The New Role of Publishers in 2024: Q&A with Connatix’s Mike Caprio

In 2023, publishers faced myriad challenges, and the path ahead to 2024 remains uncertain.

Issues like the deprecation of third-party cookies, the rapid evolution of generative AI, various state privacy regulations, brand safety challenges, ad spend slowdowns, and many more have placed immense pressure on publishers to navigate shifting demands and unpredictable revenue, all while operating with leaner teams.

Despite these difficulties, Mike Caprio, Senior Vice President and GM, Americas, Connatix, envisions a redefined role for publishers in 2024, one teeming with promising opportunities. I chatted with him to learn more about his vision.

Lynne d Johnson: 2023 was a challenging year for our industry, what are some of the biggest challenges you’ve heard from publishers this year? 

Mike Caprio: This year our industry was impacted by disruptive innovation, an uneven economy, and world events that impacted publishers acutely — from industry and regulatory changes, the pending death of the cookie, generative AI impacting editorial teams, and two international conflicts that complicated the global digital media landscape.

Publishers are feeling the squeeze from every direction, but there are good things on the horizon that should help improve the opportunities for publishers in 2024. Heading into an election and Olympic year in the United States can help improve the overall ad marketplace. As millions of Americans head back to the office, the opportunity for increased media consumption will benefit publishers and brands.

Defunding the News: Brand Safety & Social Media Woes

LdJ: Throughout 2022, news publishers encountered a significant decline in revenue when brands pulled back ad spend from news related to the Russia/Ukraine conflict, and we’re unfortunately seeing a similar pattern emerge surrounding the Israel-Hamas war.

How can news publishers work together with advertisers to benefit the greater good during times of crisis? 

MC: It’s time for advertisers to reconsider their relationship with news publishers. As we grapple with the grief of yet another war, advertisers have an opportunity to use their spending power as a force for social good, without sacrificing brand suitability.

Extensive blocklists are detrimental to publishers who depend on advertising to fund their content, which is essential in today’s news cycle to keep consumers informed.

There are a variety of solutions available to advertisers that can help them safely invest in news and diversify their ad spend to reach engaged audiences, like NewsGuard or Ad Fontes. Contextual targeting can also help advertisers make more informed decisions about their ad spend and specifically target topics and keywords to reach the right audience vs. broadly blocking all news, which jeopardizes publishers and advertisers alike. The responsibility is on us all to ensure that we help advertisers feel confident investing in quality journalism so that consumers can access publishers’ vital news content and stay informed without paywalls.

LdJ: Publishers are fighting an uphill battle with site traffic this year, with steep declines from social sites like Facebook and Twitter due to ever-changing company policies, coupled with generative AI impacting organic search. What do you say to publishers who feel like the pressure is mounting from all sides? 

MC: These changes impact publishers of all sizes, but especially smaller publishers who are leaning on monetization as their lifeline. For publishers who see a drop in traffic of double digits or more, unfortunately, no amount of display will make up for that. Publishers’ websites remain a core destination for video despite the surging popularity of social channels, but to increase engagement and keep consumers on-site longer, creating effective and meaningful video experiences can help hit engagement and retention goals, especially amidst declining external traffic.

Additionally, assessing your current video strategy to determine which inventory is under-monetized, and then establishing a comprehensive strategy for optimizing video ad revenue, can help create a more sustainable long-term strategy to offset traffic declines.

Generative AI: A Double-Edged Sword

LdJ: The evolution of generative AI can be seen as a double-edged sword for publishers. How do you think it hurt publishers this year, and how can they turn that around and use AI for good in 2024? 

MC: The learning curve this year for advances in generative AI has been substantial. The rollout of tools like ChatGPT forced us all to stop and think, how are these models being trained, is there proper attribution and compensation to the publisher, and how will this affect search traffic?

While publishers are excited to continue exploring AI and digital video to improve newsroom operations and increase audience engagement, they’re also tasked with maintaining credibility and combating misinformation with issues like deepfakes. As publishers are working with shrinking budgets and smaller editorial teams, we can use these tools as a force for good, but there has to be a middle ground, and I think Biden’s executive order is a step in the right direction to address the ethical, legal, and societal implications of AI not only in our industry but across the board.

