There's always lots of passionate discussion around ownership and use of data in the context of digital marketing. This is true whether you're a consumer advocate concerned with protecting privacy, a media seller or buyer who is looking to use targeting to impact the value exchange, a technology provider that profits from data management challenges, or a business that wants to segment and address its customers. Everyone's got some well-thought out perspective that defines their core commercial (and sometimes personal) beliefs.
Oddly enough, the passion around data has masked the waning interest in another important variable in the marketing value exchange: context. I won't argue whether context is more or less important than data-driven segmentation because that ratio fluctuates with the business, brand and marketplace situations. But there is one group of people to whom context should still represent a significant chunk, if not the majority of, value: content publishers.
That should seem obvious, but publishers who are also media sellers seem to have forgotten about the value of their content, and the importance of the context they provide for marketers and agencies.
Get any large publisher/seller in a room these days and the pitch is invariably focused around how many of your customers they have on their properties. They'll start with the syndicated research data and say, "Our network indexes at 180 for users of your product! We're perfect for you!" And then they'll move on and say, "If you let us pixel your Web site we'll tell you exactly how many of your customers are on our site! And we'll let you advertise to them!" That's so kind of them! Many advertisers and agencies have already gone down this path, taking advantage of a soft media marketplace to negotiate lots of pixel-dependent performance-based deals. "Why wouldn't we do this?" many of you have asked yourselves. "We only pay if the media generates a transaction! We're paying the publishers to grow our business, and isn't that why we advertise in the first place? It makes so much sense!"
Truth be told, it did make sense, and performance-based media deals continue to be a significant business channel for many transaction-oriented clients and agencies. But the over-dependence of publishers on marketing data to generate revenue poses a major threat to the tacit agreement between consumers, content producers, and advertisers that this industry relies on.
Enterprising publishers do market research and find the best talent so that they can produce can't-live-without-it content. This content is so fascinating that consumers are willing to put up with advertising to experience it, and advertisers are willing to pay premiums to reach consumers during that specific content experience. A publisher's asset is the audience it attracts with content, not with pixels. Advertisers don't need creative geniuses to find pixels - they can do that with ad networks and data exchanges for a fraction of the cost and without having to talk to anyone. Thanks to the ease of publishing on the Internet, people everywhere are making Web pages all the time! Finding a place to fish for pixels with ad banners is easy.
I'm not saying that publishers have no business using the cookie data that they collect with the permission of their audience. If they're tracking user behavior on their sites, I would hope that they're using that cookie-data as real-time market research, to always know what type of content their audience wants, to test and learn so that they are always innovating around what type of content they deliver and how they deliver it. But if that research is only turning up insights on what brands they have commercial relationships with, how does that inform content development? Does a content producer take advertiser pixel data and then go into a creative war room and say, "Okay guys, how are we going to get more home loan customers of Bank X with mortgages over $250,000 on our site than any other?" What kind of creative output comes out of that situation? Ads, that's what.
Agencies and marketers bear a fair share of the blame here. Once the advertising community started paying more for coincidence ("That person who abandoned my shopping cart last week happens to be on the site I'm advertising on! I don't know why he's here, but let's GET HIM.") than context, the investment in quality content started to decline. And now when I meet with publisher/sellers and ask them what differentiates them from the next guy, they struggle to answer. They tell me they've got lots of my customers for sale, but nothing about why it's better for me to buy them in one place versus the other. They lament about the horrifying impact of ad networks and agency trading desks, but they don't offer any compelling reasons to transact differently.
We told publishers we wanted them to share our risk, put some skin in the game. I don't think we could have predicted that they'd put their blood and guts in too. Yes, buyers believe that money can buy happiness, but we expect sellers to defend their core value proposition. Ignoring the value of your specific content because advertisers want CPA deals is the equivalent of Google tossing out its algorithm and only providing paid listings because advertisers are willing to pay for first position on the page. I want to see more publishers take pride in their content and focus on the thing about them that makes a consumer choose to be there at that time and not someplace else. Everybody has a good angle, and if you're in the business of publishing, content is yours. Work it!
Carrie Frolich is Managing Director, Digital for Mediaedge:cia, a GroupM agency
Read all Carrie's MediaBizBloggers commentaries at Musings from GroupM - MediaBizBloggers.
Follow our Twitter updates @MediaBizBlogger