Publishers Beware: Is Ad Tech Harvesting Your Data Without Permission?

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"The Sell Sider" is a column written by the sell side of the digital media community.

Today's column is written by Alessandro De Zanche, an audience and data strategy consultant.

After this exclusive first look for subscribers, the story will be published in full on AdExchanger.com tomorrow.

Media owners today risk losing control of one of their most precious assets. The parasitic nature of certain ad tech is back, as some players try to pull control of resources and assets away from media brands. This time, they’re threatening the very essence of intellectual property: content.

Content is at the heart of media owners’ DNA. It’s a window to the soul of the audience, their preferences and interests. And it’s the gateway to the new frontier of targeting and data: context. Without the availability of content, many contextual products and by-products cannot exist.

But to gather these all-important and essential contextual signals, some ad tech players aren’t quite playing fairly. Increasingly, they’re extracting and using publishers’ intellectual property and assets outside existing legal agreements. 

Two types of context hijacking

Contextual intelligence and targeting are the most visible examples of content being hijacked. For many, contextual targeting has always been a complement to audience targeting. For others, it is the new shiny go-to in the race to substitute audience targeting.

In the era predating privacy crackdowns (GDPR, CPPA/CPRA and others), some ad tech players profited from data leakage and the exploitation of media owners for value and assets extraction. The same players that took advantage of this unintended availability of user data are engaging in context harvesting today. 

But, if the right strategic choices are made, new privacy regulations are a lifeline for media owners. The new rules offer protection, enabling publishers to control and monetize their first-party user data along with their contextual assets. 

A less evident use case is the exploitation of content and context as tools to create look-alike models and scale up third-party data products. In a simplified example, “Netflix crime watchers” are observed within a panel and associated with consumption patterns and media brand preferences. An ad tech company then crawls the internet – some have their tags on millions of websites and apps globally – and bingo! They can now profile “Netflix crime watchers” whose behavioral patterns match those of the panelists and sell the segment to advertisers.  

The kicker? The advertisers will then serve campaigns on the very media properties whose assets the segment was built on. In both of these situations, ad tech is keeping 100% of the value. 

Once I asked one of those ad tech companies if media owners were aware of the crawling. The answer was: “They can always ask for non-indexing.” Basically, the onus is on media owners to opt out. How many media owners have the knowledge, resources and time to check and act on that?

Passing the blame

Recently, the UK AOP (UK Association of Online Publishers) raised the issue of content and metadata being extracted from their websites by ad tech intermediaries. One of those ad tech providers, which addresses issues like fraud, invalid traffic and brand safety, deflected the responsibility. Their justification was that it is only done at the specific request of buyers.

But media owners demand to have a say in how their content is used, how it is packaged and how the value is shared. They envision a system with licensed providers that can use media content and its derivatives for a defined set of authorized contextual products.

Licensing would be a perfect solution and a solid revenue channel for most small/medium media brands, providing their role and contribution are reflected by the financial outcome. For bigger publishers and high-quality media alliances, however, it is worth thinking bigger. They should consider setting up a panel to make the best use of their relationship with the audience and the impact of their contextual data. That would be better than half-knowingly powering third-party products and revenues for a fraction of the revenue, if any.

Eliminating exploitation

It would be an enormous mistake for advertisers and media agencies to turn a blind eye and think that unauthorized content harvesting is only a media owners’ issue.

An exploited media brand will have less resources to invest in the production of quality content, which in turn will lower the quality of ad environments for consumers and advertisers. We all lose.

Follow Alessandro De Zanche (@adzandads) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

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