For U.S. News and World Report, first-party audiences are in decision mode

first party data

U.S. News and World Report provides news, sure. But it’s known for its rankings of colleges, hospitals, places to retire to — the list of lists goes on and on.

So when the publisher curates ad targeting segments from the first-party audience data it’s been building for about five years, they’re not just based on whether people are reading news about cryptocurrencies or gas prices, but on whether people are at a stage in their lives to be considering colleges for their kids or scheduling an oncologist appointment next week. Rather than focus ad targeting solely on contextual signals, U.S. News thinks more like an e-commerce or search engine. 

“We’re showing where they are in the decision-making process,” said Alex Kalaf, vp of marketing and advertising strategy at U.S. News and World Report, who said 90% of traffic flows into the U.S.-centric website through organic search. In March 2021, USNews.com attracted 32.4 million unique visitors, a 13% dip year over year, according to Comscore. “They’re coming through search to make a decision,” she said.

Dotdash, which told Digiday recently it generates 85% of its visitor traffic through search to its listicle-rich content on health information site VeryWell and financial help site Investopedia, also builds audience segments from intent data. 

This intent-based publisher data can be particularly valuable for advertisers who do not have established e-commerce businesses or direct relationships with customers. As third-party data signals lose effectiveness, advertisers without their own customer data could have trouble reaching people who are farther along the purchase path without this type of intent data from publishers. “For an advertiser who is not e-commerce-enabled or who is not [direct-to-consumer], the data is harder to come by,” said an agency executive.

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In the fourth quarter of 2020, U.S. News worked with data management provider Permutive to overhaul its first-party data management system. The updated platform, called U.S. News Intent Intelligence, introduced new audience segmenting and targeting capabilities. Rather than target ads to people on a piecemeal section-by-section basis, the new capabilities allow the publisher to segment audiences according to a variety of signals showing how people interact across its content.

For instance, to build an audience category to reach people interested in a Caribbean vacation, the company takes clues from site interactions like whether someone used a hotel pricing widget on the site, signed up for a “Best Vacation Deals” email newsletter or checked out its list of “Best Destination Wedding Spots in the Caribbean,” in addition to more standard contextual targeting fodder showing someone read articles about travel restrictions to Caribbean countries. 

For all the attention paid to publishers building first-party data sets by gathering identifiable information from readers such as an email address — U.S. News collects this information through Google’s sign-in tool — first-party data encompasses information reflecting all the interactions people have on a publisher’s site. And, there’s no shortage of publishers that have been investing in first-party data strategies, even before Google made it clear that third-party cookies and the data stored in them would lose their power to enrich the information that publishers use for ad targeting. Gannett is upgrading its customer data platform, for example. In March, BuzzFeed launched a first-party data platform to offer unique or customized audience segments for selling directly to advertisers and through private marketplaces, according to Ken Blom, BuzzFeed’s svp of ad strategy.

Often the data points used to create an audience depend on advertiser goals and at what stage of the marketing funnel they want to reach people, said Kalaf, who explained that recency and frequency of people’s behaviors on the site factor in. So, while a segment built for an advertiser hoping to garner new patients for a particular medical group might only include people who have searched for physician-related information in recent days, a segment showing interest in booking a stay at a particular destination might include people who have shown intent to travel there in the last three months, she said.

For publishers and advertisers, part of the value of first-party data lies not just in control over audience information, but also transparency, said Kalaf.  She added, “We would provide [advertisers with] all of the behaviors and signals that we put into that segment and also provide them with the recency and frequency of those behaviors that we had seen.”

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