As we enter an election year and in the face of tremendous global controversy, it has never been more important — or more difficult – to provide the public with access to accurate reporting they can trust, and while AI can help ease the strain on editorial teams, we have to also make sure it’s protecting our publishers.

To take it a step further, when accompanying content is contextually relevant to the page, it can provide immense value and redefine what’s possible in reaching consumers. 

IAB Tech Lab’s Updated Video Guidelines

LdJ: The industry was taken by surprise this year amidst the IAB Tech Lab’s amended video guidelines. While the original updates posed a severe challenge for some publishers, how can publishers now leverage the amended guidelines to increase engagement? 

MC: The IAB Tech Lab’s new guidelines were necessary and publishers have the opportunity to benefit from these guidelines, by passing more transparent signals to buyers.  Connatix was part of the working group that helped shape the new definitions, collaborating closely with The Trade Desk, Google, and others.

With the new guidelines, we can finally recognize the value that other types of content can bring, rather than just instream or outstream. The addition of accompanying content in the guidelines including pre-roll, mid-roll, and post-roll ads, can expose end users to discoverable content, even though watching that content may not be the original purpose of their visit. 

To take it a step further, when accompanying content is contextually relevant to the page, it can provide immense value and redefine what’s possible in reaching consumers. 

Publishers can leverage accompanying content as a means to further engage readers by suggesting quality content in the same way social platforms and YouTube do today, without being labeled as outstream, and it’s a benefit to advertisers as they can ensure they are reaching their audiences with topics that are of interest to them.

Advertisers build their video strategies around specific objectives. Some brands focus on video to drive conversions. Some brands use digital video to tell a brand story to build attention and awareness.  Each of these strategies can leverage different classified video formats to achieve their objectives. In the case of instream video, the scarcity that will result from these new classifications creates a monetization lift for instream publishers. If we all work together to implement these new guidelines, we can create a more transparent and trustworthy video ecosystem.

How Publishers Can Prepare for Cookie Deprecation

LdJ: The third-party cookie conversation and fear of the revenue impact for publishers has been in the mix for years, but deprecation seems to be coming sooner rather than later. How can publishers prepare? 

MC: While it’s valid for publishers to be anxious over the revenue impact cookie depreciation could bring, it creates an urgency and opportunity to build a direct relationship with their audiences. With the ever-changing state of our industry, the traditional display or print role of the publisher is outdated, and the new role of the publisher is evolving to become more of a consultant to brands, meant to extend their storytelling capabilities and audience engagement.

In today’s digital age, we’re seeing higher video consumption and audiences are seeking out contextually relevant video content — in a recent report, 57% of respondents aged 18-34 reported that they are more likely to watch a video ad if its content is aligned with the article they are reading. Change can be scary, but as we await the impending death of the cookie, this time is valuable for publishers and advertisers to work together to test solutions and chart the best path forward, and contextual, among other solutions, can help. 

Privacy-First Solutions for Pubs

LdJ: You mentioned contextual, among other solutions that can help publishers. What types of privacy-first solutions do you think we’ll see the industry gravitate towards in 2024? 

MC: Everyone’s strategy will be different, what works for some won’t always work for others, and using this time to test and learn and find out how publishers can best future-proof their strategies is a great use of time. In light of cookie depreciation, publishers are strengthening their first-party data to sustain their revenue. Leveraging universal identifiers, both probabilistic and deterministic, will also be helpful for effective monetization. When keeping the consumer in mind, we need to think of privacy-first solutions that are also personal, and when leveraging first-party data and contextual targeting together, it can be a game-changer. 

New Role of Publishers in 2024

LdJ: What is the biggest piece of advice you’d give to publishers as they prepare for 2024?

MC: Publishers had a tough year in 2023, but that shouldn’t crush their hopes for the opportunities available to them in 2024. The tools that publishers have at their disposal to create personal, effective, and meaningful experiences for consumers visiting their websites are abundant, and doing so will allow them to increase engagement and revenue, and in-turn help advertisers meet their target audiences.

There is a big opportunity for publishers to step up and create a more engaging viewer experience through video, especially during big moments like the election and the Olympics, and brands will find value in this as they look to find those who can help them break through the noise and tell their stories. So to publishers, I would say, use this time to evaluate what worked and what didn’t work in 2023, and rethink the traditional role of the publisher as we head into 2024 to turn these setbacks into opportunities.