The Washington Post is preparing for post-cookie ad targeting

The Washington Post has developed a first-party data ad targeting tool called Zeus Insights that offers detailed contextual targeting capabilities along with user-intent predictions for marketers. The goal: to give marketers a sophisticated ad-targeting tool that isn’t reliant on third-party cookies but still drives results despite stricter data-privacy stipulations laid down by regulators.

The Zeus platform monitors contextual data such as what article a person is reading or watching, what position they have scrolled to on a page, what URL they have used to arrive there and what they’re clicking on. The publisher will then match that data to its existing audience data pools, which it has accumulated over the last four years, to create assumptions on what that news user’s consumption intent will be. The technology uses machine learning to decipher the patterns.

However, The Post’s strategic goal isn’t just to provide ad-targeting options for advertising clients that want to wean themselves off reliance on third-party cookies; it’s also to widen other publishers’ ability to compete with the big tech platforms.

The Post plans to license the Zeus platform to publishers both domestically and internationally, by integrating it with its Arc technology platform, which it has licensed to publishers since 2016 and reaches a combined 750 million unique users globally, according to the publisher. The theory is that in doing so, publishers can compete more effectively with the scale and data-targeting opportunities provided by Facebook and Google.

“This is about how we build the media businesses of tomorrow,” said Jarrod Dicker, vp of commercial technology and development at The Post. “It would give publishers a more collective understanding of [being part of] a network, and that then starts to become the opportunity to really challenge the platforms and not feel so closed off because the opportunities are happening on individual platforms.”

The relentless pressure on publishers to grow ad revenue at a time when Facebook and Google continue to swallow the majority of the display ad market has taken the wind out of growth plans, according to Dicker. That pressure and the arrival of data protection laws like the General Data Protection Regulation and the California Consumer Privacy Act are still regarded as threats for many publishers, rather than opportunities, he said.

“Right now, a lot of publishers are thinking about how to sustain and survive — not grow,” added Dicker. “That’s what we’re bringing with the Zeus Insights — we want to bring value in future years and build an experience that respects [consumer] privacy and constructs a better [advertising] ecosystem that we all want to live in.”

Although the strategic aim is to help advertisers and publishers prepare for a world where the cookie is no longer the dominant way of targeting ads, The Post doesn’t plan to phase out cookie-based targeting options entirely, according to Dicker.

The tool, which can be used for display, video, native ads either via direct deals or programmatically, will be sold at a premium rate given the additional ad-targeting features, although Dicker didn’t disclose an exact price tag.

Media buyers have become more open to paying more for genuinely scarce inventory, which would be the case with the assumed user intent and contextual-targeting capabilities offered by The Post. Many of them are also more actively seeking new ad-targeting options that can drive results for their clients in a GDPR- or CCPA-compliant way.

“There is highly likely to be a shift to context and environment for advertising as data becomes less commercially available in the coming months,” said Richard Dance, chief digital officer of Publics Media UK-owned Spark Foundry and Blue 449. “If that directs more money to publishers rather than intermediaries, then that is probably a good thing for the health of the media ecosystem as a whole.”

But he cautioned that while increased fees are to be expected for any premium, scarce inventory source, agencies would need to ensure paying more doesn’t cancel out any potential increase in media performance, whether outcome or CPA based.

Zeus Insights is available to advertisers globally and has been tested with a handful of clients in the U.S. before being made widely available. While The Post has a substantial pool of quality subscription data on U.S. customers, its international audience is smaller and, therefore, the publisher would need to be open about its non-U.S. data. “We would need some transparency on user numbers to reassure in the granularity of the data being used,” said Dance, adding that there’s a positive trend toward this throughout the publisher landscape.

But in general, agencies welcome any kind of new targeting development from premium publishers that could potentially offset any future disadvantage brought about by any further anti-tracking changes that could arise from the browsers, following those already made by Apple, Firefox and, to a lesser extent, Google.

“In a world where third-party cookies are being killed and cookie pools are decreasing, we expect tools like this to increase in importance,” said Ryan Storrar, svp and head of media activation, EMEA for Essence. “Being able to action cookieless user data is a helpful step in the right direction to embrace privacy in precision marketing.”

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