Gannett prepares for cookiepocalypse from many angles at once

cookie computer

To prepare for the coming third-party cookie changes, publishers have been busy stitching together all the information they have about their readers and looking for ways to gather more first-party data. 

Gannett is no exception, though its efforts are designed to support subscriber growth just as much as advertiser spending. The news publisher is building audience segments that can replicate the ones advertisers are used to finding using third-party cookies, looking to upgrade its customer data platform (CDP) and adding as many registration points to its sites as possible, including, most recently on USA Today, which historically has been supported solely by advertising. 

While plenty of publishers, ranging from the New York Post to Vox Media, are finding multiple uses for their first-party data systems, Gannett in particular is adapting to this sea change in advertising at a moment when it would prefer to be focused on something else: Hitting CEO Mike Reed’s goal of amassing 10 million digital subscribers by 2025, up from 1 million digital subscribers today. 

“We want to continue to draft behind the success and growth we’re seeing from a consumer perspective,” said Michael Kuntz, the chief operating officer of national sales at USA Today. “Everything we are building today is meant to support both our various B2B and B2C initiatives.” 

Like other publishers, USA Today is advancing on this problem from multiple fronts. Kuntz said Gannett is participating in trials of FLoC — Google’s increasingly scrutinized targeting product — and it is busy building out more audience segments to make it easier to do contextual targeting. It plans to examine and experiment with several third-party identifiers, including NewsPass ID and Verizon Media’s ConnectID, which would effectively take the place of cookies. 

But its main focus is on its own first-party data, and amassing more of it. At the moment, not all of Gannett’s sites have paywalls or registration gates, and not all of its data sources have been tied together. Across its local news sites, authenticated users account for about 15% of pageviews, Kuntz said. “We are very much an identity-focused organization,” Kuntz said. 

Thanks to an effort launched years ago, USA Today offers advertisers more than 1,000 audience segments, most of them designed to mimic third-party segments sought after by advertisers. It’s looking to build more of them, using not just its news and personal finance content but also its lifestyle coverage of topics including food and entertainment. 

And it has affiliate commerce data and intent signals from Reviewed, a product reviews title whose content is syndicated across its network. It also has consumer data from USA Today Network Ventures, a separate events business that it began ramping up in 2017, which Kuntz said now has a database of 10 million consumer profiles. 

It’s been busy adding more sources to that list. In the fourth quarter of 2020, Gannett rolled out a live-polling tool, which gathers information from readers it then uses to advance both its advertising and subscription efforts. For example, earlier this year Gannett polled readers across its titles about their coming travel plans, asking them questions such as where they were likely to stay (in a hotel versus an Airbnb, for example). 

The poll’s responses gave USA Today information about how attitudes toward travel differed by geographical area, and also helped inform subsequent marketing and advertising plans — people who answered the questions in one way were served offers to subscribe to a travel newsletter, while those who responded differently were served ads for hotels. 

Gannett cannot currently tie all of those sources together. It plans to upgrade to a “next gen CDP” later this year, Kuntz said, though it has not yet decided whether that means upgrading from current vendors or migrating to a new one. 

All of those moves should help Gannett navigate a tough balance. One of the key factors in Gannett’s ability to hit its 10 million subscriber number will be how many it can harvest from USA Today, Gannett’s largest title and one whose site has historically been monetized solely through advertising; USA Today Network claims to reach over 150 million people every month across its network of sites; USA Today reaches more than 90 million. Earlier this week, Poynter’s Rick Edmonds noticed that Gannett has begun testing a kind of paywall on USA Today’s website.

“Going slow while phasing in digital paid helps preserve that selling point to advertising clients,” Edmonds wrote in an analysis published this week. “Beta testing makes all kinds of sense for a change of this scale — the company will be harvesting data on which approaches yield the most paid subscribers and whether readers are ready or resistant.”

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