June 30, 2020

The New York Times: We Want to Own The Audience Relationship

The perpetual internal battle for many operators is whether they should include their content on platforms. Facebook News Tab, Instant Articles, Apple News and the list goes on.

In one corner, the traffic hungry operator. If I include my content there, won’t I see sizable returns? After all, the platforms have all the audience, so obviously we must go where the audience is.

In the other corner, the relationship hungry operator. If I give my content to the platforms, I will not build a direct relationship with my reader and this will interfere in my ability to maximize my monetization.

Clearly, you know where I stand on this. But now The New York Times has decided that if it’s going to build a business with 10 million subscribers, it needs to own its relationship with the reader.

The New York Times referenced an internal memo management had sent discussing the decision to leave Apple News:

“Core to a healthy model between The Times and the platforms is a direct path for sending those readers back into our environments, where we control the presentation of our report, the relationships with our readers, and the nature of our business rules,” Meredith Kopit Levien, chief operating officer, wrote in a memo to employees. “Our relationship with Apple News does not fit within these parameters.”

Naturally, Apple appears nonplussed by it, suggesting that The New York Times only contributed a few stories a day. Nevertheless, this is an important step in the evolution of media companies as they start to realize that it is imperative they own the relationship with the audience.

Traffic used to be the only thing that mattered to publishers. The more users that we got, the better things were. However, as we lament how digital media is dying, let’s understand that we are accountable to this. Unlike the platforms, which did everything they could to acquire and retain users, publishers simply cared about traffic. Traffic meant ad dollars.

Compared to other platforms, Apple News is one of the least offensive. I’ll be honest with you, though. I don’t think any publisher should be putting their content on Apple News. Think about the pitch in simplest terms:

  • Step 1: Give Apple News your full article content
  • Step 2: Apple News readers consume your content
  • Step 3: Somehow profit?

In what world does it make sense to give up full articles of our content to anyone without receiving cash in exchange for it? And yet, that’s what many publishers have been doing. We give up so much control of our content in exchange for the possibility of generating revenue. As if that has ever really worked anywhere.

To make matters worse, Apple introduced News+, which was an attempt at a Netflix for News. Users would pay one flat fee and be given access to all the content a publisher pushed to Apple News. It was obvious for Apple, but it would have resulted in drops in revenue to publishers that were simultaneously trying to build their own subscription offerings.

It needs to stop.

While The New York Times might be first among the major players, I would advise other media companies to make the same move. Apple News gets a tremendous amount of traffic, but that’s only because all these publishers are giving their content away for free.

Instead, publishers should be relying on sources of traffic that bring users to their site and then spend the majority of their effort converting those people into lasting relationships. None of this is to new to long standing readers, but we’re all guilty of falling trap to the traffic drug.

It reminds me of what I said when we were discussing publishers wanting Facebook and Google to pay for the right to send us traffic:

A user that types www.amediaoperator.com into their browser is likely my audience. Why? I have done a good job getting them to know the brand. Even a user that types A Media Operator into Google and then clicks over could be argued as my audience.

However, when a user goes to Google and does a search for a certain topic and then clicks over to the publisher, that is not the publisher’s audience. That person is Google’s audience and Google is doing its job to direct users to the right kind of content. As the publisher, we are borrowing that user.

Now, if the user signs up for a newsletter, pays for a subscription or some other sort of engagement, then the user becomes the publisher’s audience as well. A relationship has started. But in no way are anonymous, flyby users our audience. That’s not how it works.

The same thing can be said for all of this Apple News traffic. None of it is our audience. Even if the user religiously reads our content on Apple News, so long as they remain on that app, they are Apple’s users.

Publishers should refuse to give away free content to satisfy Apple’s users. If Apple wants that content, it can pay for it.

I know this might be a controversial, absolutist statement, but the media business is evolving. The ones that survive are the ones that have built the deepest relationship with readers. That can’t happen if they’re all spending their time on Apple News.

Google Analytics Not Blocked by Safari + Other Apple News

Last week was Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) and if there’s ever a time for media to get nervous, it was when Apple started discussing privacy changes in version 14 of the Safari web browser.

In a press released along with it, Apple had this to say:

Privacy has always been built into Safari, and a new Privacy Report delivers added visibility into how Safari protects browsing activity across the web. Users can choose when and which websites a Safari extension can work with, and tools like data breach password monitoring never reveal your password information — not even to Apple.

To go along with it, Apple included the below screenshot.


