How Retail Companies Can Cut Cookies and Boost Engagement

In recent months, marketers have seen article after article about the impending death of cookies, and it can seem pretty bleak to those who depended on them for personalized customer engagement. Many retailers are scrambling for new data sources, and some big players are even creating their own solutions, the most recent being Walmart’s new demand-side platform Walmart DSP, which allows advertisers to leverage its customer data.

But advertisers, rest assured that there is life after death, and it’s going to be a very exciting time for the industry. Leaving cookies behind poses a much-needed opportunity to get creative around consumer engagement and move past stored personal data. Now it’s time to focus on service in order to engage consumers.

How can brands lean into fun, relevant platforms to meet the customer where they are and improve the consumer experience? This new era is paving the way to experiment with in-the-moment engagement. Among the possibilities are three exciting avenues that allow marketers to think outside the box and personalize consumer interactions while prioritizing privacy: using conversational media as a new vehicle for brand awareness; incorporating physical-to-digital experiences like the QR codes we saw proliferate throughout the pandemic; and leveraging new platform integrations.

Conversational Media

A burgeoning form of advertising that has been making waves within the digital shift is conversational media. Conversational media lives inside peer-to-peer conversations, where contextual AI allows brands to serve consumers useful, engaging content in the exact moment they need it. This content can look like stickers, GIFs, menus, movie theater showtimes — you name it. 


Importantly, conversational media is a step away from surveillance capitalism, or commodifying personal data for profit. Instead, this advertising vehicle leverages on-device contextual AI, using natural language understanding to identify when someone may be having a conversation where added content can enhance the discussion. Today, technology is advanced enough that data never has to leave the device, meaning personal data is safer from not entering the cloud, and brands can assure their audiences they’ve left creepy surveillance-style targeting behind.

The lack of personal data does not hinder brands — in fact, it leads to an even more engaging UX. By focusing on the discussion instead of the individual, retailers can control which conversations they are a part of, putting them right in the center of relevant moments without needing to store troves of personal data. This makes conversational media an unparalleled opportunity to create content that will delight target audiences, keep retailers top of mind for them and build brand advocates. The keys to success? Providing content that is useful to consumers instead of trying to directly influence their behaviors. 

One successful example of conversational media at work comes from IKEA. In 2019, IKEA launched a fall campaign to increase excitement and drive digital engagement with its online catalogue in a high-impact way. The brand partnered with conversational media company Holler to deliver fun, useful content in relevant conversations about sleep and night-time routines and saw major success in creating brand advocates: IKEA appeared in over 45M conversations, saw shares in 439K conversations and garnered 144.8M views across key consumer apps such as iMessage, Facebook Messenger and What’s App via Kika. In fact, the campaign was so successful that IKEA utilized conversational media again in fall 2020. By prioritizing context over individual data, IKEA and Holler served users when they needed content and saw massive benefits.

The Important Shift Connecting Physical to Digital

Brands can find unique ways to boost consumer engagement by upgrading the physical experience with digital extensions. Melding these two touch points offers consumers the best of both worlds and amplifies in-store shopping.

QR codes are a now-ubiquitous example of integrating digital into the physical shopping experience. Scanning squares to be directed to retail sites or pay the bill has become second nature. Retail companies can utilize them to create immersive experiences such as:

  • Directing consumers to iMessage with a link to the specific item that they’re looking at. This way, shoppers can easily get style advice from friends before they make the plunge on a risky top. After all, everyone could use a gut check.
  • Bringing in-person shoppers to a digital checkout experience, allowing those with smaller carts to purchase without waiting in line, easing friction in the checkout process and servicing consumers in a different, touch-free way.
  • Offering a quick loyalty program sign-up page, unique promotions or exclusive content while on the move, be it 20% off the item you scan or a sneak preview of upcoming product drops. 
  • Scanning the code to check the availability of a certain item and then bringing customers to an order page for out of stock items. This assuages the frustration of out of stock items, offers a quick way to purchase and prevents shoppers from digging through piles to find their size (floor workers will also appreciate this).

QR codes are just an example of the physical-digital shift that’s to come; new integrations like virtual try-ons are constantly coming to life. Retailers have troves of opportunities to innovate the in-person experience to make it more engaging, efficient and pleasant.


From what feels like the dawn of time, marketers have heard the phrase “meet people where they are,” but what does that really look like today? Brands have to move past their own sites and serve consumers content in the apps, platforms and media that they love — but that are also authentic to the retailer. This doesn’t mean going viral on TikTok; rather, it is about taking a thoughtful approach to where and how a specific audience shares content and how brands can serve their needs, rather than trying to simply see and be seen. 

For example, clothing resale app Poshmark recently created a Snap Mini to engage with more Gen Z users. Poshmark found a way to directly introduce itself to and cater to an untapped audience by letting Snapchat users sample the social shopping experience in one of their favorite apps. Brands can’t wait for users to come to the site, they have to seek them out. To understand what platform is best for a specific brand, retailers should have a firm understanding of where, how and what type of content people share. 

In a recent survey on the types of media being shared in messages, Holler found that 70% of Americans share photos in messaging, 43% share videos, 41% share screenshots, 29% share weblinks and 24% share songs and music. This type of breakdown is crucial to understand as retailers look to break into messaging and other modes of communication to deliver content.

After learning how consumers share content, retailers need to understand why they share and how it fits into their ongoing conversations. Does the audience look for outside pieces of content to supplement their conversation? Or do they see content and share it with groups to start the discussion? Understanding how consumers use platforms and how they interact with content will enable brands to deliver tailored content that enhances the user experience, maximizes engagement and delights consumers. 

For retail marketers, content and experiences that help people make decisions, on their terms, will be the new normal in a world that has eschewed third-party cookies. We’ve heard about the golden age of content before, but this time retailers have to get innovative about how, where and why that content turns up, and how it can be of service to the customer.

The key to finding new, personalized ways to delight users in a post-cookie world will revolve around experimenting with new forms of engagement like in the three examples above, but the most exciting part is that they are just the tip of the iceberg. This will be an exciting world to watch in the next few years.

Sarah Aitken is Chief Brand Officer at Holler. Before joining Holler, she spent over 14 years driving growth at global creative agency Iris Worldwide, across Europe, Latin America and North America. At Iris Aitken led innovative marketing strategies for a wide range of global consumer brands including Sony, Samsung, Yahoo!, Jeep, Diageo and Reckitt Benckiser. At Holler, Aitken orchestrated a complete restructuring of the brand and currently leads marketing and Holler’s content products. Under her guidance, Holler has been enjoying explosive growth; the company was named to Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies list, and serves over 1 billion messages per day.

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