Publishers‘ Secret Weapon? They Know What Readers Want

Publishers have long recognized that developing a direct relationship with their readers is essential.

One path they are using to solidify those relationships is through subscriptions, newsletters and authenticated users; another is investing in first-party data to understand the intent of every person who visits their pages — whether or not they‘re logged in.

Jana Meron, senior vice president of programmatic and data strategy at Insider Inc., says first-party data is critical to maintaining a competitive advantage with advertisers and to delivering a better, more personalized user experience for Insider‘s readers.

She leads the company‘s programmatic strategy, including private marketplace (PMP) deals, SSP and data partnerships. She‘s also helping bring audience data to the forefront of the advertising conversation: Revenue tied to the publisher‘s new audience data platform, SÁGA, quadrupled this year.

“We‘re seeing that people‘s content consumption is an incredibly powerful signal — and that first-party data outperforms other forms of data as a result,” Meron says.

CafeMedia spoke to Meron about her views on identity, the power of first-party data and how it will shape the future of advertising campaigns.

So many publishers rely wholly on advertising to fund their business. Insider has a pretty diversified model, with subscription, advertising, newsletters and more. Can you talk a bit about how Insider views monetization?

Insider long ago made a strategic decision to develop as many robust revenue streams as possible. While advertising is a large portion of our overall revenue, we have also steadily grown our subscription and syndication businesses and much more. When it comes to programmatic, and particularly the development of our first-party data platform, we‘ve been working on this for years. First-party data has quickly become a central driver of our programmatic business and only continues to grow in importance.

You have a large subscription base now. How are you leveraging user data?

We can generate a tremendous amount of value by getting a better understanding of how our readers engage on our platform. How people consume content is an incredibly powerful signal, which is the reason that, for us, first-party data solutions outperform traditional ones. Interestingly, we can glean insights from the behavior of our users, whether they or are not signed in to our site.

Is identity data still important?

Identity data is still important, but how it‘s being used is changing. While there are attempts at workarounds in the face of the demise of third-party cookies, these are not scalable or feasible (case in point is Apple‘s recent move to obfuscate both email and IP addresses — even beyond Apple‘s own ecosystem).

How do you think publishers would benefit from participating in cross-industry identity solutions?

Honestly, I‘m not sure. If publishers are asked to provide identity data, does it mean just blindly giving up control over where that data goes and how it‘s used? In the third-party ecosystem, for example, the data provided by publishers often resulted in questionable data siphoning and selling — due to third-party pixels being dropped outside of a publishers‘ domain. Well, it‘s a new day. That doesn‘t mean we‘re not happy to share user information with our partners; it‘s just that the data we‘re willing to put on the open web is very different from the information we‘re able and willing to package on behalf of our advertisers.

What‘s the difference?

It‘s pretty simple. Some behavioral segments in our taxonomy are more valuable to us than others because our knowledge about them is more robust. Some categories — for instance, celebrity gossip — are not a core competency of our brand, so we‘re more than happy to make it available to the general programmatic marketplace. But if you want access to our business content readers, for example, you‘ll have to come directly to us.

Do you see private marketplaces increasing with these changes?

I think more dollars will flow to Programmatic Guaranteed and Preferred Deals, and the notion of real-time bidding will be more for the long tail and the open exchange. That‘s because we‘re hearing from buyers that it‘s too hard to manage multiple PMPs at multiple rates with multiple algorithms inside the DSPs and SSPs. Advertisers will need to have PMPs with their publishers because the publishers will be unwilling to put their most valuable asset — their user data — into the open marketplace. Also, advertisers and agencies just want one price. That‘s where Programmatic Guaranteed and Preferred Deals can help since they‘re set at a fixed price.

You launched an audience data platform called SÁGA last year. Can you tell us how advertisers are using it?

Advertisers can use it at all stages of a campaign with us, and it helps them understand their consumers in a much deeper way. There‘s SÁGA Audience, which is for audience activation, SÁGA Inform, where we can make strategic recommendations based on more than 5 billion monthly data points and SÁGA Insights, where we share what we‘ve learned about what consumers are buying. This year, we‘ve already quadrupled our revenue from SÁGA year over year, and we‘re seeing higher engagement rates, CTRs and renewal rates. Today, approximately 20 percent of our ad revenue is tied to first-party data.

Will that be affected when cookies go away?

No. We built this platform knowing that cookies were on the way out. We‘re even planning ultimately to extend this off-site, which we believe is possible with some innovative new solutions that are still in progress.

Does this work because of your huge dataset? What advice do you have for other publishers about activating their first-party data?

Of course, our huge dataset has made SÁGA‘s success possible. My advice for others would be to understand that developing a first-party platform requires an all-hands-on-deck approach, including bringing together ad, business, product and tech teams. You need buy-in from them all for it to work effectively.

Did the job of a brand just get much harder from a data and measurement perspective?

Not really. Brands have been doing marketing since the ‘50s with little to no attribution, and it worked for them. The reason that publishers are at such a disadvantage is consumers still don‘t understand the value exchange involved on the open web. They think content should be free and don‘t understand that it‘s the ads that most often pay for the content they enjoy. Unfortunately, we‘ve done a poor job as an industry in explaining this value exchange.

Consumers have seen a ton of advocacy campaigns about privacy. How can publishers protect user privacy while making the value exchange clear?

While there is some risk to consumers, I would say that the fear is not commensurate with the actual risk. In my opinion, this is largely due to news stories about big data breaches at some of the larger companies. People then mistakenly conflate how ad targeting uses their data, and the whole industry then develops a bad reputation. I‘m actually more worried about user experience — that is, if publishers can‘t personalize ads or content, the experience on their sites will turn people off. Users may not realize this until they‘ve turned off personalization and suddenly don‘t like their experience on the web as much.

What do you think the biggest challenge will be for publishers once cookies go away?

I‘m not worried about premium publishers like us; we‘ll find solutions, and we can afford to set up clean rooms to enrich advertiser data. I‘m more worried about the mid-to-long-tail players and what eventually happens to them. But, then again, we‘re seeing a flight to quality already, so maybe the deprecation of cookies just weeds out more of the garbage on a faster time horizon.

And, what do you think advertisers need to understand to be ready for the future?

They have to realize that mixed media modeling is OK — and recognize that the 1:1 targeting they currently have is far from perfect. They should stop trying to re-create an ecosystem that was broken to begin with and not wait until the last minute to start talking to partners about how all these changes are going to impact their business. We also collectively need to find a way to educate the consumer about the value exchange they‘re participating in and make it clear to them that free content doesn‘t exist and never has.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.