brother and will have you thinking twice about using your smartphone. Or your computer. Or anything.

Your device leaves fingerprints.

This gets a bit into the digital weeds, but essentially, whenever you visit a place on the Internet, your digital device is leaving “fingerprints.” There are identifiers on your device; tiny bits of code attached to it that reveal specific characteristics.

Fingerprinting compiles these characteristics to distinctly identify the device, and then track where else the device was used. This profile reveals which websites you’ve visited, WIFI networks you’ve used…the list goes scarily on.

Can’t you just feel top level government agencies, shadowy foreign syndicates, and gleefully nasty hackers fingerprinting your Web activities, gathering ammo for cyber attacks?

As for marketing agencies, Chris says they’ve taken a tepid approach to fingerprinting, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a part of our foreseeable future.

Cross-device marketing: The return of reach and frequency

So what does cross-device tracking do for marketers?

Ultimately, it can mean more accurate data, and a better understanding of what is working for your marketing efforts. And it all comes back to two terms that were (and are) a traditional media planner’s best friend: reach and frequency.

Reach: The number of people you reach with a message
Frequency: The number of times audiences view the message

With the traditional approach to analytics, if one person visited your website on three devices, your analytics would have registered those as three unique visits: A reach of three, a frequency of one.

With cross-device tracking, you can see it’s one person making three visits: A reach of one, a frequency of three.

It reaches beyond simply repeating a message.

In terms of traditional media measurement, the higher the frequency, the more people will comprehend your messaging. Traditionally, the floor for advertising frequency was always 3; you had to achieve that level of frequency to get viewers to comprehend and remember the message.

But Chris indicates its ramifications for marketers goes beyond simply repeating the same message, like a radio commercial.

Mapping the messaging

Once cross-device tracking data starts to flow in, you can see where people are entering your sales funnel, and adjust your messaging accordingly. For example, if you’re finding the majority of people are entering the funnel for the first time through a Facebook ad, you can tweak the ad to include a video to improve conversion.

You may be able to target based on usage.

You may also be able to target people based on their usage. Let’s say you have visitors who are checking the site repeatedly, but are not part of your mailing list. You can target these specific visitors with a message about joining your mailing list.

The point is that you’re targeting individuals, not broad groups of people. You’re gearing campaigns based on individual actions, not mass numbers.  In an audio interview, Chris explains how data on unique individuals translates into an action campaign.

Chris Madden Interview

It’s all about retention

Marketers who use cross-device tracking are focused on customer retention, and they know it’s a long-term game. The retention rates and cohort analysis you get from cross-device tracking are very valuable, Chris notes, and they’re valuable over months and years.

Retention rates and cohort analysis are valauble over months and years.

For example, let’s say your business is seasonal, and you only see spikes on the 4th of July and Christmas. You’ll need to get through several cycles of seasons to really understand how your individual customers are responding.

In terms of retention, these types of analytics can help you distinguish how your valuable long-term customers are responding. If you run a one-time discount on a product, do the people who buy become long-term customers?

Could this be the end of the 50% gripe?

Chris recommends that marketers adopt a mindset based on the cross-device tracking approach.  And there are methods and tools to move in that direction.

Facebook ads, for example, are a great testing ground. Putting the Facebook tracking pixel on your site is free, and can give you all sorts of device messaging opportunities in the future.

“$100 in ad spend to get in front of the 25% most active people on your website can very quickly become a good (and measurable) business decision,” Chris says.  

Moving beyond Facebook’s tools, companies such as Mixpanel, Kissmetrics, and Chicago-based Tend can provide you with more tools for cross-device tracking.  

American merchant John Wanamaker once said, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.” Cross-device tracking may help us take one step closer to solving that problem in spectacular fashion.


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Greg Mischio

Greg Mischio

Greg Mischio has been creating content for many moons. He is the Founder and CEO of Winbound, a sales and marketing agency that provides content and marketing services with a focus on manufacturing and industrial verticals.

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