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What Publishers Can Learn From Retail Media Networks

By OpenWeb

Got a trip coming up? If so, you might see some unusually relevant advertising on your hotel TV: as announced recently, Marriott has launched its own ad network. And they’re not alone. Just a few days later, Ulta—the largest beauty retailer in the US—launched an ad network, too. It appears we have a trend on our hands.

The why here will be obvious to anyone who works in (or around) digital marketing. Third-party cookies are on the way out—Google plans to phase them out of Chrome by 2023—and everyone’s scrambling for a sustainable way forward. In this race, brands like Marriott and Ulta are well-equipped: both possess rich stores of valuable zero- and first-party data, including consumers’ interests, demographic info, buying power and more.

As it happens, publishers are also extremely well-positioned here—or can be. Every time a reader visits your site, you learn something about them—and the more time they spend, the more actions they take, the more you learn. If publishers can learn how to make that knowledge work for them—how to take raw zero- and first-party data and translate it into actionable insights—they’ll stay thriving long after the cookie takes its last breath.

Generating first-party data through comments, quizzes and more

Let’s start with some definitions. In a publishing context, zero-party data is data a reader shares directly with a publisher; first-party data is the data collected as a reader uses your site. In other words: survey responses would be zero-party data, while time-on-site, content preferences, etc. would be first-party. For publishers, then, the goal should be to expand the opportunities you have to gather zero- and first-party data from readers.

One effective way to increase the production of first-party data: comments. Editors and writers are by necessity limited in how much content they can produce in a given day. But the same restrictions don’t apply to users. By using high-quality moderation tools to facilitate discussion, you can drastically expand the quantity of readable content on your site. This content will keep people clicking and reading, generating reams of first-party data in the process.

In general, you should be seeking out ways to get your audience to engage with your content. Polls and quizzes can work wonders here—you can ask about anything, including how your content is resonating. Allowing readers to track topics of interest can also boost your available stores of data and help you better-target your content offerings.

The end-result of all these efforts is more time on-site, more pageviews, more return visits, more registrations—and, crucially, more data. You’ll learn who your users are, what kinds of content they like, how they prefer to consume that content, and more.

Use data to target ads and increase subscriptions

Once the data is flowing, the question inevitably becomes: what exactly can you do with all of it?

Advertising, obviously, is the first thing that comes to mind. Zero- and first-party data can facilitate high-level contextual targeting: i.e., advertising that displays ads to a reader based on what they’re actively looking at. And contextual targeting can be just as effective as behavioral targeting across a variety of metrics, including ad recall and awareness, purchase intent, and more. 

But right now, across the industry, advertising is taking a backseat to a push for subscriptions: the New York Times now makes most of its money from digital subscriptions, and many other outlets are aggressively courting subscribers.

In this push, the value of zero- and first-party data cannot be overstated. With the right tools, publishers can use them to assess behavior in real time and predict a user’s next steps. From there, a well-timed CTA can get a reader over the hump to a subscription. Publishers can also use zero- and first-party data to serve up more content they already know a given user will like—thus boosting the odds of a subscription down the line.

There’s a reason that, over the coming months and years, countless companies will likely be following Marriott and Ulta’s leads and forming ad networks of their own. In a post-cookie world, it’s the information you get directly from customers that matters most. The more of it you have, the better off you’ll be.

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