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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Zero-party data is a publisher’s secret weapon against big tech changes

September 21, 2021 | By Allison Mezzafonte, Media Advisor – Sailthru@sailthru

Every time there’s a big change in how Apple, Google, or Facebook works with publishers, a touch of panic can be felt in the air. Yet, we’ve all survived seismic shifts from these companies. From Facebook’s deprioritization of publisher content in 2016 to Apple’s recent iOS 14.5 release, we’ve absorbed the shock and made it through. But, as an industry, we always act like the next change might be our last. Now, Apple is specifically coming for email. It’s placing limitations on location and IP targeting that could make it more difficult to use personalization for some iPhone audiences… and the cycle repeats.

Yet, like all of the sky-is-falling fears before it, Apple’s latest move is nothing to panic about. The truth is that these changes are merely a distraction from the real work that publishers do every day to connect with their audiences through great content and great experiences. If change occurs to a specific algorithm or a particular measurement metric, that doesn’t alter the core of the business, which is to deliver value to an audience.

Embrace change for good

The old saying that “change is the only constant” is a well understood truth within the industry. But these changes tend to happen in rapid succession, making it near impossible to keep up if publishers are always in reaction mode. Nearly every year, digital experiences a seismic shift — from GDPR and other privacy regulations to pending cookie deprecation from Google. Rather than cling to what we have, we should be working to create stability from the inside out.

For example, open rate data will become skewed with the Apple iOS 15 release. It’s the core metric used to determine opportunity, in particular for advertisers. When this metric is threatened, fear rears its ugly head. If we can’t effectively track opens, should we begin to track clicks? If we do, does that mean publishers like Axios, who have a product-oriented approach to newsletters, should entirely scrap their email strategy that works? Should they start prompting their readers to “click to read” simply so they can track that user? Of course not. That fear should not determine a course of action.

Audience behavior won’t change. The desire to consume quality content in quality email experiences won’t change. The needs of our audiences must remain at the forefront of everything we do. 

As an industry, one way to do that is to collectively accept that KPIs will change — on both the buy and sell side. The sooner we do, the sooner we can collectively move forward. Together, publishers can meet to determine a matrix of KPIs, and discuss with groups like the IAB which metrics are in danger and how to push up more stable metrics so that everyone, including advertisers, can move forward despite industry changes.

Stability through zero-party data

Change might be the only constant, but audiences are the only source of the truth. Both publishers and advertisers rely on audience engagement to hit their goals. Yet few use direct audience insights as a source for measurement and KPIs. The more publishers understand their audiences, the better they are positioned to create stability for the long run.

Zero-party data is the best way to make that happen. Defined as data that publishers explicitly receive from their audience as part of a clear value exchange, zero-party data is more valuable than first-party data such as search or browsing preferences.

More than ever, people are aware of the value of their own data. In a 2021 Merkle survey, 76% noted that they would be willing to fill out a short survey in order to get a better online experience. Taking a page from retail, personalization is proven to lift sales. Thrive Market, an online grocery store, weaves data collection into their entire online experience, using quiz elements to guide shoppers and then shape the content and offers they get in return.

Value remains constant

This focus on the direct value exchange between consumer and brand can be applied in the publishing world to great effect. Rather than just passively observe what readers pay attention to, more brands should be actively asking, engaging, and personalizing. The data that’s collected not only improves content personalization and audience targeting, it creates a foundation of insights that can be used to optimize reader experience. And that data is only as good as the last ask, publishers need to continually ensure they’re up to date on people’s ever-changing preferences.

Zero-party data shows how engaged audiences are, how much they’re willing to share, what they like, and what they want. For example, The Independent collected insights from subscribers in a New Year’s wrap-up newsletter that ended up producing a brand new newsletter focused on climate change. The team asked subscribers about which topics resonated the most in 2020. While the pandemic ranked at the top, they were surprised to see how many also cared about news about the planet.  

Publishers have survived so much change in the digital world and we can certainly survive more. But rather than just focus on surviving, let’s actively build out a position of strength and move away from the passive, reactive moves of the past. When given the chance, people want to engage with publishers to make their experience better. Let’s own our own success, once and for all by actively prioritizing that relationship. 

About the author

Allison Mezzafonte has worked in the media and publishing industry for 20 years and is currently a growth consultant, as well as a Media Advisor to Sailthru. A former publishing executive for Bauer Media, Dotdash, and Hearst Digital, Allison serves as a strategic partner to media clients.

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