Splitting the atom: Decoupling audience from inventory unleashes power of pubs


AnnMarie Wills, CEO and co-founder, Leverage Lab

With almost three decades of digital advertising under their belts, publishers continue to perfect the art and science of attracting audiences most coveted by advertisers. But like an unstable isotope, there is a perfect storm of swirling particles that threatens publishers’ roles within the digital advertising ecosystem. 

Recent legislation in California and the EU portends more stringent privacy laws across the globe. Apple is forcing opt-in on IDFAs, the world’s most popular web browser, Google Chrome, is joining Safari and Firefox in discontinuing support of third-party cookies by year’s end — and undoubtedly the walled gardens will continue to consume a lion’s share of digital media spend. 

These market forces leave every other online media organization to fight over crumbs and potentially face an extinction moment if they cannot harness the absolute value of their audiences on and offsite. In the following client stories, examples of what that value means become clear.

Not your father’s remarketing pixel

One of the most effective display advertising strategies emerged in the late 2000s. 

Google Adwords and a handful of independent ad networks started to provide site owners with Java text that dropped a third-party cookie, making reengaging site visitors elsewhere in their networks possible. With the advent of programmatic media buying, demand side platforms (DSPs) quickly rolled out solutions that efficiently expanded the reach of remarketing across the entire open-web. 

As remarketing was swiftly adopted by advertisers, it also became an engine for publishers, powering ad programs such as audience extension and content amplification. Key to the success of those programs was innovative audience segmentation.

Aviation International News (AIN) is an excellent example of a publisher getting creative with its audience. The company recently invested in a customer data platform (CDP) to collect, enrich, and monetize its first-party audience data. Known for its robust coverage of the aviation industry with its print publications, convention show dailies, website and daily newsletters, AIN also publishes Business Jet Traveler (BJT), a consumer-facing subscription title focused on helping find the right aviation solution for those who fly private.

“Historically our advertising base has been limited to aviation companies, but BJT has become a premier resource for high-net-worth individuals and business owner audiences,” said Dave Leach, Chief Operating Officer at AIN. “With some creative audience development strategies made possible by our CDP,  we now own that relationship with a proprietary user ID. This allows us to dramatically increase our digital inventory and efficiently offer this incredibly elusive audience to a whole new set of advertisers.”


More traditional remarketing remains ubiquitous today despite its reliance on the third-party cookie. But what happens to these strategies when Google discontinues third-party cookie support in Chrome, in 2021? Even the Facebook remarketing tag that millions of advertisers and publishers have come to depend on will most certainly change drastically. 

Farm Journal, a leading source of data and activation in the far-reaching agricultural vertical, for years has extended its reach and scale through remarketing partners on owned-and-operated sites. In anticipation of third-party tracking disappearing, they have redoubled investment in solidifying their direct relationship with farmers, ranchers and producers.

“The paradox of B2B media is that we command premium CPMs to engage high-value audiences onsite, but we have a finite number of impressions to offer advertisers,” said Courtney Yuskis, vice president, Digital Operations, at Farm Journal. “To meet client objectives for even greater reach and frequency, we activate our proprietary audience segments in paid social and impressions on the open-web.”

To ensure the viability of this strategy as support of third-party cookies wanes, Farm Journal has invested in CDP technology to convert anonymous traffic to known users and better collect actionable behavioral data. Armed with richer first-party data sets, publishers looking to extend their reach using programmatic media channels are proving better match rates when onboarding their data in a post-third-party cookie world. 

Honoring the relationship 

With change comes new opportunity. This is undoubtedly true in the media landscape. If publishers can continue to earn the trust of their audiences with valuable content and experiences, they will remain the gatekeepers and find ways to responsibly leverage their direct relationships. Intent-signaling behaviors — observable as users search, click, consume and repeat — are the lifeblood of the digital advertising ecosystem and something publishers must honor. 

“Consent is becoming more important than ever for publishers,” said John Tyler Grant, vice president of Audience and Data at Informa Markets, creators of platforms for specialist markets to trade and grow through virtual and face-to-face exhibitions and digital and data solutions. “If we want to continue to leverage behavioral data on behalf of our advertisers, we must honor the value exchange with our audiences first,” “It’s not enough for media organizations to be the gatekeepers to their audiences, we need to reimagine ourselves as data platforms that ensure the value exchange with these audiences.”

Of course, publishers need to honor that value exchange with better user experiences through on-site personalization and content recommendations. They also need to package it to drive value for advertisers in new ways. Private marketplaces and programmatic direct deals are a starting point. They also need to consider severing the bond between audience data and owned inventory. Merchandising proprietary audience segments, custom segmentation — and even standard segments via agency trading desks and DSPs — matches how brands want to transact, three decades into the digital advertising revolution. 

Stricter privacy legislation and the demise of the third-party cookie shouldn’t necessarily threaten the viability of independent publishers within the digital advertising ecosystem. Instead, these market forces create opportunities for publishers to innovate by investing in owning the relationship with their users and looking to tap the “atomic” power unleashed when splitting first-party audience data from onsite inventory. Advertisers have similar opportunities.


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