“Publishers Must Work Together to Build a Better Ecosystem”

The inevitable end of the line for third-party cookies offers publishers a golden opportunity to take advantage of their first-party data, according to Alysia Borsa, president of digital at Meredith Corp.

Alysia Borsa has worn many hats in the 10 years she‘s spent at Meredith — and each has revolved around data. Before becoming President of Digital in December, she helped define and execute Meredith‘s first-party data strategy for its properties, including People and Allrecipes.

But where there are opportunities, there are also risks that more advertiser dollars will flow to the walled garden platforms. That means that whatever mechanisms emerge to replace third-party cookies, publishers must also band together to voice concerns and ensure that alternatives don‘t perpetuate long-standing industry issues, such as a lack of transparency and data leakage.

“We‘ve got to be more consistent and control how [data] is used from one end of the ecosystem to the other,” she says. “We‘ve got to work together. Let‘s not re-create something that‘s broken.”

It‘s an interesting time for online advertising with so many industry shifts underway. What are the opportunities for publishers and their first-party data?

The opportunity is not just the ability to enable advertising, ad targeting and measurement but also to leverage our direct relationship with consumers across our entire business. Given that direct relationship, I also think it means we have an even greater responsibility to make sure we are adhering to consumer privacy and maintaining trust with our consumers.

As we think about first-party data moving forward, there absolutely is a risk that the easiest thing for the advertising partners we work with to do is to shift more money to the walled gardens. But our rich context, content and first-party data are also going to become more important. We need to make sure we are consistent and provide as much scale as possible in order to attract and continue to work with advertising partners in the way that we do today.

There will likely be a temporary dip when third-party cookies go away in 2023, just like we saw with GDPR [General Data Protection Regulation] and some of the other privacy regulations. But just like we‘ve seen a recovery from that, I believe there are going to be alternatives and options available, and premium publishers need to be ready, proving their value before that change occurs. We hope that everyone is testing multiple ways to continue effectively engaging and targeting consumers prior to third-party cookies going away; Google‘s announced delay in third-party cookie deprecation gives publishers more time to do that.

How can publishers continue working directly with advertisers and keep some of that spend that would otherwise go to the walled gardens?

There‘s an opportunity for publishers to come together and align on not only how first-party data can and should be used but also making sure that we‘re consistent in how we are segmenting, describing and providing that information to the ecosystem. It‘s incumbent upon all of us as publishers to take a lead as opposed to letting others in the ecosystem dictate how we‘re going to work going forward.

What we shouldn‘t be doing — and a lot of publishers that I talk to say the same thing — is trying to re-create the existing ecosystem. We want to create an ecosystem that puts the consumer first, is respectful of their privacy and wishes, and enables marketers and publishers to work together and be effective, without data leaking throughout the ecosystem and the lack of transparency that exists today. We don‘t want to re-create the current ecosystem.

Here‘s the challenge: How do we come up with solutions that are as effective as they have been without leaking all of that data and identity throughout the ecosystem?

Do you see publishers working together?

I do. I believe there‘s a lot of open dialogue happening right now amongst publishers. There‘s a lot of industry consortiums, proposals in the marketplace. We‘re proud to be a part of the new Publisher First-Party Segments Initiative, for example, which brings a unified way to target audiences at scale across leading publisher sites in a privacy-safe way. This group comprises 30 publishers and is already processing more than 3 billion transactions daily. There are a lot of shared learnings and conversations about different solutions that we can align to going forward that make sense. I‘m really encouraged.

Are there additional efforts that are further along?

One of the Prebid solutions that is being discussed is one that many publishers are aligning behind. Obviously, many publishers are part of the W3C and talking through the FLoC options and what that would mean. There are also conversations happening about what else could be available outside of those proposals.

I don‘t think there‘s going to be one specific solution. I think it‘s important that for solutions that are being proposed and tested, like Unified ID 2.0, publishers use their weight to actually push, influence and ensure that we have a seat at the table and that if there are concerns about those solutions that we‘re voicing them.

What we don‘t want to be is disintermediated, and I do feel like in today‘s ecosystem, publishers are disintermediated. We‘re the ones with the direct relationship with consumers; we‘re collecting the data, we‘re collecting the identity, and then it gets lost in the ecosystem between the marketer and the publisher.

And we‘ve got to be more transparent. We‘ve got to be more consistent and control how [data] is used from one end of the ecosystem to the other. We‘ve got to work together. Let‘s not re-create something that‘s broken.

Tell us about your first-party data assets.

One of my major responsibilities when I came to Meredith was to lay out a first-party data strategy. Meredith already had really strong data assets, but the data, insights and analytics were siloed throughout the organization within different functions. After laying out the data strategy, I became the Chief Data Officer seven, eight years ago. My job was to bring all of our data and insights together and scale them.

Today, we have central teams, central taxonomies, a central identity graph and a central platform for insights and activation. It all culminated in our Data Studio, which is a suite of services that leverages our data, insights, activation and consulting. It also enables our second-party data partnerships.

Data Studio can do everything from work with partners to ingest their data, build profiles and insights, predict the trends and activate and target, whether it‘s from an audience perspective or a contextual perspective.

If a marketer has an audience it wants to target for cleaning products, we can help them understand what content, experiences and products they‘re engaging with from our perspective to provide anything from insights to changing marketing messages to targeting those consumers more effectively.

After spearheading Meredith‘s first-party data strategy and launching Data Studio, what advice would you give to publishers who are just starting to figure out their first-party data strategy?

It is a long-term investment. It‘s not one and done, so you need to lay out a strategy with prioritized use cases. You can get lost in the data and all of the different ways that you can use it, so having a clear strategy with prioritized use cases is important, and you‘ll have to prioritize based on your assets, capabilities, investment levels, staffing, etc.

I‘ve also learned that quality and data governance are often overlooked, but critical. If the quality of your first-party data and how you‘re collecting it isn‘t consistent or meaningful, that can really trip you up. You also need to think through data governance, and obviously, in the current environment, data privacy needs to be considered at every stage.

I know those things are not sexy, but they‘re really important because if your first-party data is good, you can build so much from that. Everyone will jump to using machine learning and AI, which we‘re also doing, but if the core data isn‘t good or consistent, nothing you build on top will be either.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.