A Post-cookie Survival Guide for Publishers – Tips From PubForum Nashville

On one hand, he is the Chief Revenue Officer of Salon.com, TVTropes.org, and Snopes.com, while also being an advisor to Supply Side Platform, Sovrn. It’s safe to say that Justin Wohl is a major ad tech luminary who has seen many industry changes over his 12-year career. 

He came to Publisher Forum Nashville to share what he’s learned with other publishers and how he’s used that knowledge to prepare his media brands for the cookieless future. 

Wohl got his start in ad operations, and around 2012-2013, programmatic started picking up. He watched the transition of programmatic tech firsthand, including RTB, prebid, and client-side bidders from the very start. He got to see it all at a decent scale because, at the time, the company that birthed his career, Federated Media, bought another company called Lijit, which today is called Sovrn. 

As a publisher, Wohl constantly evaluates content strategy, traffic patterns, traffic sources, search performance, and all the things a publisher should be concerned about. However, at Sovrn, he sits parallel to leadership, where he advises on the continued development of ad management, now known as Sovrn Ad Management. He acknowledges that monetizing programmatic ads is a critical part of the publishing business and has made it his due diligence to hone in on that aspect. 

His team has coined him the post-cookie savior. Core to his role is figuring out how to keep making programmatic money when the cookie crumbles. First-party data is emerging as a solution. Before publishers start panicking about whether they have enough of it, they should closely evaluate the potential troves of it they have at their fingertips. 

How Cookies Stole Ad Tech

We constantly talk about the future of the cookie, but does anyone remember how we got here? 

If you’ve been operating programmatically, cookies were something that happened to publishers rather than something that they were actively participating in. Third-party cookies came from the buy side’s desire to learn more about people’s online behaviors beyond their own websites, and publishers were left out of this process.

The third-party cookie helps buyers serve people personalized ads. Primarily, it benefits buyers with the ability to retarget hopeful customers across the open web. But cookie-syncing causes latency within the programmatic pipes, slowing down auctions and potentially causing publishers to miss out on quality bids. Third-party cookies can also be used to create fraudulent purchases and page activity.

 While all this transpired, publishers were busy doing other things. Publishers spent their time evaluating inventory quality, focusing on their website’s speed, keeping up with click-through rates, and advancing ad viewability. 

So when Supply Path Optimization (SPO) came along, it grabbed the publisher’s attention. As did ads.txt and Sellers.json. These factors had publishers’ attention, but now publishers are scrambling to find cookieless solutions.

Since publishers’ heads were in other clouds for so long, they missed out on learning more about different behaviors, like user syncing and cross-site tracking, according to Wohl. The cookie ending means it’s over for these aspects as well. The end of third-party cookies has already come to Safari and Firefox, which means buying is only happening on Chrome. In Salon’s case, Wohl pointed out that he’s seeing less than half of CPMs from Safari compared with Chrome. 

The cookie apocalypse isn’t something we should wait for. It’s happening now. Instead of publishers wanting to get Safari CPMs where Chromes are, think about the reality: Chrome CPMs will drop to Safari lows by 2023. 

Bridging the Gap

In an open market programmatic world, cookies make inventory addressable for publishers. At the same time, Seller Defined Audiences (SDA) has become one of the go-to concepts that the industry is starting to wrap its collective head around as a cookie replacement. But in his keynote address, Wohl also reassured publishers not to sleep on Bid Enrichment. 

“As a publisher, what more information can you put into the bid request to send to the buy side to benefit the value of that inventory?” Wohl asked the publishers in the packed room. “It doesn’t just have to be Seller Defined Audiences. It could be things like viewability or contextual categories or audience segments.”

Wohl also highlighted the importance of the buy and sell sides being on the same page. For example, he watched Safari rates on Salon.com drop in 2020, and advertisers blocked anything COVID-related. He made it his goal to try and improve the value of his inventory. Still, if the buy side doesn’t adopt these practices, there is no point. 

 Publishers need to take the lead and start supplying the buy side with the best data that shows the value of their inventory. They need to focus on how many requests from all participants are necessary to get the correct information to the buyer, and exchange partners could help pubs accomplish this by creating scale.

“But I don’t have First-party Data”

Publishers often don’t fully realize the extent of the first-party data they have access to. It’s important to audit your data and determine exactly what you have that you can pass. We all have first-party data; we don’t know all we have and how best to use it. Here’s what Wohl suggests.

Contextual Categories: What’s on your page? As publishers, we can index our web pages first and use that information in what we pass to buyers. Page activity is critical; publishers can send that information out to buyers immediately without hoarding that data. Also, first-party data is built into the Wrapper, which means it can be a function of the bid request to grab contextual information and send it out. 

Newsletters: Once ID vendors said authenticated traffic was the way to access their responses, Salon grew its newsletter program to six different products. Now when users click, an email address comes through with it. So, even if people never sign up for your site, if they click through anything in your newsletter, it presents a source of authenticated traffic that we all have the potential to generate. 

User Profiles: This is information that users voluntarily give to a publisher. Some pubs even use their house inventory to run polls and ask users questions. This is another source of rich first-party data.

Behavioral Audience Segments: For publishers who can effectively leverage their first-party data on-site and off-site, audience segmentation is a viable path to increasing revenue. With the right analytics in place, publishers can build high-value advertising inventory. As well, Prebid adapters allow pubs to supply attributes related to their content and users, and then apply permissions so only certain bidders can access those attributes. 

How Can Publishers Better Connect With Their Readers?

As privacy regulations mount, it’s becoming increasingly important for publishers to create deeper relationships with their readers. For readers to give over their data, the value exchange must be clear and worthwhile. 

Wohl pointed out that the sell side could do more to better connect with their readers. These are just a few ways that publishers can advance their connections with their readers:

Alleviate sign-on friction with SSO: This is similar to the ease of capturing data with an email newsletter click, but in this case, you can grab a user’s email address if they sign in with SSO. Knowing where your traffic referrals are coming from, publishers can prompt users to sign in with that specific social media account. At Salon, they are building particular landing pages on the website that are tailored to the referral source. This way, if someone visits the site from Twitter, Salon can provide a user experience they are familiar with. If users come from Facebook, they can show them different content based on that particular traffic source. 

Return Readers – Showing consumers what they expect instead of what the publisher thinks is best allows publishers to capture data and build a relationship with their readers from the moment they sign on. Making the experience more personalized to each user will only bring them back to your website. Salon customizes user profiles of return readers; for instance, if a user is tired of seeing a certain amount of ads per page, Salon can alter that experience. 

Anonymize your Users: Publishers can use IDs and identity obfuscation to create anonymous user profiles. This enables publishers to let people sign in and trust that they are not revealing the user’s identity but rather the narrative, which includes factors like age and gender. 

The Category Frequency: Category frequency is about using behaviors for messaging your users. How do we connect with them better if a reader returns to keep reading food content? It will be a great idea to ask them if they want to sign up for a food newsletter. Suppose you have constant traffic from a person to an article by one of your journalists who also has a newsletter. Then it makes sense to let that person know that the writer has a newsletter they should sign up for. It’s essential to engage with people based on their behaviors.