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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Community is good for audiences—and great for publishers’ data strategies

February 28, 2022 | By Nadav Schachter, Sr. Product Manager — OpenWeb @OpenWebHQ

You know this already, but it’s worth repeating: The third-party cookie is on its deathbed.

Luckily for publishers, first-party data––data collected directly from users––is waiting in the wings. Far from a consolation prize, first-party data presents a tremendous opportunity. Beyond the obvious advertising implications, it offers a chance for publishers to learn more about, and grow closer with, their audiences.

Right now, Google is pushing Topics as an alternative to the cookie, which it’s phasing out of its Chrome browser in 2023. (This is after scrapping their previous cookie alternative, the Federated Learning of Cohorts API.) But Topics, as presently configured, can’t offer the kinds of granular data that publishers can acquire with a robust first-party strategy. All Topics offers publishers is a list of three recent interests possessed by each user. That can tell you something, certainly––but nowhere near as much as a user’s on-site behavior.

By working proactively to meet the demands of the first-party era, publishers can take back power from Big Tech. Along the way, they can also forge a new bond with readers tired of the noise on social media. If you’ve neglected first-party data strategies to this point, don’t fret: There are simple steps you can take to unleash its full power. 

First things first: get the conversation flowing

Since the dawn of Web 2.0, social media companies have been siphoning off the discourse surrounding publisher content. A juicy expose gets published, or an ultra-quotable takedown occurs, and people turn to Facebook or Twitter to talk about it. But there’s absolutely no reason why that content can’t be discussed on the publisher’s site itself. 

The publishers who get ahead in the first-party era will be the ones who create the conditions for that to happen. They’ll foster vibrant, owned communities around the content they publish. When the conversation stays in-house, you inevitably come to know your readers better. And your readers, in turn, come to value lingering on (and returning to) your site––for the content, and for the community that content generates.

Conversation is, in fact, the richest source of first-party data available to publishers. The right moderation tools can help publishers ensure the conversation flows freely, unimpeded by hate speech, personal attacks, and other forms of disruption. They help to create the kind of environment that people want to linger in, and return to. And the more time readers spend on-site, the more valuable first-party data you’ll acquire.

Deep, actionable insights via first-party data 

So how can first-party data bring you closer to your audience?

Let’s start at the level of content. Moderated conversation, and other tools like polls, quizzes, and reporter-reader AMAs, generate all kinds of signals about what your readers are responding to. Equipped with that knowledge, publishers can produce more of what their readership wants. This, in turn, boosts engagement and time spent on-site.

What we’re describing here is a paradigm shift. For much of the social media era, readers were viewed as, effectively, interchangeable. The point was to attract as many of them as possible, while paying little to no attention to who they actually were. In the new media environment taking shape––in which, for many outlets, paid subscriptions play an ever-growing role––things have to be done differently. 

Today’s ideal is an engaged reader who returns frequently and trusts a brand enough to share meaningful information about themselves in the comments. This kind of information takes first-party data to a whole new level. Suddenly, you know not only what a reader clicks on but why they find that particular kind of content appealing. You gain a clearer sense of who they are. The best part is that no one has to feel icky about it, because they’ve voluntarily entrusted you with that information. In this environment, you can tailor content and target subscriptions with a precision that was previously unimaginable.

To illustrate this, let’s compare first-party data with the kind of data you can (for the time being, at least) get from a third-party brokerage. Third-party data is often frustratingly imprecise; users are lumped into broad ranges (of age, income, education level, etc.) whose accuracy is often questionable. 

With first-party data, by contrast, there’s no questioning the accuracy of the information. You are, after all, acquiring it firsthand, directly from the reader. This allows publishers to target readers with a depth and reliability that third-party data could never offer.

All of this is to say that, as we wait patiently for the third-party cookie to finally pass, we shouldn’t worry ourselves too much. Publishers have everything they need to get along––to thrive––without it. And what they just might learn, as they take their first tentative steps into the first-party future, is that cookies were actually getting in the way––preventing them from really getting to know their audience. 

In the first party era, it’s that relationship––between reader and publisher––that matters most. Cultivate it, and the rewards will be great.

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