First-Party Data Transformation: Driving Cultural Change

There’s a digital media transformation afoot. 

The pandemic brought a surge of consumers online for shopping, entertainment, news, and information. But at the same time advertisers suspended spend or canceled altogether due to budget uncertainty and concerns about brand safety. 

As damaging as COVID-19 has been to publishers’ revenues, it has presented them with an opportunity to rethink their business models with a focus on building their first-party data strategies. Publishers are finding themselves in a new world that’s been accelerated by the pandemic, as well as privacy regulations granting consumers more control over their data—and the deprecation of the third-party cookie and IDFA.

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“We’ve had the data, we just have to package it and have sales get it,” said AdMonsters Advisory Board Chairman, Rob Beeler. “We need to have a think about creating buckets that can be developed into revenue, and then get sales and agencies to see it works.”

Can publishers make the mindset shifts that will ensure their success well beyond the pandemic, and the death of the third-party cookie?

Change is happening, but not without a few challenges, according to publishers we recently spoke with at our First-Party Data Now Think Tank, supported by Permutive.

Pandemic-Era Data Strategies 

Contextual targeting is seeing a bit of a resurgence. With brand safety of uppermost concern for advertisers in the early days of the pandemic, this was especially true as they relied on blocklists to prevent their messaging from appearing next to Coronavirus-related news.

“How can we create a brand-safe contextual environment?” one publisher asked. An onslaught of traffic was coming for news that the publisher wanted to monetize but there was all of this misinformation about Coronavirus out there. 

To segment that content and ensure a brand wasn’t appearing next to something negative, they had to drill down beyond the typical rules of keyword targeting and turn to sentiment analysis. For example, the publisher placed a pharma ad next to content with a positive sentiment, focused on vaccine advancements instead of false news about Coronavirus therapies.

These newer approaches to contextual targeting, that use natural language processing to go beyond keywords to understand semantics, context, and sentiment, are moving the industry toward brand suitability vs brand safety. 

In anticipation of the third-party cookie’s demise, another publisher talked about building out their first-party data strategy without a paywall. The publisher is using other sources of internal data from lead sources around the company to create a first-party data ecosystem and combining it through a CDP. 

The publisher plans to use this first-party data to drive partnerships with premium advertisers, whereas the offering won’t be available to just anyone on the open market. No cherry-picking allowed!

The Biggest Challenge Is Cultural

Of course, when we’re talking about publisher first-party data, we know how desirable that is for marketers, especially since publishers build trusted relationships with their users and can obtain declared data or behavioral and intent data to gain a complete picture of the customer journey.

But there’s always an elephant in the room: What about scale?

Across the board, publishers talked about scale being a huge challenge to obtaining success with a first-party data strategy. Some clients want niche audiences, and when they do, that works well. But when they want scale, that can be a problem for sales teams who don’t know how to sell audiences.

Historically, many publishers’ sales strategies have focused on audience targeting that centered around third-party data. But now there is technology available to make the switch to activating first-party data at scale. Still, some publishers worry that data-rich publishers, who have better technology and registered users or newsletter subscribers, will have a clearer advantage.

To monetize their first-party data, publishers need a DMP to bring their data out of silos from disparate sources across the organization. They can then organize the data into audiences based on various behavioral touchpoints from newsletters, interest demographics or purchase info, to better help advertisers target the people they want to reach.

With a DMP, publishers will have the analytics that shows how segments perform and be able to optimize campaigns to find the most relevant audiences. 

“With the cookieless future coming we’re trying to sell and help advertisers understand that it’s super-valuable to create custom contextual topics,” said one publisher. “It’s strategically and culturally challenging to get them out of the audience targeting world—to get sales and strategy out of that way of thinking.”

A gaming publisher successfully optimized their campaigns using first-party data of users who clicked or viewed campaigns. Another publisher homed in on campaign insights to recommend to Facebook how to set frequency capping to increase advertising CTR and engagement.

Working with an advertiser with strict audience targeting parameters that relied on third-party data for targeting, a business-focused publisher conducted an A/B test comparing a campaign using first-party data with one using third-party data. The first-party data segment outperformed the third-party segment by +11% against the advertiser’s KPIs.

“It takes a lot of testing,” said another publisher. “Once we had performance and data to show we are driving engagement, the initial case studies had a halo effect.”

Looking Ahead

A first-party data strategy isn’t just about creating segments to use on campaigns, it’s a way to inform your business across departments. 

It’s time to think beyond campaigns and develop an eye toward building data products that provide more personalized and valuable experiences for audiences no matter which platform they’re on.

There’s a cultural change that needs to happen and it’s not just sales teams that have to change. It has to happen across the entire publishing organization. But there also has to be a reeducation of marketers too. Everyone has to reprogram the current methods of measurement and targeting to create the most successful new models for the cookieless future.