The Decline of Tracking Pixels: Marketing Measurement in a Privacy-Focused World

That digital tracking is breaking should be of no surprise to any marketer by now. The things that have worked for the last ten years are quickly losing effectiveness and reducing the visibility of marketers that rely on tracking people across the internet. 

Tracking pixels is something marketers have built careers on over the last two decades. They’re the cornerstone of digital tracking alongside cookies. And, just like cookies, we’re seeing how pixels are starting to lose our trust and should be questioned more often. 

This article covers why pixels don’t work anymore (or work less), what this means to marketers, and what are the measurement alternatives that we’re seeing more marketers start to explore. 

But first, what are these things we call pixels?

What are tracking pixels:

Pixels are pieces of code placed on websites and emails that act as digital trackers. They collect data about user behavior, such as site visits, conversions, and interactions, by loading when a user accesses the content. 

This information is then used by advertisers and marketers to measure campaign performance, track conversions, and personalize ads based on user activity.

Let’s get on to the fun stuff:

Do pixels still work?

There are three main reasons why tracking pixels are losing effectiveness:

  • Users’ privacy settings and regulations like GDPR and CCPA limit the effectiveness of pixels in tracking conversions without explicit consent.

Users’ privacy settings and stringent regulations like the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in Europe and the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) in the United States significantly limit the effectiveness of pixels in tracking conversions without explicit consent. 

These regulations require that websites get clear consent from visitors before collecting personal data through cookies or pixels and so, when users choose not to give consent, or if the consent mechanisms are not implemented correctly and transparently, tracking pixels cannot legally collect data on those users’ behaviors. 

This leads to gaps in the data collected, making it challenging for marketers to accurately measure and understand user interactions and the effectiveness of their online marketing efforts.

  • Browser restrictions on third-party cookies and cross-site tracking can prevent pixels from accurately capturing user behavior.

Browsers like Safari and Firefox have introduced features that block third-party cookies by default, disrupting the ability of pixels to monitor user behavior and map the full customer journey.

Safari and Firefox combine for 16% of desktop market share, which is a meaningful but not overwhelming number. Google Chrome, which has 65% of the market share, has said they will actually weaken ad blocker’s capabilities in 2024 (for API security reasons, or for loss of ad revenue, who knows?) but, simultaneously, has announced their plan to kill off tracking cookies in favor of Google’s tracking mechanisms. 

With popular consensus seeming to be pro-privacy, big changes in Google Chrome could worsen this problem for marketers. 

Firstly, it strips click IDs from user parameters, which are essential for tracking conversions and user behavior across digital platforms. This fundamentally alters how marketers can attribute conversions to their campaigns, as the direct link between a user’s action and the tracking pixel is obscured​​. 

Secondly, iOS 17’s privacy changes affect a wide range of commonly used tracking parameters, including those for Facebook, Google Ads, and others, thereby limiting the ability of marketers to measure the effectiveness of their digital advertising efforts accurately​​.

Additionally, by blocking requests to tracking domains, iOS 17 effectively cuts off the flow of data from users to advertisers,

  • Pixels can be blocked by ad blockers and privacy tools, leading to underreporting of user interactions and conversions.

As of March 2023, 31% of US adult consumers said they used an ad blocker to protect their privacy – and that number looks like it will continue to go up. The increasing use of ad blockers and privacy tools is starting to become a significant challenge to pixel-based tracking methods. 

Ad blockers find and, well, block the load tracking requests from pixels so any action or conversion that relies on these pixels for tracking is not recorded, leading to underreported data. This means that businesses and marketers may not get a true picture of how users are interacting with their ads or websites. 

So, what does this all mean to marketers?

The digital tracking ecosystem is worsening year by year, and I think it is clear that the trend we’re seeing will keep reducing marketers’ insights on what customers are doing online before they convert – but what can marketers do?

All the changes we’re seeing in the digital tracking ecosystem are making it more and more obvious that the data you’re seeing can be biased in a lot of circumstances. Marketers need to be increasingly skeptical of the reporting they get and start questioning how they can validate any of that reporting outside of the reporting platform itself so they can get closer to the truth.

As a marketer, you need to start thinking like a scientist and asking yourself: “This data that I’m seeing, how could it be misleading me?” We encourage our customers to think that way too.

And the other crucial question is:

What does a post-pixel world look like?

The idea of trying to track people has become so established among performance marketers that it can be hard to imagine how marketing measurement could possibly work if you’re not familiar with marketing mix modeling.

There are a couple of things I suggest as the next steps:

  1. Look for alternative measurement methods to understand your marketing effectiveness.

We’re biased but marketing mix modeling is a great option here for some organizations. It analyzes historical data and various marketing inputs to determine the impact on sales or conversions. MMM answers the incrementality question without relying on individual-level tracking.

It gives you insight that you can’t get just from digital tracking, because it allows you to measure channels that are offline, like TV or radio, and it allows you to compare channels on an apples-to-apples basis in a way that isn’t possible when you’re just trying to track clicks or impressions. 

But not just MMM – to measure and validate incrementality, you can’t have just one source of truth. Marketers need to be consistently triangulating and using different data sources – MMM, lift tests, MTA (yes, still has a time and a place) to try to get close to the truth, which no single data source will have fully.

  1. Put special emphasis on first-party data 

Now that pixels and cookies give us less information, we recommend marketers to focus on collecting and leveraging first-party data—information directly gathered from their audience through interactions such as website visits, purchases, and customer feedback. 

If you can foster trust and ensure transparency about data usage, encouraging users to share personal information to enhance their experience is now more important than ever. 

Final thoughts:

Sure, it’s unfortunate that we can’t just use pixels and cookies as we used to anymore. But that was just a blip in the history of marketing anyway. The new world is already here: it’s just a matter of how quickly people will adapt to it.

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