If you look at the second to last one listed there, it says www.google-analytics.com. Say what you will about Google, but GA is hands down one of the greatest tools ever invented.

If Apple were to start blocking this, it would have a catastrophic impact on our ability to track how our websites were doing. What that screenshot is saying is that there are specific trackers from that domain name that are being blocked. Fortunately, the bulk of Google Analytics’ trackers are not actually impacted by it.

According to Simo Ahava, an analytics developer:

When Safari says it blocks or prevents a tracker, what it means is that the ITP algorithm has flagged some domain as having cross-site tracking capabilities, and Safari has, among other things, stripped it of its capabilities to carry cookies in cross-site requests, also known as third-party cookies.

THIS is what Safari means when it’s prevented a known tracker in google-analytics.com. That domain has been flagged as a cross-site tracking domain, and Safari assigns certain protective measures to any communications to and from that domain.

He goes on to explain:

Google Analytics is a first-party analytics platform.

It’s downloaded from Google’s servers as a JavaScript library, any identifiers are stored in first-party cookies, and any HTTP requests to the GA endpoint use these identifiers and these identifiers alone to specify the source of the tracker. No third-party storage access is being used with the requests to google-analytics.com.

I’ll be honest… I’m not a reactionary person, but when I first saw it tweeted by Ben Evans in a now deleted tweet, I was convinced that Google Analytics had been made useless. If I can’t account for nearly 20% of my global traffic, it’s not an effective tool. I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel a little panic.

Alas, it didn’t happen…

But that doesn’t mean Apple didn’t continue to dig programmatic’s ever deeper grave at WWDC. According to a story by Ad Age:

The changes, announced Monday at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference, apply to the company’s Identifier for Advertisers (IDFA), which assigns a unique number to a user’s mobile device. Advertisers have access to the feature and use it in areas including ad targeting, building lookalike audiences, attribution and encouraging consumers to download apps.

IDFA is shared with app makers and advertisers by default, but that will change once iOS 14 rolls out this fall. Then, users must give explicit permission through a popup for app publishers to track them across different apps and websites, or to share that information with third parties.

Let me try and boil this down in a simpler way…

Rather than advertisers being able to target us by phone number, Apple assigns each of us with an identifier, which it calls IDFA. Advertisers can then target and track success of its campaigns based on IDFA. The big change, though, is that users will have to opt-in to give that data to the advertisers. Will users choose to opt in? Perhaps some will out of blind laziness. But will some opt out?

This will continue a trend that I’ve been writing about for a while now, which states that the advertising pendulum will swing back toward contextual targeting. With Safari and Firefox already blocking most 3rd party cookies and Chrome following over the next 18 months, cookie-based tracking is dying.

But in its place we can imagine a better, cleaner and more publisher-friendly experience. I’m increasingly becoming convinced that the best thing to happen to publishers is this push for more privacy. It hurts right now, but it’s necessary. It forces the audience to be reattached to the media impression, which has been languishing over the past decade.

One question is why is Apple making IDFA obsolete? Some believe it’s the precursor to its own advertising business. According to Mobile Dev Memo, which suggested this was coming a month before the news:

Note that Apple also potentially has a competitive advantage in serving ads within its proprietary apps and more broadly throughout its iOS ecosystem: it has direct access to device and advertising identifiers that may soon be deprecated and no longer accessible to advertisers. If Apple does deprecate the IDFA advertising identifier, what ad network would be better positioned than ASA?

When it launched, the general sentiment from advertisers toward ASA was that it would be a minor component of overall traffic and, in some ways, serve as a tax on App Store discovery (advertisers use ASA to bid against their own keywords so that competitors can’t poach organic installs). I rarely see the advertisers I work with spending more than 5-8% of their overall budget on ASA given its limited reach, but that is changing with these new placements. If Apple grows ASA into a bonafide ad network, and especially if Apple does deprecate its advertising identifier, Apple could propel ASA into the top echelon of mobile app install advertising platforms.

It only makes sense…

Clearly there’s a lot going on in the world of Apple. For publishers, two things matter most:

  1. Own your relationship with the reader. Apple News will not help you succeed in building that direct relationship. Unless Apple wants to pay you for content, there’s no reason to help them build their business.
  2. Continue developing contextual ad products. Programmatic as we know it is going to continue suffering. Bring the audience and the media impression together again.

Those publishers that can achieve both of these will be fine over the coming years. Those that can’t will likely struggle.