Publishers’ Alliances: Damage Control Or Potential For A Brighter Future?

- August 11, 2017

In the last two or three years, it’s become increasingly common for publishers to unite to share audience data and extend the reach and quality of their audiences. By creating these alliances, they increase their appeal to brands and media agencies.

Alliances vary, with some focusing on inventory, others on data and some covering both. Examples include Nucleus Marketing Solutions in the US, Pangaea Alliance and Symmachia in the UK, Gravity, Skyline, La Place Media and Audience Square in France, emetriq and the newly launched Login Alliance in Germany and Digital Premium in Brazil.

They can face the “triopoly” of Facebook, Google and Amazon with more confidence but also platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat. Where individually publishers would struggle to demonstrate dominance online, together, they offer a more attractive digital proposition to brands and media agencies.

It’s puzzling to me how marketers see publishers, the “triopoly” and platforms as mutually exclusive, particularly given that the context of each one and their users’ state of mind are often completely different and, in many cases, complementary.

I see many benefits of the aggregated offering that a publishers’ alliance can provide. And I can see why it appeals to some brands and media agencies. This joined-up approach can, for example, provide brands and agencies with quality audiences and context at scale to mitigate issues related to data quality, brand safety and fake news.

For individual publishers, this approach can help them overcome the likelihood of being rejected by a brand or agency because they lack the necessary audience reach.

While publishers’ alliances can be seen as a good start to overcoming these issues, I can’t help feeling that they smack of damage control by the category. What’s more, they are definitely not without their challenges.

The Challenges To Consistency And Data Quality

While five publishers may each contribute a travel audience segment, this won’t necessarily add up to a high-quality, representative travel audience. The reason for this is that each audience provided would be the result of the different data sources, tools and techniques implemented by the individual publishers at source.

For example, Publisher A might build its travel segment by collecting data on all site visitors who read travel articles. Publisher B, on the other hand, might base its travel segment on travel articles plus the keywords that people use to search its site. Then there’s Publisher C, which not only publishes travel content but also sells travel packages and uses its conversion data to construct segments. So, here you have three travel segments built in distinctly different ways – one using page views, one using page views plus search and one adding real conversions to the process.

All three travel segments might be combined under the existing publishers’ alliance regime, even though each has been built in a completely different way. Inconsistencies in the way the segments are produced can create unreliable targeting, personalization, recommendation, creative optimization or whatever the data is used for, which can impact the end results.

Added to this challenge are the potential issues that stem from the different privacy policies currently implemented by publishers and that are likely to arise from the introduction of Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation.

A Simple Solution?

I believe that publishers require a leap of faith if they will be able to really compete in the digital world. They must let go and give up some individual, siloed control of their audience data to be competitive and truly valuable as part of an alliance.

This solution appears deceptively simple but, as anyone who works in publishing will tell you, it is not. So, how might the category achieve it?

By suggesting that publishers give up their competitive fears, let’s be clear that I am not advocating that they give up their competitiveness or any commercial advantage. I’m also not proposing that publishers need to pool 100% of their data. Those publishers that have in place a paywall, for example, might have a lot of data from subscriptions and not want to share this information. Of course, they shouldn’t have to. And yet, a significant quantity of data does need to be shared, and the actual amount to be shared needs to be agreed upon for the publishers’ alliances to be effective.

Once publishers have reached an agreement on how the data is handled and how much of it is shared, it should be handed over to an independent entity in the rawest possible form. From here, it can be processed in a consistent and streamlined way for data science, either based on traditional methods or artificial intelligence, to create the final product.

Creating such a shared yet separate entity will be vital for overcoming any competitive fears and data quality issues. All shared audience and content data should flow into it to be assessed by independent data scientists and product managers who are dedicated to the development of high-quality, common data solutions and the protection of users’ privacy.

I believe publishers should take ownership of this separate entity and not hand it over to a third party to manage. If publishers want to remain relevant and involved, they need to double their efforts and take their future into their own hands.

I also believe that for individual publishers to move beyond those competitive fears that hold their alliances back, they need to rethink their data revenue model, as it is not always easy to identify the most valuable data or quantify the impact of different data sources. Ultimately, if the publishers’ alliances are to overcome data quality issues, they need to collectively come up with a common data strategy.

Publishers’ alliances offer a real opportunity for publishers to extend their reach and share of brands’ and media agencies’ digital media budgets. However, to fully realize the potential, publishers must work more closely together to provide real value in a more sophisticated way, rather than through marketing stunts or cost-saving exercises. Only then can they overcome the challenges that threaten their survival and success.

It will not be easy, but publishers must give up some short-term competitive advantage to win a brighter future as a category.

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