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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Now is the time for publishers to take back control

May 4, 2020 | By Justin Choi, Founder and CEO—Nativo @JustinCie

The forces that were already turning the publishing world upside down have been accelerated by the ongoing global pandemic. And publishers have been busy battening down the hatches as best they can. However, as the conversation shifts from sheltering in place to returning to some form of “normal,” publishers have a unique opportunity to shape the “normal” to which they’ll return on the other side of this crisis. 

Right now, as business-as-usual operations take a temporary pause due to the lockdown, repercussions reverberate across many industries. This offers publishers an unprecedented chance to roll up their sleeves and reset their course within the media landscape. Publishers know the direction they need to head. They’ve just lacked the break in the daily grind (and quarterly revenue expectations) to implement the course correction that they know is necessary for long-term sustainability. A pause in “business as usual” was sorely needed. 

Now is the time. This opportunity may not come again. Let’s look at how publishers can use this “pause” to take back control of their own destinies. They can use their collective power to transform the ad tech and media landscape for the future. 

Game changing

There’s no winning a direct battle against the triopoly. But publishers can still flourish in an ad world dominated by Google, Facebook, and Amazon. They simply cannot do it on their own. And they can’t do it by continuing down the same path they’ve been on. Banners and programmatic media represent the (same) game being played by the major platforms, only publishers are not as good at it. It’s time to play a different game, and at a scale that truly matters. It’s time for publishers to unite around the engagement and influence that define their value to consumers.   

When it comes to industry-wide collaboration, consider it a form of “herd immunity.” Coming out on the other side of the pandemic, publishers need to start working together to influence the media and ad tech landscape. It’s time to act as one and take some of the control back that has been willingly relinquished over the years. To do this, they need to focus on four key areas that they must influence in order to change the landscape: technology, data, inventory, and KPIs.

Cooperation and collective action

A healthy media business is characterized by healthy competition. But let’s face it: Covid-19 has the industry reeling. So, now we must re-evaluate what is best for our companies, and for the industry as a whole. We have an opportunity to reimagine the consortium mindset for a new era. We can look at DCN’s own TRUSTX as an example. By collectively providing premium inventory at scale, we create a technology backbone we can build upon.

Publishers don’t need to split their attention to become tech companies in their own right. They shouldn’t try to recreate Facebook or beat the existing walled gardens at hyper-targeting users with direct response ads. Publisher power lies in engagement and influence — changing minds and informing with trust and credibility. To capitalize on that power, they must work with partners that are incentivized to act in the publishers’ best interests and don’t work against these traits. 

They need partners that can help them unite to achieve a level of differentiation that has impact at a scale that matters. A big part of that is seeking out technology that can improve the speed, experiences, and ad quality on their sites. Lest publishers forget, ads are part of their content, and the quality of their ad experiences reflects on their brands.

Take control of your data

With a collaborative foundation to support them, it’s time for publishers to get their data back in order. Much as the Covid-19 pandemic offers the pause publishers need to hit the reset button, we’re also at a unique once-in-a-decade crossroads that will allow publishers to push back on the external data sources that have undercut their opportunities for the past decade. 

The world has been awash in third-party audience data for years now. And the providers of that data have been capturing a large part of the media value chain, diminishing the importance of the supply itself and publisher context. However, with the shift to cookieless environments and rise in privacy regulations, many of the tactics of these third-party data vendors have been rendered unsustainable. And this, in turn, opens up new opportunities for open web publishers to reclaim that value for themselves.

The problem is that many publishers are going down the same path of either fragmented homegrown solutions that will not matter in the long run or outsourcing everything to a new vendor. No matter how much more publisher-friendly those new data vendors are than the last ones, this individual outsourcing puts publishers at risk of losing their influence again down the road. Working together changes this. Publishers can aggregate their influence to serve the needs of the industry versus only those of the most demanding publishers.

Take control of your inventory

If publishers can come together to bring collective scale to their advertising opportunities, they’ll also be able to accomplish another much-desired initiative to increase sustainability: They can pull their inventory out of exchanges. It’s no secret that the backdoor access these exchanges have to publishers’ premium inventory is undercutting the value of their inventory. Programmatic success by third parties works against publishers’ interests. But of course, simply pulling your inventory from these third parties is not enough. Buyers do want ease and accessibility, which is why cooperation is key. Publishers must give them a way to buy that’s easy and exclusive.  

Take control of your KPIs

Should publishers really be judged on how well they get users to click off their sites?  If you’re looking to drive conversions, hit an audience or drive low-cost clicks, throw in the towel now.  Publishers will never beat a Facebook on user data, an Amazon on capturing commerce intent or Google on capturing search intent — never. Pardon the bluntness, but trying to beat the giants at their own game is like choosing to be the team that plays against the Harlem Globe Trotters. Don’t play a game you can’t win. 

Publishers are great at driving engagement, influence, and deeper thought across a smaller, more selective audience. The ad experience and the KPIs around them should reflect that. As powerful as the large platforms are, they are still largely built on direct response. Digital branding and mid-funnel influence is still nascent and a game that publishers are better equipped to play and win. 

Covid-19’s derailment of the daily business treadmill offers a unique opportunity for publishers to hit the soft reset button on their current paths and unite for a more sustainable future. If they seize this chance, they have the opportunity to wield far greater control over the post-pandemic world into which they emerge. They simply need the courage to not go back to “normal.”

The time is right. Let’s move.

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