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Becoming a Data Business Has To Be a Company-Wide Endeavor
One of the core reasons startups are able to disrupt larger companies is because of their ability to quickly shift focus if need be. In every other story published on tech-related pubs, the word pivot was thrown around to demonstrate how founders were doing everything they could to find product market fit.
Change is difficult, especially as businesses become more ossified. That's not inherently a bad thing, of course. The only way strong operations can be created is if the same thing is done day after day. The hub and spoke/house of brands media models is one that can only be accomplished by a business that has experience.
Every once in a while, though, an opportunity comes along that requires the business to fundamentally shift how it operates even if it goes against some of the long-standing business processes. When the internet really started gaining steam, many media companies failed to capture that opportunity. True, publishers were early to get websites up, but they were afterthoughts.
We are at one of those inflection points again and media is going to have to fundamentally shift how it operates.
Becoming a media company that captures and utilizes first-party data is one of those opportunities. Unfortunately, based on numerous conversations I've had over the past few months, publishers are not recognizing this.
If you recognize that having a robust, first-party data strategy is important, you have to also admit that it becomes a company-wide exercise. Trying to treat it as a skunkworks exercise or something done on the fringes of the business won't work. You have to write on the metaphorical whiteboard that you are going to become a data business.
But what does it mean when I say becoming a data business?
At the core, it means that you are looking at every potential touchpoint with a user or a customer as the possibility of collecting another piece of information about them. And then, you are looking for ways to take that information and use it across the organization. That means the product, editorial, marketing, and sales teams are all using that data to make the business better.
Let me walk through in more detail what that means...
Collecting and using first-party data is not just about throwing a form up and hoping you can capture some information. Your product and audience teams should coordinate where the data capture takes place and be very methodical about it. As I alluded to above, the exercise needs to take place across the experience.
Perhaps it starts with the newsletter signup. That's straightforward. That starts the creation of a user profile that is device agnostic. We use email on our computers, phones, tablets, and whatever other devices we might have.
Your product and audience teams, from here, should be identifying places where they can capture additional data. This can be progressively captured about the individual—this is where you are asking readers one or two questions at a time rather than one long form.
It should also be contextual data that you're capturing as well. Assigned to each user profile should be a list of the categories or tags that they most frequent. Before you can collect this information, you need to create a pretty robust taxonomy of your content and have a process for adding new tags into the said organizational structure.
Nevertheless, the dream state of any first-party data strategy is to have information about who the user is and what they are consuming. This might be something like [job function], [industry], and [topic of news stories.] Or it might be [age], [income level], and [topic of news stories.] The list goes on.
In a previous piece, I go into much more detail about the types of data you should be trying to capture. It's worth a read.
What inspired this brief was a recent Digiday story on how Forbes is rolling out its own first-party data systems to the rest of the organization.
Weaving those platforms together took time, as did coaching up Forbes’s sales staff to sell it. The company made ForbesOne the top priority at its semi-annual sales meeting in the summer of 2020, and Forbes’s sales team still has weekly meetings where large chunks of the sales organization, including Forbes’s pre- and post-sales teams, sit in on meetings in which Wallitt and other senior executives walk them through Forbes’s platform. Other parts of the organization, including product and editorial, get regular, in-depth looks and ForbesOne and shifts in the industry. To date, ForbesOne has a 40% renewal rate.
This is a critical point to make because it's where I think a lot of organizations fall flat when they talk about their first-party data strategy. We spend so much time talking about what data we want, we never stop to ask, "how will we use it?" That has to be one of the central questions asked. If we don't know how we'll use it—or worse, don't provide tools to use it—we're going to have data, but it'll be mythical.
This whole exercise might necessitate upgrading specific systems or tools that are currently in the technology stack. This can often be a painful and potentially expensive process, but I also think it's critical to ensuring that the data can be used appropriately.
From here, there are a few things to consider...
First, editorial needs a dashboard to understand what categories of stories are being read and, to some extent, by who. We don't need to provide a breakdown at the individual level, but editorial should have a good idea what known users are consuming.
This is different than the analytics most media companies use today because that focus is on the pageview. That's fine, but it doesn't translate to users that have a known relationship with the publication. Since those people are likely to be more loyal, we should zero in on what they're consuming to understand where we should continue investing our editorial coverage.
Second, the marketing team needs the data to flow into its tools so that segments can be built. Being able to target very specific groups of people based on their individual data and their consumption behavior is incredibly powerful. But the marketing team needs an easy way to ingest it; otherwise, it's useless.
Third, ad operations need the data to flow into the ad servers. If we're going to offer advertisers targeted campaigns, we need a way for the data to be easily used by the operations team as they're trafficking these campaigns.
I was reading another piece on Digiday summarizing its recent Digital Publisher's Summit:
Publishers worry if they choose the wrong identity approaches, their first-party audience data could end up floating around the open marketplace, commodified and devalued. Two comments to share:
“Ad tech and middlemen are usurping that value and trying to claim it as their own.”
“If they want to put your IDs into the open auction, you are getting screwed. Period.”
I agree completely with this last statement. This is first-party data owned by the publisher. As you are reviewing the products, ensure that there is no slippage with where the data can go. If they have the right to distribute it in any way other than to your owned systems, they're not the right partner.
The fourth and final thing you need to do is bring sales into the conversation. They need to understand how to sell this. It's one thing to say, "here is the ad, you'll get X impressions or Y% share of voice, please pay here." It's something entirely different to try and sell segments and get advertisers to understand how the entire thing works.
Organizations need to incentivize the selling of this data and need to provide the consistent education to ensure that the sales team truly gets it. No one wants to look bad in a client meeting, so if we don't teach the sales team, they won't ever try and sell it.
To sum this all up in a few words... building a first-party data strategy and becoming an organization built on that is one of these major inflection points that requires a change in course. However, if you're going to commit to it—and I think you should—your strategy needs to also discuss how the rest of the organization outside of product and audience will use it. Without that, you'll have a ton of data without any plan to execute on it.
Elizabeth Bramson-Boudreau is the CEO and Publisher of MIT Technology Review, the oldest technology magazine in the world. Over the past few…Listen to episode
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