How USA TODAY Sports Is Developing First-Party Authentication Strategies for Building Consumer Trust

As the cookie continues to crumble and publishers hone in on their first-party data strategies, building authenticated audiences to improve inventory value has become all the more important.

“If cookies were the currency before, the gold is that relationship with that consumer and building that relationship,” says Jason White, SVP and Head of Publishers, LiveRamp.

And that’s exactly why LiveRamp built their Authenticated Traffic Solution (ATS), to enable publishers to continue to perform data-driven targeting in a cookieless world.

I had a deep-dive discussion about publisher first-party authentication strategies with White and Chris Pirrone, VP & General Manager, USA TODAY Sports Media Group, where they discussed the importance of publishers growing their addressable inventory and how they can better communicate the value exchange to their audiences to build trusted relationships that can be leveraged for authentication — and ultimately grow revenue. (To hear the full conversation, click here.)

LiveRamp connects people, data, and devices across the digital and physical world, allowing consumers to connect with brands.

Growing Addressable Inventory

Lynne d Johnson: Should publishers be looking at growing their addressable inventory as part of their direct sales and first-party data strategies?

Chris Pirrone: Yes, developing strategies where publishers are engaged with consumers on a more intimate level, where pubs are providing audiences with some kind of service, content, or product that drives users to engage, and in exchange, the user is willing to provide personal information—email address, interests, and things like that—I think it has always been a smart strategy for publishers. 

It’s become more intense recently because the third-party cookie is going to dissipate and therefore publishers and marketers can’t rely on third-party cookies or third-party data any longer. Publishers that have a history of requiring users to sign in because they’ve offered some benefit in exchange for signing in are ahead of the game. For publishers who haven’t had to implement this, it’s going to be even more important for them to begin creating those products because data-driven and programmatic advertising dollars are at risk.

Without third-party cookies driving targeted advertising—publishers that don’t have a strategy to drive user authentication and first-party data, should expect lower CPMs and less revenue. This is why we’ve tried to partner with platforms like LiveRamp to create ideas that drive: 

  1. More authentication, more sign-in, and then, 
  2. How do we turn those authenticated users into ad dollars that are going to help us pay for content creation and to provide valuable experiences and information to users?

Jason White: We’re empowering folks like Chris, who are spearheading this new wave of authentication. Third-party cookies were a flawed identifier and caused the industry to lose the trust of the consumer.

At the end of the day, this needed to happen. There wasn’t trust. There wasn’t transparency. And GDPR, CCPA, all of these privacy regulations were inflection points that needed to happen for us to build a more trusted ecosystem. Folks like Chris are visionaries in the sense that they understand this and are building strategies around it to grow. We have an opportunity to restore that trust through strong first-party relationships, and as an industry, we should lean into transparency and control for the consumer. 

LdJ: Ok, but what about growing addressable inventory with relation to the open exchange or PMP programmatic strategy — should publishers also do this?

CP: I think the impact is equally important for programmatic. Most publishers are monetizing a significant portion of their inventory through programmatic advertising and open market bidding. If you’re a large-scale publisher, you have too much volume to be able to sell it all directly. If you’re a small-scale publisher, you can’t afford a direct sales team.  

The most successful publishers out there have been able to capitalize on contextual targeting, plus the open programmatic marketplace because those pubs understand how programmatic works, and they have built their ad stacks to drive competition from the demand side. And then the DSPs have come in for marketers, leveraging the marketer’s own data, cookies—and have created bidding strategies that drive ROI for marketers. 

If a publisher can create quality content, engage quality audiences, and build a competent advertising yield set-up, they have had a pretty good solution the last few years. If you’re a trusted quality publisher that creates interesting content that attracts quality audiences that want to stay on your site, then you’ve been in a pretty good spot with direct sales, and quality advertisers leveraging open programmatic, to fill your inventory.

What we’ve seen with some of the browsers that already deprecated cookies is that CPMs fall significantly. If marketers don’t know anything about these users based on third-party tracking and cookies, they’re less willing to bid higher or spend to reach those users. If they’re not able to retarget or frequency cap, all these tactics that DSPs have built successful ROI models around, it has a big impact on programmatic CPMs and it’s going to have a big impact on publisher businesses going forward.

JW: Google put out a great study in August  2019, before the IAB came out with Project Rearc. Google ran tests showing that the median CPM was going to decrease by 64%, and we’ve seen that in working with some of our publishers.

What we got in front of, in beginning to bring ATS to bear more than four years ago, was getting more marketers bidding on Identity Link (IDL). We already work with the top 400 marketers on activation and measurement, leveraging our identity solution. This is the next step—being able to reach customers and measure on IDL. 

The most important thing to help folks like Chris with now is analytics. We have models to help them understand in an A/B testing environment: What does it mean from a CPM perspective? How many more dollars am I capturing from those campaigns buying on IDL? What’s the bounce rate? How much more revenue did I make to offset that bounce rate? And am I positive, and in the green? If I’m in the green, let’s get a little more aggressive—maybe we ask for email earlier in the session. 

