Advertising Guest Columns
5 mins read

Publisher challenges using first-party data are everyone’s problem

The digital media space is experiencing a reversal of its usual order. Typically, what matters to advertisers is seen as equally vital for publishers. Currently, however, sell-side difficulties with harnessing first-party data are creating issues for buyers, particularly as 2022 presents the last chance saloon for finalizing their post-cookie preparations.

It’s now widely accepted that there is no single path forward. Future industry operations will likely be fuelled by a mix of first-party data, contextual media planning, and alternative IDs — with IDs seeing already encouraging growth in the UK. Major or minor, owned data plays its part in powering all of these options. So, the fact that gathering, organizing, and using it remains challenging for publishers is also problematic for the entire ecosystem.

Urgent action is clearly crucial. But first, there is a need for better understanding of the key blockers impeding publishers: low scalability, data ownership protection, and activation infrastructure cost.

Scale is the biggest activation hurdle

Obtaining first-party data isn’t the toughest challenge publishers face. In part, that’s because many have recognized the need to build owned data stores as third-party cookies decline. Developing strategies to boost audience data intake has become a top priority, driving greater use of subscriptions, site registration, and newsletters. At the same time, increasingly mature, fast, and affordable customer data platforms (CDPs) have enabled easier data collection.

But improved data inflow isn’t all it takes to effectively leverage first-party data; publishers must also ensure enough scale to make data useable. Frequently cited as one of the chief sticking points for switching to owned insight, limited scalability is a familiar obstacle. As well as posing issues for publishers hoping to frame monetization around deterministic data from consenting users, it presents problems for efficient ad targeting, frequency capping, measurement, and reporting, as well as alternative IDs that need scale to run.

The reason why difficulties persist is simple: most publishers just don’t have the necessary independent reach. Recent success stories from the likes of Insider and NBCUniversal are exceptional examples of what leading media giants can do, especially those with multiple titles, large numbers of subscribers, and sizeable resources. Although it’s important to note that even for those who have spent big on building their ability to offer audience extension for buyers, investment doesn’t always pay off. For instance, several publishers have found that buying their own demand-side platform (DSP) delivers insufficient rewards, if any.

Breaking through the scale barrier is going to be a complex task. But there is a growing array of avenues publishers can explore to expand data scope, without setting up major new advertising ventures — including making select, smart additions to current stacks.

Romain Job, Chief Strategy Officer, Smart AdServer

Are clean rooms the way forward?

The short answer is partly. The longer answer calls for a closer look at the current state of data sharing. So far, collaboration across the industry has moved relatively slowly. Aside from alliances such as the Ozone Project, most publishers have remained hesitant to share data amid concerns around losing their competitive advantage. With both sellers and buyers apprehensive about data leakage, first-party data has been largely left locked in separate DSPs. This strongly limits its usage and scalability, while giving an unfair advantage to large platforms already in control of significant ad budgets. This then leads to extremely opaque price arbitrage schemes, like bidshading.

Clean room technology is striving to change this situation. Recognising the importance of protecting audience data, emerging solutions aim to unlock data while offering security. Typically, this involves using a one-time authorized query that allows buyers and sellers to create unified insights and basic identities, without handing over their data; thereby removing any doubts about data safety, storage, and access.

With such great promise, the clean room concept has unsurprisingly moved up the agenda and is even becoming a key factor in partnership deals. But it’s not quite fully formed yet. There is still an absence of clarity about practicalities; including how it integrates with other elements of publishing systems and which steps are needed to sustain the balance between monetization and activation. What publishers need right now are transparent, flexible, and open technologies that will allow them to maintain control easily and efficiently.

The curation method: self-serve value drivers

As clean room innovation rolls on, another new breed of tech is ready to start delivering data power back into the hands of all players immediately: curation platforms. Designed as a self-serve toolkit for creating value-added media solutions, they are about more than just organizing fragmented stacks. From the activation standpoint, their headline benefit is helping turn high-quality, high-fidelity owned data into a scalable solution for buyers.

This is achieved using multiple layers of intelligent capabilities. To start, platforms allow sellers to upload diverse first-party data — covering pre-bid performance, audience, and brand safety data — and then hook into broader inventory they can use for audience extension by enabling access for advanced supply-side platforms (SSPs). Next comes the curation level. With the ability to apply custom business rules and curation preferences, publishers can put together bespoke auction packages, or so called curated marketplaces: building audiences by geographic location, domain, context and device type, or matching them to advertising KPIs. Once connected to any DSP they prefer, these packages both make the most of valuable first-party data and give publishers the means to differentiate their ad offering in the crowded digital space and maintain ownership and control of their data.

Moreover, curation platforms also reduce blockers to buyer data sharing. On top of enabling agencies and ad networks to pre-filter inventory, sophisticated solutions make it possible for advertising curators to enrich it with their own audience data. The result is a virtuous circle where every side receives maximum value by making better use of first-party data. That’s not to mention the opportunity for publishers and advertisers to forge closer relationships and build trust, paving the way for mutually beneficial dealing in the longer-term and continued data sharing.

On its own, first-party data has low value; true power comes from processing and translating it into intelligible, useful insight. Until publishers can successfully take their assets out of storage and activate them, navigating the post-cookie world will be a considerable challenge for everyone in the digital space.

If the industry wants to make availability of compliant, large-scale data from multiple high-quality publishers a reality, focusing on the ultimate goal of enabling publishers to securely synthesize and aggregate disparate first-party data is essential.

Romain Job, Chief Strategy Officer, Smart AdServer

Clean rooms are poised to be an integral element of hitting this objective, and when combined with a curation platform, it looks set to be the best choice for unleashing owned data value for all, now.

Romain Job
Chief Strategy Officer, Smart AdServer

Smart is the leading independent adtech platform built to serve the interests of both buyers and publishers. Smart’s fully transparent platform and shared-interest business approach enables brands and premium publishers to get their fair share of ad value at every opportunity, on their terms. Smart works directly with hundreds of buyers and more than 1,000 publishers worldwide including Groupe Marie Claire, TracFone, Le Figaro, Leboncoin, Altice Media Publicité, and IMGUR to deliver display, video, native, and rich-media ads to over 50,000 sites and apps.