Tech is full of buzz words, and there's no shame in needing a little refresher on what commom terms that you encounter online every day actually mean in real, human language. If you've ever visited a website, chances are you've encountered (and likely ignored) a notification about web cookies. Perhaps you're more likely to be familiar with the act of clearing  cookies – you know, when you're browsing flights and the one you had your eye on inexplicably baloons in price? Clearing your cookies acts as a quick "reset" on the data sites are storing.

What are web cookies?

They are little text files stored in your web browser. Websites can read them. They help websites remember you and your preferences. Otherwise, each visit to a website is generic.

You’ve likely grown accustomed to seeing a notice like this nearly every time you visit a new site:

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You likely click to dismiss the notice without giving the cookies much further thought, but the fact is that cookies are really important, and they represent an opportunity for associations.

Here’s why: first, cookies can help make members feel known (because, well… you do know them! Or at least, your website does) - and that means that you can create experiences and interactions that feel personal and relevant; and second, cookies can help associations identify and reach new audiences - people who just might become new members - by similarly getting to “know” individuals, and then serving up custom content designed to nurture and delight.

Visitors read websites, but websites can also read visitors!

Cookies that your association uses to track visitors to its website are called first-party cookies. Check out this article if you want to learn more about cookie “parties.” This is important because first-party cookies contribute to first-party data – the information that organizations can collect from their own sources. Your website isn’t the only place to generate first-party data; all information you’ve collected about users both online and offline is first-party data. Sources can include social media platforms, learning management systems, your AMS, in-person events, or surveys, just to name a few.

First-party data is a gold mine for marketers and member engagement specialists because it helps provide information about how people act and what they most value. This information can be leveraged to create desirable content or experiences, target communications more efficiently and even personalize content on websites or in emails. For associations, this translates into member engagement and retention, plus an opportunity to get to know new people and provide them with information they value.  

Consider the relatively recent rise of online D2C (Direct To Consumer) brands like Casper, Warby Parker, and Harry’s. These brands quickly rose to prominence because they recognized the power of user data and wanted to connect with consumers directly vs. through retail channels. This direct relationship with the end user allows the brands to keep a pulse on what people want, how to talk to them, and how to nurture loyalty in a way that just wouldn’t be possible if retailers were instead the gatekeepers of all consumer data. You’d better believe that there are first-party cookies involved in all of this online information-gathering. We’ve all gotten used to Amazon knowing exactly what we want, sometimes before we ourselves know what we want, and people are increasingly expecting this kind of hyper-personalized experience from the other brands and organizations they interact with on a regular basis. Cookies help make this possible.

So we’ve established that first-party data is important, and by extension, so are first-party cookies. This will only become more obvious as third-party cookies are phased out due to GDPR regulations and privacy-related concerns. If your association hasn’t already started to think about leveraging first-party cookies and data in a big way, it’s time to get serious and make it happen.

Funny side note: if you really want to give the Genius bar people at Apple a laugh, go in there and ask about “cupcakes” - they’ll eventually figure out that you mean cookies, and they’ll get quite a chuckle out of this. True story - this author was a witness.

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