Capitalizing on Your First-party Data With Interactive Content to Increase Engagement and CPMs

With 2023 just a stone’s throw away, the time is now to get data ready.

Even if Google moves the mark again, publishers in the open web can no longer rely on old monetization strategies in the consumer privacy era that we’re living in. Publishers have a golden opportunity to maintain and potentially increase revenue just by collecting data and owning data that will be far more accurate than any cookie ever did.

Given those current conditions, the top three challenges that lay ahead for publishers are:

  1. How can we acquire first-party data and scale it?
  2. How can we deliver our content to the right audience?
  3. How can we deal with the disruptions to our revenue streams and operations that have resulted from privacy changes?

EX.CO is changing the way companies interact with their audience on their digital properties, with content-first and people-first experiences that engage and deliver results.

We spoke with Will Hathaway, Head of Strategic Business Development at EX.CO to learn about how his company helps publishers face those challenges head-on by leveraging content experiences to increase engagement, revenue, and CPMs.

Lynne d Johnson: You came from Vemba to EX.CO, where you now oversee North American partnerships and EX.CO’s owned and operated site. Can you talk about how your experience from working with a video distribution platform, and now your role at EX.CO, help inform the work you do with your partners on both the buy and sell sides?

Will Hathaway: I’ve worked on all sides of the media and ad tech businesses including supply, demand, operations, publisher, vendor, etc. and would highly recommend it to people who have traditionally been siloed in a single vertical.

Working on the demand side helps me more effectively communicate with the supply side about what demand is looking for, and what will yield the best results. Working as a publisher helps me communicate more effectively as a vendor by speaking the same language, being empathetic to their points of view, and cross-pollinating ideas that have worked on other sites.

When I work with publishers at EX.CO, I always try to ask questions first, understand the needs of the business, and then combine that with my knowledge across the wider ecosystem to give them the best consultation that I can, whether that is working with us or otherwise. I also do this as a publisher when working with vendors. It’s rare, but as a publisher, I actually ask vendors what I can do for them, not what they can do for me.

Vendors dedicate materially more resources to publishers who are revenue drivers for their business. If a vendor is working with publisher A who is on a 95/5 rev share and publisher B who is on a 70/30 rev share, who is more likely to get access to the vendor’s direct-sold demand? If a vendor is working with a publisher who is making $1,000 a day in profit vs. a publisher who is making $100 a day in profit, who is going to get the best developers, ad ops, and account managers dedicated to the account? I intentionally flip the pyramid upside down to ensure that I’m taking care of my vendors, and in return, they take care of me tenfold.

LdJ: Thanks for that explanation. Let’s switch gears a bit and jump into the top issue that’s plaguing the entire industry. Google offered the advertising ecosystem a reprieve saying they wouldn’t pull the plug on the third-party cookie until 2023 and then announced plans to take a different direction with their cookie replacement, veering away from FLoC towards Topics API. And privacy pressures from government and big tech are mounting. What are the top three challenges you see for publishers as they move further into 2022?

WH: It’s true that Google delayed the death of the third-party cookie but we all still have to prepare and there’s no time like the present. Focusing on new, effective, privacy-compliant data collection strategies now will help publishers in the long run. At EX.CO, we’ve identified 3 mounting challenges for publishers:

  1. Disrupting Revenue Streams and Business Operations – Publishers reliant on cookies will see a decrease in revenue, and the question is how much. Not even Facebook is immune, as evident by their latest earnings report. The uncertainty around the actual drop in revenue makes yearly planning and business operations difficult to predict. It is recommended that publishers take action in advance to account for potential decreases.

  2. Acquiring First-Party Data – Let’s face it: First-party data is the new media currency. Many publishers still rely on third-party cookies to collect data about their audience which is a fundamental mistake. As we get closer to 2023, it’s vital for publishers to partner with companies that have relationships with identity solution providers. This will inherently determine which publishers will survive and which will not.

    However, in addition to identity solutions, publishers must find new ways of collecting valuable data beyond the cookie. There are a growing number of new ways to gain information about an audience such as contextual intelligence, viewability, zero-party data tools, and interactive content, all of which can further enrich data sets.

  3. Delivering the Right Content – More and more, audiences are expecting a personalized experience when they visit a website. Publishers with robust first-party data have the ability to activate that data by segmenting their audience and delivering different content to specific users, and truth be told, most publishers are still trying to figure out how to do this effectively. The more information the publishers sit on, the smarter they will be in establishing the right kind of value exchange – more personalized, relevant content – that will ultimately drive more subscriptions and additional revenue.

LdJ: How should publishers approach their data strategies given these challenges and do you have examples?

WH: Publishers have a golden opportunity to maintain and potentially increase their revenue just by collecting first-party data and owning data that will be far more accurate than any cookie ever provided. Google’s delays should not deter publishers from future-proofing their data strategies.

One way for publishers to consolidate these goals is to shift how they think about engagement and interactivity because if you improve your relationship with your audience, it will have a positive impact on your reach and CPMs

It’s important to examine your top goals as a company. Typically, publishers want to increase revenue, increase engagement, and increase CPMs. One way for publishers to consolidate these goals is to shift how they think about engagement and interactivity because if you improve your relationship with your audience, it will have a positive impact on your reach and CPMs. Also, when you combine engaging video with personalized content that is also contextually relevant, you are able to deliver a better experience to your audience that is content-first and people-first.

