In the Eyes of Pubforum Keynote Sharon Harris: If You Aren’t Leveraging Your First-party Data, Then What Are You Doing?

Cookies are on their way out the door, but if one thing is for sure, when one door closes, new opportunities arise. 

Sharon Harris, CMO, Ascential, leads a team that is always two steps ahead of their clients. They do this by honing in on how they can help brands they work with understand the marketplace’s value and how to optimize their presence within it.

Ascential is a data and commerce company that helps companies like P&G, Unilever, Mattel, and marketplaces like Amazon and Walmart to optimize their digital commerce and expand marketing impact. Since becoming CMO in December 2021, Harris and her team have taken a hands-on approach in helping educate companies about why they need to take advantage of the content mediums available to them to leverage their data.

While retail marketplaces are exciting territory, many brands are dragging their feet on commerce. Harris and her team provide their clients with the tools and strategies to win the buy box. Yes, digital commerce is disrupting digital media; however, publishers must understand consumer data, how to leverage it, and where to place that data within the ecosystem to survive these changes.

During Harris’ PubForum Keynote, Innovation at the Speed of News, on Tuesday, August 16, she will share best practices for publishers looking to attract and engage new audiences, tips on how to leverage your data, tools for driving engagement across multiple platforms, and how to take advantage of the commerce boom.

These are aspects Harris knows all too well. She has an illustrious 20-year career leading teams and making an impact within marketing and digital media at companies like Jellyfish, Deloitte, and Microsoft. She was Jellyfish’s first global CMO, overseeing marketing strategy across 30 offices. And at Microsoft, she exceeded global mobile advertising business revenue targets, spearheading advertising on Microsoft Windows 8 Ads-in-Apps.

Harris is also a passionate champion for diversity, equity, and inclusion in tech.

The Power of Paying It Forward

Currently, a founding member of the Black Executive’s CMO Alliance (BECA), Harris and her team have built a community of black executives, often one of one at major companies. Their goal is to nurture the next generation of CXOs, and this year, eight BECA playbook participants were fortunate enough to be sponsored by Ascential to attend Cannes Lions. Many are unaware of the fact that Ascential owns Cannes Lion.

“As a marketer, you’ll rarely get the experience to go to Cannes Lions,” she says, “which is a global stage for creativity, marketing, technology, and now for digital commerce. For me, it is about how we give more people that exposure to understand what is possible on a global stage. If we look at what is happening in terms of, say, just black women in tech, there aren’t enough, and it is not representative of our impact.”

Harris recognizes the importance of having black people in the room when building new technology and the global impact of black culture, so she pays it forward whenever she can.

As one of the few black women in an executive role in technology, Harris is somewhat of a unicorn. This has helped her approach challenges uniquely, spilling over into how she views the opportunities ahead for publishers.

Leveraging Data by Way of Personalization

“Delivering the content consumers want can be difficult for publishers, but I do see hope in publishers embracing digital commerce,” she says, “Content (whether it be reviews, advertorials, or articles) is the key driver engaging consumers when they look to buy things. They look for recommendations from highly respected and reputable brands, and often those are publishers. If you go to a tech magazine, you’ll take their recommendations for a laptop with much more validity than if you simply asked a friend. I believe there is an opportunity for publishers to tap into that more as an additional revenue stream, and also think about how they further distribute that content through other platforms.”

Personalization is a publisher’s ticket out of the cookie crisis and the gateway to publishers and advertisers attracting and engaging new audiences. Leveraging your first-party data will not only drive engagement but also help increase revenue via the relationship publishers already have with their consumers. For publishers, personalizing content for their audiences based on their interests and preferences is critical. And it’s just as critical that the content be specific to the channel it’s being delivered in.

For publishers to thrive, they have to understand the value of personalization and ensure that the content is highly engaging and not only high-quality. News publishers, for example, are constantly strategizing around what is currently happening and how to present that content, whether it be editorial, video, or photos.

Publishers need to do a better job collecting and understanding their first-party data to succeed with personalization. Once they master this, they can use that data to personalize content and contextualize advertising to tailor it more to the consumer’s interests.

Personalization is necessary for engagement to succeed, and publishers can maximize their first-party data by implementing tools like comment sections and topical newsletters. These tools can become a valuable source of first-party data for publishers to help them optimize their editorial strategies, deepen audience relationships, attract more engaged users and align advertisers with audiences.

Audience-first strategies have helped many publishers like Digital Trends, Ziff Davis, Insider Inc., The New York Times, and Newsweek win more RFPs and earn more revenue from their first-party data. And from there, diving into the commerce pool becomes a no-brainer.

Why Should Publishers Tap Into Commerce if They Haven’t Already?

Consumers constantly seek advice, tips, and guidance, and publishers must be more open-minded about using their content to influence shopping decisions. Most publishers fail to realize a level of connection and synergy surrounding content, commerce, and data. The ugly truth is that publishers’ overall mindset toward commerce is solely transactional, but according to Harris, keeping an open mind can lead publishers to enjoy the fruits of their labor.

“Publishers are forgetting that, like with marketing, you are telling a story and creating a perception around why that consumer should buy that product,” she explains. “because of their data, they know a lot about their first-party audience and should tailor the content to help users convert through a commerce experience.”

Publishers must focus on how commerce can help them instead of the cons. Consumers are time-deprived and looking for recommendations; publishers can save them time. A consumer who frequents your site has already entrusted you to share recommendations about what they care about. Why not serve commerce ads within or alongside that content to help them convert? Publishers’ ability to leverage the trust that their consumers have for them is their number one asset; it’s time they wake up and smell the coffee.

For publishers to continue to engage their consumers, they will have to leverage their first-party data to enhance their content and drive those already existing relationships. It’s all about relationships these days. Publishers need to build stronger relationships with their audiences and get clearer about communicating the value exchange to earn their trust and willingness to provide them with more first-party data through logins, subscriptions or newsletters. Data is the new oil, and publishers need loads of it to drive engagement and revenue.