June 25, 2021
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More Time to Get First-Party Data Right

The past couple of years have likely been stressful for many publishers knowing that the 3rd-party cookie was on its way to obsolescence. For a decent number of publishers overly reliant on that 3rd-party cookie, monetization was going to turn into an absolute grind.

Fortunately for these publishers, Google has delayed its own self-imposed deadline for getting off the cookie. The big news is that it has delayed removing cookies from Chrome until 2023. Its initial deadline was “by 2022.” According to the press release:

We plan to continue to work with the web community to create more private approaches to key areas, including ad measurement, delivering relevant ads and content, and fraud detection. Today, Chrome and others have offered more than 30 proposals, and four of those proposals are available in origin trials. For Chrome, specifically, our goal is to have the key technologies deployed by late 2022 for the developer community to start adopting them. Subject to our engagement with the United Kingdom’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) and in line with the commitments we have offered, Chrome could then phase out third-party cookies over a three month period, starting in mid-2023 and ending in late 2023. 

I have not hidden my opinion that the removal of 3rd-party cookies would be a good thing for publishers in the long term. Like any evolution, there would be pain and some might die. But in the long run, publishers that figure out how to give marketers smart targeting using owned data rather than aggregated will not only survive, but thrive. If you add in the contextual nature of your website, it becomes a very compelling case.

What Google’s news means is that there is more time to figure things out, which is good. But I still wouldn’t wait. I wrote back in September:

Publishers need to take ownership over their data and start figuring out how they are going to get the information they need about their audience. The fact that they ever gave up that responsibility just baffles me.

So, let’s agree that the next 3-6 months need to be about coming up with a data strategy.

If that piece wasn’t a rallying cry to get your 1st-party data strategy figured out, let’s use this piece as a refresher and a reminder that you want to get this going as soon as possible. Industry Dive’s Sean Griffey (who I’ve nicknamed Mr. 1st-Party Data) has consistently hammered home that the best time to start gathering this data is now. You can’t just flip a switch and suddenly have a bunch of information about your audience. It takes time to gather. The sooner you start, the more you’ll have when you need it.

But let’s say that advertising isn’t your business. You’re one of those subscription-only publications, so none of this matters, right? Since you have no marketers to sell to, there’s no need for urgency.

Wrong.

This data isn’t just so can sell advertising. You should be using this data to better understand what type of information your audience wants. At the individual paying subscriber level, you should know who they are (which includes what they do, what they say they care about, etc.) and what they consume (a breakdown of the pieces of content that they read or watch). Wouldn’t that data help inform what additional content, reporting, or information you want to give them?

So, let’s assume that understanding who your audience is important for all media companies irrespective of business model. What does it look like and how should we do it?

It looks like this (I’m taking commissions for my advanced art design talents):

In its simplest form, there are two buckets of data that bubble up to your owned audience data. The first, and what many people think about, is what they give you. The second is what you gather, which is consumption and action behavior.

The first bucket is, in my opinion, the easiest. Many publishers have become accustomed to having data forms on a newsletter or subscription sign-up. In some cases, the forms have become so long that they begin asking for blood type and favorite meme stock.

Each publication will have different information that is needed. On the B2B side, I believe the minimum required is:

  • Company Type
  • Job Level
  • Job Industry

You can obviously gather a lot more than this, but with those three data points, you can quickly understand that you’ve got Directors of Marketing at a CPG retail company reading your publication (for example). That’s powerful information and can help inform content strategy and offer great targeting for advertisers.

On the consumer side, it is unique to the publication. For example, on a food site, you could ask what types of food they are interested in, whether they’re into cooking or baking, and maybe their favorite brand of cookware.

The second bucket—what you gather—is harder. And this is where you can really screw things up for yourself if you’re not very intentional. I’ve heard of stories where publishers start collecting this information and when they tried to use it, there was no rhyme or reason. Let me explain…

People are going to consume a lot of content during their relationship with your publication. It could be dozens or hundreds of articles, videos, podcasts, etc. We want to know that information down to the individual user record; however, if all we’re gathering is the title, how does that help you? It’s unstructured.

This is where taxonomy design is incredibly important. We started to talk about this when I was at CoinDesk because there was no order to the tagging. There were hundreds of tags in the CMS. It’s one of the hard things to get right because you want something that has structure but is fluid enough to allow editorial to expand and cover new areas.

By and large, everything should graduate up into a broader category. Here’s what that could look like for a finance site:

  • Level 1: Stocks
  • Level 2: Dividend Stocks
  • Level 3: Dividend Aristocrats (those that have increased dividends 25 years in a row)
  • Level 4: AbbVie (ABBV)

The hierarchy of taxonomy is important because advertisers might want to target at different levels. Perhaps there’s an advertiser only interested in targeting people that like the dividend aristocrats. If that’s the case, having that consumption data is really powerful.

Okay, but what do I need?

I’ve spent a lot of time at A Media Operator talking about 1st-party data. I think it is one of the most important things publishers can get right. It’s one of the foundational reasons that I believe the next decade is going to be very positive for the media business.

But anytime there is a huge opportunity, the vendors are going to line up. There are so many platforms that have sprung up over the past couple of years that deciding on who to work with can be complicated. To help ground the conversation, what most publishers are looking for is a customer data platform (CDP).

The Customer Data Platform Institute describes a CDP rather nicely:

“A Customer Data Platform is packaged software that creates a persistent, unified customer database that is accessible to other systems”.

This definition has three critical elements:

– “packaged software“: the CDP is a prebuilt system that is configured to meet the needs of each client.  Some technical resources will be required to set up and maintain the CDP, but it does not require the level of technical skill of a typical data warehouse project.  This reduces the time, cost, and risk and gives business users more control over the system, even though they may still need some technical assistance.

– “creates a persistent, unified customer database“: the CDP creates a comprehensive view of each customer by capturing data from multiple systems, linking information related to the same customer, and storing the information to track behavior over time. The CDP contains personal identifiers used to target marketing messages and track individual-level marketing results.

– “accessible to other systems“: data stored in the CDP can be used by other systems for analysis and to manage customer interactions.

Okay, but which one?

Ultimately, you’re going to have to go through the buying process and understand your specific needs—plus what systems you currently have. However, I have heard about two systems that publishers seem to really like: BlueConic and Omeda.

BlueConic is focused more exclusively on the CDP portion of the puzzle. It offers packaged software that creates a persistent, unified customer database, and is accessible to other systems. The Washington Post integrated BlueConic into its Arc Publishing platform in part because publishers were asking for it.

Omeda, on the other hand, is more of an “owned audience strategy” in a box. At the center is the individual and then there are all the ways that data is gathered and used all in one tool. So, it follows the rules from the Customer Data Platform Institute, but because it also has an ESP and paid-subscription management system basked into its software, accessibility is even easier.

If I were starting a media company from scratch, I would start my conversation with Omeda. If I am going to need a CDP, ESP, and subscription management system, why get multiple tools and try to connect them all together?

But while this is the closest I’ll get to recommending products to readers, I do believe it should ground the conversation for you. Avoid anything from adtech vendors. If they were hawking 3rd-party cookie crap a couple of years ago, I just wouldn’t trust them. Data leakage (where they secretly sell your 1st-party data) is probably going to be a problem. Just avoid them.

To wrap up, I just want to say this… The secret for marketers is giving them two things: who the reader is and what they consume. By blending the data that readers give you with what you gather, you can target pretty efficiently. The death of the 3rd-party cookie will happen one day. The sooner we get our 1st-party data figured out, the better.

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