Cast Away But Not Lost: How Publishers Can Navigate Their New Surroundings

This article is sponsored by Criteo.

Consider being suddenly plunged into unfamiliar territory. Tom Hanks’ character surveying his island in “Castaway” comes to mind. Whether you’re alone on an island or are a publisher contemplating your next move, it’s essential to identify the elements for survival.

Since we don’t yet have the full set of tools to face a future with severe limits on ad identifiers, the key to resilience is finding near-term solutions without jeopardizing the potential for long-term ones. On a desert island, a blunt instrument can be sharpened to a point or a coconut can be split to provide sustenance. Publishers face equivalent requirements in the form of tech and partner selection.

Publisher strengths

There’s no question the environment will continue shifting with regulations and new approaches surrounding online identity. Publishers can adapt in ways that provide benefits to advertisers –and end users too ­– if they make use of the tools at their disposal and work with the industry to develop new modes of privacy-friendly identification. There’s significant value in the ecosystem publishers create through free quality content, but their ability to sustain is under threat. Longstanding partners and tech platforms are here to help.

Already, there are several potential solutions to the loss of the third-party cookie and likely more that we don’t yet know of with industry forums iterating on proposed approaches. What’s important is assessing options available today and being open to adopting or creating new solutions along the way, thinking both inside and outside the box. A tool that didn’t suit previously may serve well in a transformed industry. The coming months will determine which publishers stagnate and which surge ahead. Here are two opportunities to help them stay competitive. 

1. Take control of a privacy-centric, persistent data asset

Traditionally, third-party cookies have provided users with personalized experiences resulting in ad revenue that funds the open internet. Without this mechanism, publisher revenue is likely to drop. A 2019 study conducted by Google showed a 52% average decline in publisher ad revenue in browsers without third-party cookies. And a Facebook Audience Network 2020 study of personalized and non-personalized ads lends consistency to these findings, with a more than 50% drop in publisher revenue observed between test treatments.

Publishers and advertisers must find other ways to identify eligible users in a privacy-centric manner. This could include alternative sources of persistent identifiers such as hashed email addresses, gathered by implementing registration walls or prompting logins to access premium content. If a user provides an email address to access content, this data could later be employed to serve relevant ads and properly attribute performance.

However, a majority of solutions will ideally focus on keeping the free flow of information available for people to access content and stay informed. Approaches for reaching the most relevant audiences will make use of 1:1 personalization where possible and will further explore targeting based on interest groups. Within the range of scenarios there won’t be one solution that fits all publishers – or all advertisers for that matter – but the use of a persistent identifier will be key. Any effective model must also provide a transparent value exchange that makes it clear to users what they receive in return for their personal data.

2. Expand their use of privacy-by-design tools

Publishers need tools that will enable them to access data to reach relevant users in a way that remains privacy-centric. As one example of looking at existing tools to fit new needs, publishers may explore data clean rooms which have long been used across industries when conducting due diligence and for M&A. Privacy-focused by design, the concept has notable benefits when applied in ad tech.

Imagine a space where user insights obtained from media properties can be connected to first-party data sourced from advertisers. As data is matched to form a user ID, inputs are guarded so the granularity of data on both sides remains protected. If either party wants to alter or leave the relationship, there is no artifact of the data remaining that would conflict with respective privacy policies. While this particular approach would be most fitting for larger scale publishers, the concept illustrates how we can assess the options available with fresh perspective.

Protecting user rights while tapping into the value of publishers’ unique data is imperative in the shift toward prioritizing consumer privacy. Tools like clean rooms afford publishers and advertisers the ability to aggregate and analyze data while putting privacy first. As with any solution, ensuring transparency of how data is used is a foundational step.

Adjusting and building resilience

In the evolving effort to find lasting replacements for today’s ad identifiers, direct relationships bear critical importance.

Publisher connections with consumers and advertisers are key. Media sellers must demonstrate value to both partners by using consumer data in a manner that earns trust. Additionally, publishers’ direct relationships with tech platforms ensure that as they navigate new territory, they do so with the confidence they’re retaining the full value of every impression and avoiding unnecessary fees. Couple this with the ability to lean on those platforms to provide useful tools while signaling the way to long-term solutions for the future state of identity, and the hope is that publishers will never feel cast away and isolated while working to protect their position and revenue.

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