One of the things we’ve seen from our studies on cookie syncs is the match rate on the publisher side is in the 30-35% range. The marketers talk to the DMP, which connects to the DSP, then the SSP. And each of those systems has its own definition of identity (as a cookie) so each sync creates a ton of data loss. 

The reality is, we think about an amount of 30% authentications for publishers will yield the same if not better results in terms of addressable reach for marketers 1p/2p/3p audiences. When users authenticate, it’s more efficient than a cookie and with LiveRamp, those cookie syncs become irrelevant.

Are Buyers on Board?

LdJ: One of the big questions I’m hearing from publishers is they want to know if the buyers will be there?

CP: It’s a chicken-and-egg issue. Publishers will implement solutions where they can attract dollars. Over the last few years, publishers have seen shifts in ad spend from open programmatic to programmatic direct deals to now programmatic guaranteed. As soon as the marketers invested in those new channels, publishers siloed quality inventory and started to segment out their inventory to support the demand-side strategies. And they’ll do the same thing here with authentication and first-party data.

Publishers suddenly have an advantage with authentication and first-party data because we are offering something to marketers that they can't easily get elsewhere.

JW: Oh they’re there. It’s all about scale. We’ve had a good chunk of our 400 marketers active in 2020. Moreso in the past quarter because we’re integrated with The Trade Desk. And it’s a virtuous cycle that Chris is talking about, more dollars in, more publishers in, more publishers get authentication, it enables marketers to put more of their budgets towards campaigns based on authentications.

We’ve got case studies where marketers like Fitbit have seen 2X ROAS. That’s incredible because they’re reaching individual users. So we’re seeing more repeat marketers put dollars in quarter over quarter. We’ve got over 340 global publishers signed or live—65% of the Comscore 50, 70% of the Comscore 20; the big publishers are leaning in. The rest of the publishers are working to catch up. 

CP:  Publishers suddenly have an advantage with authentication and first-party data because we are offering something to marketers that they can’t easily get elsewhere. An issue arises for publishers with lower return visitors or when significant traffic comes from search or social shares, where a user is referred and seeking a single piece of content, and then they exit after consuming that piece. Authenticating these users is difficult and requires a dedicated strategy to get somebody to sign in when they may only want that one piece of information.

But there are different methods we can implement to help, and LiveRamp has written a Playbook that we contributed to. How can we, as Publishers, start to convert some of these visitors into dedicated users who will provide their first-party data or even zero-party data? Zero-party data is the next step to deeper engagement, where users voluntarily tell you their interests and what they like, so pubs can build up our data segments to be more knowledgeable about our most valuable customers. 

JW: This is where having a CRM expert comes into play—they’ve been doing this on the marketer’s side for years. They understand cohorts, who are the most valuable consumers we have and we need to tailor our messages (and our spending) accordingly based on who we are trying to acquire. You’re now seeing agencies hire heads of identity and even Gannett has a head of identity. 

These experts will start building these databases and look at people coming in to consume one piece of content or two pieces and say, “How valuable is that content? Let’s score that content. Is it extremely valuable? What’s the bounce rate?” If it’s small, they could put up a paywall for that type of user before they access the content because they know the content is extremely valuable for that individual user. This is taking the publisher paradigm to the next level—where they are going to have to think more like a marketer. 

Small or Large Pub, It Really Doesn’t Matter

LdJ: Large-scale sites like Chris’ have a lot of authenticated traffic and might be thinking they can go at this alone, are they thinking right about this? Also, what about smaller pubs that might be afraid they won’t have enough scale?

JW: This isn’t just a big publisher solution. Small publishers can play here as well.

It’s important to note that for the bigger publishers that think that they can go at it on their own, they need to think like marketers. Marketers face the same kind of constraints of working through roadmaps and only having a certain amount of resources to get those roadmaps completed. They’re thinner margin businesses. And on their side of the equation, they only have a certain amount of buyers. They’re only going to be able to work with this walled garden or that walled garden, and then everybody else. If a publisher is big enough, they could do a big thing with a music player or social media property, but the reality is they’re going to be stretched thin and nobody else is going to be able to use their data. 

What marketers want is the same thing they get from the walled gardens. It’s simple to buy an ad on a walled garden—your mother can buy an ad on Facebook. So let’s not make the open web complicated, let’s make it just as easy. Someone can go into a DSP and get access to the entire open web. Marketers want to connect with their consumers across publisher sites— whether through open exchange or private marketplace deals. Marketers don’t want to do 1,000+ direct deals, they want to be able to buy their audiences at scale. This is why publishers need to integrate with a neutral identity infrastructure but retain control over which marketers and platforms can access their data. 

CP: We have audience scale, but there’s still a hurdle to getting someone to take out their credit card for a subscription or to authenticate. When larger publishers drive significant traffic from search or social shares, those users generally visit focused on a specific piece of content and are unauthenticated. And so the question for pubs is how do you select a point in the user journey on your site to convert a visitor to a declared sign-in visitor? Publishers must get creative and think of ways to get visitors to lean in. 

