How Publishers Can Regain Control In A Post-Cookie World

The Sell Sider" is written by members of the media community and contains fresh ideas on the digital revolution in media.

Today’s column is written by Scott Messer, SVP of media, Leaf Group.

Last month we looked at how publishers may be losing their grasp on the contextual opportunity ahead. This month, we’ll explore the publisher’s identity conundrum of balancing short-term revenue and long-term opportunity.

The recent barrage of identity solutions should alarm publishers. There is a land grab afoot and the stakes are high. DSPs, SSPs and middlemen are hard at work replacing their current workflows in order to maintain status quo market liquidity. Publishers face the heavy burden of rebuilding the foundation of modern day identity targeting. What once worked passively through sneaky JavaScript and pixel drops will now require a more profound technical lift and a much bigger emphasis on the coveted publisher-reader relationship.

As the jargon swirls and the hype machine ramps to a deafening level, perhaps it is worth a pause to ask: How do publishers benefit from rebuilding the identity infrastructure?

The most common answer is probably “to make sure CPMs don’t go down.” This answer presupposes that the disruption of targeting and attribution will cause money to leave the market entirely. Currently dollars have shifted from Safari to Chrome, but what happens when Chrome is equally challenged? Not surprisingly, most ID solution vendors are not selling publishers on the backstopping of CPMs, they’re focusing on the opposite.


So can the CPMs go up? Yes, but there is work to be done.

Be careful what you wish for

What exactly are publishers trying to rebuild with their identity gardens?

Publishers must aim higher than simply to perpetuate a revenue cycle that has delivered plenty of relatively easy open auction revenue. Open auctions, which are heavily reliant on identity solutions to align inventory targets (remember cookie syncs and match rates?), drive a majority of digital ad spend, but at a cost to publisher’s premium efforts.

As DSPs become increasingly efficient hunters of high value users across the vast expanse of open auctions, publishers should not want to reestablish a paradigm that systematically not only brings inventory closer to buyers but also further from the actual seller.

The allure of quickly replacing that “easy” revenue stream with minimal disruption comes at the expense of long-term strategy. Publishers should focus on how to take advantage of this opening, and how they can shift the balance into their favor.

The ad tech players and intermediaries are all shifting into high gear to rebuild the bridges of identification, or risk losing their own market liquidity. The equitable imbalance of these forthcoming solutions threatens every publisher, especially those entirely dependent on open auction revenue, or who have smaller product and sales teams who can’t reliably cull deterministic signals.

Should sellers cooperate with standardization?

Typically, there are three primary targeting types: list based targeting, cart abandonment retargeting and behavioral targeting.

It behooves publishers to facilitate identity matching in the first two cases. After all, the advertiser has done most of the work pre-identifying their user and a seller should welcome the high CPMs that come with assisting in the final conversion.

Yet, as the browser wars lay waste to match tables and behavioral targeting becomes scarcer, DSPs and SSPs will have a hard time doing their jobs effectively, which is why they are urging the industry toward common solutions. This cooperation and standardization is beneficial, and publishers should unite to help marketers measure and pace campaigns efficiently.

However, sellers should be wary of the solution details: Does it allow them to harness more or less value from their identity contributions, and how can they tell?

Demand more from SSPs

Transparency and accountability in identity-based transactions is crucial. Sellers must be able to determine who facilitated an impression and how much yield it garnered in order to evaluate their product investments and vendor relationships.

Today, it is nearly impossible to decipher what triggered an open auction impression, and too often, the monthly reports wrap all of the log-level granularity into a single row named “October.” Vendors and DSPs must either return a key-value with their bids, or find another similar way to provide meaningful and actionable correlations.

Publishers should also push their SSPs to enable the restriction of ID-based bid requests to more traceable routes, like private marketplaces, in order to control how IDs surface in the bid stream. SSPs have a chance to differentiate themselves by prioritizing this responsibility and offering publishers a path to build distinction and value among buyers.

Even publishers relying solely on open auctions should demand these controls to help bolster flooring strategies. Why should a publisher blindly sell their most coveted inventory for less? They shouldn’t.

When current identifiers degrade, the identified web will be a scant 10% of available inventory, and will command premium prices. One cannot simply sell ID-based inventory next to under-identified traffic and expect a good price. Publishers must have the tools to distinguish their inventory types and understand how to price it properly at market.

Seize the day

The most dreaded question in programmatic land is, “Why shouldn’t I just buy you on the open exchange?” The availability of inventory, fueled by third-party data matching in open auctions, created a feast of undervalued inventory. For too long, buyers and their slick DSP algorithms have ghosted sellers as they deftly sidestepped publisher PMPs.

Now is the opportunity to change all of that.

Publishers who don't take control make it tougher for everyone else, and ultimately disadvantage the entire publishing ecosystem. Sellers should all value their identity gardens and identified traffic at a premium, just as advertisers will. Take aim at the bigger opportunity here and do not let this slip away... again.

Carpe Identitatem.

Follow Scott Messer (@Scrilla100) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

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