Publishers role as audience gatekeeper critically injured by big data

The evolution of big data, tracking, targeting and advertising over the last half dozen years has transformed the dynamic of publishers in their role as audience gatekeeper.

Let’s take a hypothetical publication, Fishing Times. In the old days, paper or digital, if you’re advertising fishing equipment, Fishing Times is a must-buy. But tracking and targeting changes that. Now Google or Facebook or any number of other players can target people interested in fishing or even Fishing Times readers wherever they go on the internet. Let’s call these “Fishing Times readers” collectively.

So Fishing Times’s ad department is selling access to the prime Fishing Times readership. But the Data Lords can say, ‘we can show your ad just to Fishing Times readers when they’re on Facebook, or really anywhere.’ Because the Data Lords have the data and they can track and target you. The publication’s role as the gatekeeper to an audience is totally undercut because the folks who control the data and the targeting can follow those readers anywhere and purchase the ads at the lowest price.

That’s not all. The Data Lords can also create something called ‘look alike audiences’, a key part of what Facebook (but by no means only Facebook) does. This means that the data may show that people with brown eyes, Toyota Camrys, fans of Bruce Springsteen and milk chocolate buy the most fishing equipment and are the most intensely loyal readers of Fishing Times. Now the Data Lords can show your ads not only to Fishing Times readers (wherever they go on the web) but to this demographic profile which may seem to have no connection to fishing but yet has a demonstrated propensity to purchase fishing gear in the same way Fishing Times readers do.

There’s one final part of the equation. We have an advertiser who sells hand crafted fly fishing gear. This is pricey stuff and it appeals to only one, fairly small part of the Fishing Times demographic. The advertiser may set up a private auction or marketplace with Google which will allow them to show their ads on Fishing Times only when a reader fits a very specific demographic profile.  So Fishing Times is getting those dollars but only a tiny fraction of them because the Data Lords have allowed them to pick and choose the small subset of the audience they want to show their ads to.

The dynamics I’ve noted are affecting all publications and most of them to a great degree. If you’re hearing about the advertising and monetization crisis so many publishers are facing, what I’m describing here is a huge part of what is going on.

There are significant public questions about whether these uses of data are acceptable in privacy terms and whether society is well served by having publishers bled dry by the social platforms.

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