As the third-party cookie crumbles, publishers scramble for alternatives

Publishers are chasing ways to commercialize their first-party data. Their goal: Create audience identifiers that help clients target the right people at scale, without relying on third-party cookies, then expand how those audiences can be monetized.

News Corp, The Washington Post, the Guardian, Mail Online, Insider Inc. and TI Media are among the publishers actively pursuing beyond-the-cookie strategies that prioritize identifying audiences using first-party rather than third-party cookies. In some cases, that’s led to extended contextual-targeting offerings that incorporate more granular targeting around audience intents, behaviors, sentiments and interests. In others, it involves more second-party data partnerships with advertisers or selling first-party data to be used for targeting audiences outside of their own properties.

Naturally, the method and approach varies depending on the type of publisher. But their motivations are the same: To combat the loss of third-party cookies on Safari and Firefox browsers and control their audience monetization in a world in which data-privacy regulations are far tighter, and browsers like Apple Safari continue to crush workarounds to their anti-tracking policies.

News Corp, home to titles including The Wall Street Journal and The Times and The Sun in the U.K., has established a news ID for individual readers so they can be identified without the use of third-party cookies. The media group has created 590 million global anonymized user IDs, according to the publisher. News Corp had 156 million unique users across its U.S. properties in August, according to Comscore. From those, it has created close to 100 million de-duplicated user profiles.

“We’re the holders of the [reader] relationship,” said Chris Guenther, global head of programmatic for News Corp. “That spans our journalistic properties from the Times of London to The Wall Street Journal but also the tools we offer through a site like Realtor. The [data privacy] regulatory environment and the moves of the browsers have highlighted how important it is to embrace that stewardship and ensure our users come to us.”

Having a single ID for each user means that News Corp knows when the same individual is reading content across its different sites, and what kind of content, in order to establish a set of insights around readers’ habits and preferences, all anonymously. Each title has its own data management platform, which then feeds the data from each title into the centralized customer data platform to unify it. Advertisers can then access those segments programmatically via its News IQ platform.

Natural language processing is used so that category data like keywords can be ingested and in time, sentiment analysis will be introduced, according to Guenther. All data ingested into the CDP is anonymized so as to avoid any regulatory stipulations around personally identifiable information, he added. “We take the privacy regulatory environment very seriously. If we mess up once and make users feel that we aren’t handling their data properly, that resonates more broadly.”

“It’s about looking across our data properties to see what first-party data we haven’t yet captured,” added Guenther. “Given the size and number of properties we have we are constantly looking and auditing where we can continue to ingest [first-party data] and also for the purposes of product development and utility.”

Others are also pushing hard into creating IDs that are based on first-party data. Insider spent the last year developing hundreds of millions of reader IDs, against which it maps first-party data that isn’t personally identifiable but provides in-depth insights into reader behaviors, interests and intents, in order to create effective targeting segments for marketers.

Meanwhile, The Washington Post has created a first-party data ad targeting tool that offers detailed contextual targeting capabilities along with user-intent predictions for marketers. The Post wants to both provide ad-targeting options for advertising clients that want to wean themselves off reliance on third-party cookies. But it also wants to license the tech, called Zeus Insights to other publishers, to help compete with the big tech platforms, and naturally, provide another monetization stream.

“There is no one unified way people are tackling it [the diminishing third-party cookie],” said Isabelle Baas, managing partner, digital, data and technology at Starcom. “But it’s a good development that publishers are finally open to really investing time and effort into generating and monetizing their first-party data sets.”

Second-party data deals are of increasing interest, as is the decoupling of first-party data from a publisher’s media inventory. Pre-GDPR there were a growing number of examples of publishers looking at selling their first-party data separately, so that agencies could then use it to target users on sites outside of that publisher’s properties. In the wake of GDPR, a lot of publishers shelved that approach, deeming it too risky as they couldn’t guarantee how that data was then used once outside their own walls. But it’s now becoming more popular again, according to Baas.

Some publishers are attempting to standardize and scale ad-targeting capabilities via alliances. For instance, Ozone, an alliance between The Guardian, The Telegraph, News UK and Reach, has created a unified taxonomy for how they contextually target ads to make it easier for an advertiser to scale contextual buys. Typically all publishers have a totally different way of identifying audiences for those purposes.

However, the lack of global ID standardization is likely to be a challenge for some time. Meanwhile, much as publishers pushing for non-third-party cookie alternatives and building first-party data packages, agencies are still very much reliant on the use of third-party cookies for their own requirements like frequency capping and measurement. That’s putting the buy and sell sides at odds.

“Publishers still need to gain [user GDPR] consent to build audiences regardless of whether they’re using first-party data or third-party data,” said Matt McIntyre, head of programmatic for Essence across Europe, the Middle East and Africa. “Once they’ve gained that consent, agencies and brands still mostly use third-party technologies based on third party cookies for verification, brand safety and other hygiene factors.”

That means building the audience on first-party data is good for the publisher across those cookie-limited environments, but it doesn’t avoid the fact that consent for a large number of third-party technologies will still be needed for most buyers to continue buying using the current methods, added McIntyre.

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