How The Independent, Livingly and BuzzFeed are using their content to create fresh contextual audience data

first party data

A heat wave in the Pacific Northwest led the climate hub homepage last week at The Independent, which aims to connect people who seem more concerned about living green than the average reader to brands with eco-friendly messages or products.

While an editorial undertaking, the environmental vertical also provides the publisher a means of forming an audience segment of eco-conscious consumers to pitch to advertisers. It’s one of many ways publishers have teased out original contextual audience segments built on fresh or existing editorial content.

But they face an unforgiving environment. As publishers fight for ad dollars once derived from stronger third-party cookie tracking signals coming from across the web, they not only have the platform giants to compete with. Publishers such as The Independent, Livingly and BuzzFeed must also convince advertisers that their contextual audience approaches are worth paying for, even as Google’s decision to extend its deadline for killing off third-party cookies threatens to dampen urgency for trying out anything new. 

The Independent: not-your-everyday audience segments

The Independent’s six-month-old climate hub is intended to appeal to readers the publisher can assemble into “less common” audience targets, based on first-party data gleaned through interactions with climate-related articles or reviews for low-carbon travel destinations that indicate psychographic traits or consumer buying habits. It’s part of a plan to wean the site from a reliance on open programmatic marketplaces by conjuring new ways to sell inventory using first-party data-centric contextual targets. 

The concept the challenger digital-only news brand is testing: “Can we go to an auto manufacturer of an electric car or [consumer packaged goods] manufacturer of recycled plastic and say we have identified this user set as climate warriors?” said Blair Tapper, senior vice president at The Independent U.S. The publisher will only sell these new contextual audiences direct, via private marketplace deals or through programmatic guaranteed deals, said Tapper.

Tapper said a category reaching female investors is another one the publisher aims to grow through an editorial strategy that ensures there is content that speaks to audiences whom advertisers find valuable. While the publisher can find specific people to target based on matches to advertisers’ own first-party data, The Independent wants to help advertisers that may not have individual-level customer information to find unique audiences, said Tapper. “The more that we can identify voids in the market is an opportunity for partners to then come and work with us,” she said.

Livingly: testing a smarter network buy

Livingly hopes to convince advertisers there are better ways to reach people on its women-aimed sites than simply buying them as siloed site-specific audiences perusing lists of TikTok influencers on youthful pop-culture site Zimbio or top RV destinations on It’s Rosy, a site steered toward the 50-plus set. For instance, the publisher’s CEO Erica Carter said advertisers seeking new mothers can reach them while they’re assessing kid-proof furniture ideas on Lonny and while they’re visiting Livingly’s more endemic pregnancy and parenting sibling Mabel + Moxie through contextual audience segments built from the publisher’s rich understanding of its readers that target across all its sites.

“We have better insights about people across our whole platform,” she said.

Livingly’s cross-network segments are part of a new contextual targeting product called IRIS (Insights, Research, Intenders and Scale) which mines data indicating what people care about through editorial quizzes on Livingly’s sites. Answers to a question about vegan foods, for example, might be used to identify people who would be receptive to an ad for a meat alternative brand’s ad. The company will also develop questions for advertisers to insert into quizzes to build its audience segments.

But convincing advertisers to see beyond customer-level targeting that can drastically limit audience reach isn’t easy, said Carter. If advertisers are looking for new moms, the publisher can use its first-party data assets to find them rather than advertisers pushing a CRM database through four layers of tech. “With each funnel, you get a smaller and smaller addressable audience,” said Carter. For now, she said, that persuasion phase entails conducting small tests with advertisers to show how contextual targeting performance measures up to targeting using matched customer data.

BuzzFeed: commerce content for data collection

BuzzFeed — which turned quizzes into an audience-data harvesting art form — is still stumping site visitors with tests like the one promising to detect “Your Soulmate’s First Initial Based On The 4th Of July Party You Plan.” But nowadays shopping-centric product reviews and wish lists are helping the publisher learn more about people’s actual purchase intent in very specific ways. For example, titles in BuzzFeed’s shopping section feature reviews for items from stores like Wayfair or offer time-sensitive lists associated with holiday sales, like — yes — Walmart’s Fourth of July sale.

“We’re building out behaviors that allow us to create more loyalty within that shopping content,” said Ken Blom, BuzzFeed’s svp of ad strategy. In March, BuzzFeed launched a first-party data platform to offer customized audience segments for selling directly to advertisers and through private marketplaces. Ideally, said Blom, the new information the publisher can generate through its own content can give ad salespeople fodder to package audiences and insights in more customized ways advertisers couldn’t get through open programmatic auctions.

BuzzFeed is also adding site features, such as letting people add items to a wish list. Not only does that require a sign-up that generates an email address, but also it allows BuzzFeed to track when people clicked through to a product page. But to Blom, it’s not about affiliate marketing revenue. “Monetization, in my opinion, is to build up unique first-party data we can sell to advertisers,” he said.

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