The Cookie Explained | Part 2

Good day everyone. Hope you're all honing your superpowers!

Last week I wrote a (hopefully) understandable post about how tracking pixels work and why they're so important in understanding user behavior. If you haven't read that yet, do that first then come back to this post, it'll make more sense.

Rather than going into a detailed explanation of cookies, I'd like to tell you a story about a 1 Year gig I had with Mattel back when I lived in Wisconsin.

The project was specifically for implementing WebTrends, a high-end analytics software ($1M Plus) used by Mattel in their American Girl Division based in Madison Wisconsin. (Guys you've probably never heard of American Girl (AG) but trust me, just about every female on the planet knows who they are – Watch how their eyes light up when you mention them).

At the time I was the Online Marketing Director for a large company in Green Bay who had bought my company to add Online Marketing to their offerings.

I'd have to say that throughout my 21 year career in Online Marketing, I have never worked with a company that was more sophisticated with their online marketing than Mattel. These guys really have it going on. A lot of very smart people and this was several years back.

American Girl uses almost every form of online (and offline) marketing under the sun. They have Retail Stores, they've made American Girl movies, Videos, Books, they use SEO, PPC, PPV, Email Marketing, Banner Advertising, Retargeting, Remarketing, Billboards, TV, Radio and probably a handful of other channels I've forgotten.

The objective of the project was to track users across all of these channels and to build a profile to understand their interactions and to make offers that were most relevant to each user. Mass-Customized marketing at its finest.

AG is an amazing company, started by a sharp little old lady (Pleasant Rowland) in her basement; she came up with the idea not just to sell dolls but to sell story lines for each doll, and accessories to match. So if you bought the "Molly" doll, you bought into the story, you'd buy the doll, the books, videos, clothing outfits, even pets that were specific to that doll. The idea found fertile ground among young girls, and Pleasant later sold to Mattel for umpty million dollars. A true success story.

Now here's the trick: how do you market to someone if you don't know who they are? Often, at least at the beginning of the relationship, we may not even have an email address; we only have an anonymous "Signature". Here's what I mean...

Someone visits the AG site for the very first time, could be a little girl, could be her mom or her grandmother looking to buy something for their daughter or granddaughter. They hit the site and thanks to the mighty pixel we begin the first step in building out the user profile EVEN THOUGH we don't yet know who he/she is.

Thanks to the tracking pixel, (See "The Mighty Pixel" article) we DO know that they came from a specific IP address (Which is typically static), they visited these specific pages, they stayed on the site for X amount of time, they're on a Mac computer running the Safari web browser at a specific screen resolution, etc etc.

They haven't made a purchase yet so we don't know who this person is - e.we don't yet have a name - but we DO have a fingerprint/digital signature. In addition to the unique fingerprint, we've also dropped a cookie on their hard drive as sort of a temporary "ID" that stores useful information for later use.

Tip: if you wanna see cookies on your own computer using chrome as an example, enter this into the address bar on Chrome: chrome://settings/content/cookies. Go ahead, open one up, they’re just simple text files for storing information. Unless you're blocking and clearing cookies on a regular basis, I can promise.. you've got em.

So now we have a Digital Signature and we have a Cookie that resides on the user’s computer that contains additional information. Just as JavaScript fires a pixel as explained in the mighty pixel post, there is likely another JavaScript (or similar technology) that upon loading the requested page says "Hey, do you have a cookie for me?". If there is a cookie, say for American Girl, we retrieve the cookie and now we know we're communicating with Anonymous Potential Customer #4-23378332.

"Well yeah, I get that but what use is it if I don't know who they are?"


OK, I can see already this is going to be at least a two-part post, so before I write the second part, I’m going to challenge you with the following scenario. Let's put our super power to work on this and see what we can discern.

What can you tell me about this fictitious anonymous user based on just the following information?

This user has recently visited the, and This user’s IP Address is

Bonus Question: You get extra brownie points if you can answer this question: WHERE is this user located?

What can you tell me about this person based on ONLY the above information?

Put your thinking caps on, this is important to understand.

Be sure to come back for part 2. It's about to get interesting!

Read the original article on my LinkedIn Page >