Publisher Forum Keynote: 9 Illuminating Ideas to Keep Pubs Innovating From Ascential’s Sharon Harris

It was the second day of AdMonsters Publisher Forum Montreal 2022 when Keynote, Sharon Harris, CMO, Ascential Digital Commerce, brought the crowd to life with her charismatic presentation and illuminating ideas about what publishers must do to survive the challenging times ahead for digital media and ad tech.

She schooled the audience, providing them with concrete tips for enhancing their innovation strategies, as well as attracting and engaging new audiences, building stronger relationships with current audiences, driving engagement across multiple channels, and taking advantage of the commerce media boom. And for the revenue professionals in the room, Harris also made a key point about the importance of connecting audience, data, and content to revenue.

Above all else, she stressed, publishers must utilize their individuality as a competitive advantage.

Here are nine points from Harris’ keynote that publishers should add to the top of their strategy list for Q4 planning and beyond:

9 Illuminating Ideas to Keep Pubs Innovating

1. Plan for Every Scenario

Harris shared how Ascential’s CEO Duncan Painter utilizes scenario planning to map out decisions three years ahead for what may potentially happen. You might not know what the future holds, but if you prepare for all possibilities there’s a good chance that one of those might become reality. Having prepared for every scenario imaginable, and being able to leverage the knowledge you’ve gathered in your research and planning phases will provide you with stronger decision-making abilities should the event occur. You must consider all possibilities.

In the case of PubForum attendees, Harris explained, “When you start moving the levers of monetization, things change. You are part of an enormous ecosystem, and as a publisher, you have more control than you think. It all lies in prioritizing, framing, and thinking about your decisions.”

2. Know Your Consumer

As a publisher, you know the consumer and their behaviors. Their data is a treasure trove of information, and the consumer ultimately trusts you. Consumers make a huge commitment when they decide to visit your platform. Don’t betray their trust. Provide them with relevant content (including advertising) to keep them engaged, excited, and coming back for more.

3. Content Is King

While context matters, the content delivered matters even more. Consumers will continue to visit certain publishers for their content because they have decided to trust them. You have the ability to provide them with a content experience that feels personal and that they can see themselves in. Don’t confuse creating engaging content with what technological advancements will predict for you. Technology is not a replacement for human beings. The robots will not take over. The human connection is so powerful that you cannot eliminate people. Even data is produced by human beings doing certain activities. Trust the data to tell you what people really want.

4. Develop a Strong Digital Commerce Strategy

Digital Commerce is the number one driver of all retail growth in the US and is expected to reach $1 trillion by the end of 2022. Retail Media is on target to surpass $50 billion by 2023. Publishers should not be scared that retail media is coming for their piece of the pie, because retail media advertising is content. Brands are looking to partner with publishers who know exactly who their consumers are and what interests them.

It’s why The New York Times bought Wirecutter. It’s why many of Ziff Davis’ brands provide deals and the company also owns a channel of shopping brands. It’s also why G/O Media has Kinja Deals. So whether you choose to provide product reviews or deals or consumer-generated content related to commerce, the opportunities are endless.

5. Establish Mutually Beneficial Partnerships

When thinking about where your consumers are, align with people and platform solutions that can help you be better and drive your mission forward. Collaboration helps to keep the ecosystem going and the entire infrastructure alive. Publishers need to think of where their opportunities lie and establish partnerships.

6. User Experience Trumps Almost Everything Else

You’ll make mistakes as everyone does, but continue to push forward and remember that your audience will tell you everything you need to know. When people are unhappy, they leave reviews and comments and often write letters. Use it to your advantage, and take in that feedback. Feedback is a gift. Use that data to leverage your user experience and enhance your content.

7. Be Swift

Technology is moving incredibly fast, and so are consumers. The longer it takes to pivot, the further you will be behind. Think about the future, make investments, and prioritize your strategies. Companies that are reluctant to move forward with the next best ad tech advancement tend to miss out and end up unprepared. You’d be shocked how many retail establishments don’t have an online presence. They are definitely behind the ball.

8. Opportunity is All a Matter of Perspective

While Harris acknowledged that times are challenging, publishers must make the appropriate investments to leapfrog ahead of the competition. People are constantly creating content, and there are lots of distractions. Younger generations are generally more prone to their distractions. Instead of watching the 6:00 p.m. news as our grandparents did, they get their information from Twitter and Tik Tok. If you’re not careful, all of these distractions will take hold. Whether it’s truth, justice, equality, or a fair economy, publishers have the power to inform, persuade, and influence.

9. Tell Real Stories

It’s imperative that publishers tell relatable stories to excite and delight their audiences. Storytelling is the most powerful tool for marketers and publishers. Think of the story that Ron Duque,  Head of Advertising and Ad Tech Operations at WeatherBug, told about how the Cajun Navy Ground Force, an incredible group of volunteer first responders who rescue people during natural disasters, uses WeatherBug’s lighting feature when he showed this commercial during his keynote.

WeatherBug | The Cajun Navy from RuleOf3 on Vimeo.

As a Louisiana native, Harris shared how she knows the impact of the Cajun Navy during floods and hurricanes. It made me feel incredibly proud to see them on screen and captured so authentically. The connection and stories that publishers can illuminate for brand marketers are limitless. Content is king and sharing these stories is what can set publishers apart. Human-to-human connections matter most.

Whether it’s Reuters, Weatherbug, or Buzzfeed, the content lives there. Don’t just lean into the things you feel most comfortable with. Tell real human stories. Remember that this is the one thing that sets you apart, do not go where you’re comfortable; step outside of your comfort zone and get people excited about the preposition. Take a chance, lean into telling people real stories, and expand on your uniqueness.

Do Not Be Afraid


While change can be spooky, it’s time for pubs to hone in on the opportunity to elevate and grow during testing times. Platforms “of the moment” may be like shiny objects, but the digital world is moving at the speed of light, do not miss out on what comes next.