And if you’re a small verticalized publisher, you’re going to need to implement some of the same things we are as a larger publisher—the same engagement tactics and authentication methods and strategies. Which parts of your site/content/products are most valuable for users? 

Tips For Increasing User Authentications

LdJ: For publishers looking to increase authentications, what are some strategies that you recommend they test? 

CP: It depends on where you believe your strengths are. Why are consumers coming to your site? How do they find you? The people that are sticking around and consuming additional content, why are they doing so? If you can start to analyze and dissect that, I think it’s going to lead you to strategies and tactics that you can implement that are going to help you drive authentication. 

Our well over 200+ local properties are important for helping local audiences find news and information. The local properties provide unique information, reporting, and coverage that is very distinct and valuable. To provide additional value to consumers, we may also create events that drive local engagement. Because we’re a trusted local voice, audiences are more likely to perceive a value-exchange that leads to authentication or a subscription. 

But even if you are not focused on local information, there are other ways you can start to build engagement—giveaways, events, even partnering with marketers to provide sweepstakes, or creating fun games that people can play online. Can we create valuable products and reasonable engagement points in a user visit where people are willing to sign-in to access this information? These are just slight tweaks where you already have a relationship with the audience, but now how do you drive deeper engagement and get those passionate audiences to authenticate.

Newsletters are certainly really important. Those are your most dedicated fans who have declared that they want to hear from you on a regular basis. Another method is article commenting. There was a time when publishers said it’s too hard to control comments so let’s push it to the social platforms. The truth is, commenters are generally the highest engaged users who want to have a conversation or provide a point of view. Why not let them do that on your site by first requiring authentication, plus drive additional user engagement and thoughtful conversation by having editorial people participate and engage in the discussion? That is going to drive more people to sign up so they can participate in message boards or comments. 

How about calendaring applications? We are all busy, and if you analyze events and the sports cycle, there are almost too many daily games to track. It’s hard to follow who is playing and when. Offering a calendar service for a user to download their favorite team’s schedule will remind them of important events or moments, and you can also update the calendar event with valuable data, information and include links back to your site that has content about the event, analysis, and previews.

Additionally, one thing I think we can generally do better as an industry is to improve the user experience around requesting user sign-in and building trust with consumers.

Are your users interested in alerts, updates, or real-time scoring? Those are some of the things just about every publisher can do to create value and incentivize a user to sign-in for a valuable service. I approach this from a sport’s fan’s perspective, but there are a lot of different and nuanced tricks of the trade to provide user value and help drive audiences to give you their information.

Additionally, one thing I think we can generally do better as an industry is to improve the user experience around requesting user sign-in and building trust with consumers. If the user experience is similar across trusted digital publishers—with authentication requests looking the same, having the same verbiage and color scheme, and requesting the same type of information in the same manner across trusted publishers—that builds consumer confidence. But if I have to go and sign in at each and every website I visit, and each requires different data points from me, and the UX is a different experience, it starts to build confusion and mistrust. If we collaborate industry-wide and start using the same methods for asking for audience permission, I think that’s going to allow consumers to feel more trusting and willing to provide their information.

LdJ: What should publishers be watching for as they’re thinking about increasing authentications without negatively impacting consumer experience?

JW: It’s the value exchange. Are you providing something of value? Earlier we talked about scoring content and assigning value for it. We’ve got data showing that addressable Safari inventory can yield up to 300-350% higher CPMs than cookieless inventory. Once a publisher sees value, the next question is, “How can I make this the most relevant experience for that consumer and provide them with the incentive to give me that information? If I don’t then they’re going to bounce.”

So make sure you’re dialed into that when you deploy these authentication strategies. Provide them with as many options to make it easy, ask them to sign in with their email address or social sign-in. But let’s make it consistent as Chris talked about earlier.

CP: If you can create a frictionless and seamless sign-in experience. Step 1—remember me when I return to your site. Or, for example, if a user clicks on a hyperlink to a publisher site and has already downloaded the publisher’s mobile app, the user should be linked directly into the app so they are seamlessly redirected to the mobile experience. That user is likely to stay longer and consume more content. If it’s a difficult experience and every time I visit I hit a blocker requiring me to reauthenticate and re-sign-in, I won’t stay and am unlikely to return. 

Publishers must work extremely hard with our internal product teams and the UX teams to make sure that we’re providing a great experience. As Jason said, figure out where in the user experience there is an engagement point that we can ask for authentication. An important key is remembering a returning user when they visit across multiple devices and don’t block them the next time they visit, because they’ve already signed up. We are going to quickly see who’s successful at identifying their repeat users and who isn’t. 

I believe publishers need to work together to share best practices for optimal user experiences, so we build back trust with consumers. Only then will audiences be more willing to provide their personal data because they know it’s being used to help pay for quality experiences and content.