Here is an example of how EX.CO’s technology can empower a publisher’s first-party data collection strategy while supporting a sustainable ad revenue stream. Let’s imagine that you’re a car publisher with an exclusive on this year’s NY Auto Show. The editorial is amazing — you’re getting tons of hits, home page exposure, great traffic from social, but there’s also a big brand auto manufacturer that your sales team has been looking to close.

This is your opportunity to bring them an engaged, car enthusiast user but that advertiser is looking for intent to purchase. They really want to find users that are looking to buy a car this year.

A simple interactive overlay unit asks your audience, “Which 2022 sports coupe are you most excited about?” The new Ford Mustang or the latest Toyota Supra? The user makes a choice and now the question shifts to ask, “How excited are you to be seen in one?”

The user has two responses to choose from: “Where is the nearest dealership?” or “This is way out of price range.” If the latter response is chosen, users are brought to an editorial on your site about the top 10 cars under $20K. This one interactive experience can be used as a lead gen tool or to surface more content that is relevant to the user.

Although this example is fairly straightforward in its ease and approach, the benefit to this approach is that it’s only limited by your imagination and content creation skills. It can be stylized to fit the CSS of your page so it looks seamless and no experiences will ever look alike. The most important takeaway is that you now have the ability to create a user profile and it’s your own data to do with it as you please. You also now have a user that fits into a segment for the advertiser that your sales team has been chasing, all from a very organic interaction.

Here’s another example, this time based on demographics and financial profiles. Let’s imagine you’re a technology site that just published a review of the best back-to-school computers and tablets but you’ve noticed that your audience is dropping off relatively quickly in comparison to your average time on site. Because of this, you’re also not serving many ads to that same user. It’s possible that this is due to a lack of interest in the content, or that the top three computers are all Apple MacBooks, or that no parent wants to spend over $2K on a laptop.

A simple interactive overlay unit asks the user what type of laptop is right for them. This kicks off a personalized journey and asks if their child is attending college, high school, middle school, or elementary school. From here, you can build out an entire decision tree with other questions and possible answers which will ultimately direct the user to the best product to purchase.

You can make the journey as long or short as you want but you made the content easily digestible and more engaging than it was before. Depending on how you build out the interaction, you can create income profiles on your audience. Assuming your ad stack is optimized, you can also raise the page eCPM thanks to how long the user is engaging with the EX.CO experience.

LdJ: Those are awesome examples. To me, it seems that for a long time now, publishers have been chasing after revenue only and losing focus on the user experience. But that’s a catch 22, isn’t it? If you don’t focus on user experience, you will negatively impact your revenue. Why is it imperative, more now than ever, that pubs rekindle their relationships with their audiences and get back to building better user experiences?

This is one of the biggest misconceptions in publishing – that more ads equals more revenue. It’s actually the opposite.

This is one of the biggest misconceptions in publishing – that more ads equals more revenue. It’s actually the opposite.

I came into the publishing world from the arbitrage space, meaning I worked with websites that would buy traffic from sources like Facebook for five cents, and then monetize the page for seven cents and pocket the margin. We would do this at huge scale. Squeezing out one extra cent makes a big difference, and the ability to optimize RPS (revenue per session) is what kept the lights on.

So in the early days, we used to put as many ads on the page as possible and what we saw is actually RPS went down because users were bouncing from the page quicker due to the poor user experience. Also, the algorithms at Google and Facebook started taking into consideration the ad to content ratio on websites, and penalized sites that were ad heavy. So paradoxically, the arbitrage players who almost exclusively care about revenue, have some of the cleaner sites on the internet and also have some of the highest RPS metrics on the internet.

At EX.CO, we help publishers improve their site’s user experience by combining what historically took up multiple pieces of real estate on their site, and combine it into one piece of real estate. For example, if a publisher is running an EX.CO video player on their site, in the exact same real estate where it used to be just video, it can now include video and a call to action to signup for a newsletter.

This same concept applies to several other use cases, delivering the ability to collect first-party data, drive subscriptions, offer e-commerce, etc.

Put simply, we’ve combined multiple needs that publishers have and historically have used multiple pieces of real estate for (e.g. a newsletter banner at the top of the page, a subscription interstitial, a poll mid-article to collect first-party data) and streamlined those into a single, beautiful user experience, that is also lucrative.

LdJ: We heard that when LadBible partnered with EX.CO they realized a +160% increase in digital ad revenue and +40% increase in CTR. How were they able to achieve these results?

Absolutely, LadBible is a great example of how capitalizing on first-party data with EX.CO brings tangible benefits.

LadBible had been struggling with targeting audiences at scale by just relying on third-party cookie data. After partnering with us, they started to collect first-party data directly from their audience by using polls and other interactive content solutions which posed relevant questions to their visitors.

LadBible then took that data, segmented their audience, and integrated the information into their DMP. This resulted in significant increases in both revenue and CTR, as you mentioned.

From there, LadBible was able to jump-start conversations with premium advertisers, just based on the percentage of users that are now targeted through EX.CO’s technology. This is really a story about how a publisher reimagined how they interacted with their audience and tapped EX.CO to help them achieve the results they wanted.