Opinion: In order to thrive, publishers must master their data

Matt Minoff is vp of ad platforms at Meredith Digital

The amount of data available to digital publishers is staggering. Hundreds of systems, internal channels and external sources all offer a wealth of information about what consumers are reading and which content drives value for advertisers. Unfortunately for online publishers, the result is often lots of data without much insight. This is no small matter — data is fast becoming an integral part of what separates successful publishers from the rest, and publishers must get a handle on their data if they want to stay competitive.

The process of harnessing your data to make better business decisions can be broken down into three distinct phases: collecting the data, structuring and presenting the data and, finally, extracting actionable insights from the data.

Collecting the data
The first phase, pulling all your data together, isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. The data governance process — collecting data from each system, ensuring that it is clean, accurate, structured and normalized — is extremely resource-intensive. Over the past few years, entire businesses and cottage industries have emerged to facilitate this process. As you start to bring your data together, be mindful to include data from every area of the organization. Operational data, campaign data and user data can all help publishers understand how best to run their businesses.

Dashboard your data
Once the data is collected in a reliable and consistent way, the next phase is to make it digestible in a single dashboard. A unified dashboard will provide a centralized location where all of your stakeholders can access and, as appropriate, interact with your data. When set up effectively, a dashboard can serve as a summarizing tool, offering an at-a-glance view of your top business metrics. This is the first step in turning your data into insights your team can use to guide their decisions.

Put your data to work
Remember, though, that a dashboard is a means, not an end. Dashboards don’t tell you what to do with the data on hand. The real value of your data becomes clear in the third phase: making your data actionable. Data can and should provide specific answers to important business questions. Forbes, for example, democratized data access within the organization, making article-level insights available to each editor and reporter. Armed with this data, the editorial team could confidently create content aligned to what consumers were seeking in real time, a tactic that helped the publisher nearly quadruple its readership in three years, while driving down the cost to publish.

Still, publishers face considerable headwinds when it comes to getting a handle on their data. Finding and cultivating talent to perform these analyses is a challenge, and our industry lacks a historical precedent for such roles. In industries like finance, data analysis has long been a critical part of daily work for many employees. In media, by contrast, companies didn’t even think about data analysis as a tool or critical skill set until recently. To be clear, I am not suggesting publishers hire Ph.D.-level data scientists en masse — junior analysts working at most banks would be able to accomplish these tasks, given the right training and mandate.

With a clear focus and some basic organizational shifts, publishers can begin to build out this core competence. At Meredith, we’ve made changes to our platforms and team structures to facilitate data-driven decision-making, and we ‘ve partnered with STAQ to bring our first- and third-party data together. Page-level data has helped improve page-load times and informed our UX to create more viewable inventory. We built a revenue-operations team laser-focused on using our data to improve campaign performance and to maximize yield. By simply comparing client-facing tracking through ad servers like DFA to our own ad server data, we’ve significantly improved our campaign-delivery pacing and optimization.

The stakes are high. Publishers that don’t make data-driven decisions will be made obsolete, not just with consumers but also with advertisers. As brands increase their focus on fraud and viewability, ad dollars will start to flee from publishers that aren’t able to track what’s happening on their properties. There’s no need to let your organization drown in all your data. With some focused steps, we can all make data-driven decisions that result in better outcomes for users and advertisers alike.


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