How BuzzFeed and Other Publishers are Optimizing First-Party Data

 By Joanna Catalano, Chief Growth Officer

Media and publishing companies have—happily—found themselves in an unfamiliar position this year: the catbird seat. With the deadlines for browser-based cookie removal fast approaching, anyone whose business relies on digital advertising has spent the past few months strategizing and testing, testing and strategizing.  In a post-third-party cookie world, third-party data is obviously out, but first-party data is very much in. And publishers happen to be sitting on a treasure trove of it.

The entire industry has one eye on devising their own solutions for third-party cookie deprecation and the other on tracking developments with Google’s own ad targeting technology, the Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC). While some media conglomerates, such as Bloomberg Media, The Washington Post, Forbes and Vox Media, are developing their own in-house first-party data solutions, others are taking a wait-and-see approach. To take the temperature of how publishers are reacting to these changes and the opportunity they offer: Ad Age Studio 30 partnered with Piano, the global customer experience and subscription platform, to host a virtual roundtable discussion in mid-April with leaders from five media corporations.

Moderated by Studio 30 Editor John Dioso, LinkedIn Audience Network Head of Partnerships Peter Turner and myself, the roundtable addressed lingering questions, concerns and actionable tips for how the industry can take matters into its own hands and ensure it continues to drive personalization in this new era. Panelists included Sara Badler, senior VP of advertising and partnerships at Dotdash; Ken Blom, senior VP of ad strategy and partnerships at BuzzFeed; Tina Cassidy, CMO of GBH; Andrew Kuklewicz, chief technology officer at PRX; and Jake Sullivan, director of programmatic operations at U.S. News & World Report.

The impending demise of third-party cookies and what this means for publishers

After the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) went into effect in January 2020, businesses began frantically studying up on cookie compliance updates. Were opt-out banners enough? Could you enable cookies on users without selling their information? And how would publishers target ads to consumers while meeting the KPIs of their clients?

While much of the consternation surrounding the discourse comes off as excess noise, there are some key changes around measurement, analytics and scale that do need to be addressed, especially among smaller publishers. They will certainly need to test and be proficient in multiple solutions, including FLoC. But while behemoths like Google can easily assemble their own FLoC teams, smaller, independent or nonprofit sites may not have the resources.

“If each publisher goes out and builds its own proprietary solution, that's really hard for marketers and agencies to scale on,” Sara Badler of Dotdash points out. “We're definitely not one size fits all, and I think you're going to find that different partnerships have different measurements and KPIs. From a scaling perspective for marketers, it's unfair for us to each come up with a solution and demand exclusivity.”

Luckily, brands that have been investing in first-party data are suddenly reaping even greater benefits. U.S. News and World Report’s Jake Sullivan says that first-party data has been paying off both in the short- and long-term for his team. “It’s a good exercise to be forced into, to have a greater level of introspection and do this kind of exhaustive site audit,” he says.

Of course, for some industries, a third-party-cookieless future has essentially been their present. “Um, cookies? What's that? I'm in podcasting! We haven't had cookies ever,” deadpans Andrew Kuklewicz of PRX. “This is a world we've constantly lived in. Sponsorships still work. Contextual is incredibly valuable. Your brand becomes all the more valuable as a publisher. People want to be associated with public media; how they identify with our hosts, with our brands—that association becomes the value.”

Overall, BuzzFeed’s Ken Blom pointed out, cookies made everyone a bit lazier. “If you generalize what cookie-based targeting was doing, it was retargeting people that didn't convert,” Blom explains, noting that advertisers and publishers didn’t really need to talk about data strategy when cookies and algorithms did that work for them. He sees this new focus of conversations between the two parties as a critical start. “What are they doing with their first-party data? How can we as publishers help? These just weren't conversations that a publisher and a client would necessarily have had in the past, but now we’ll need to have a finer data strategy.”

Where are the opportunities for increased customer connection and value exchange?

For media brands that have been diligent about collecting and protecting their first-party data, the opportunities for growth—and differentiation—seem obvious. “About a decade ago we created an endemic solution called CDP, or contributor developer partnership,” says Tina Cassidy of GBH, who points out that public media is its own particular niche within the publishing and broadcasting spheres because they are so reliant on local TV and radio stations. “Because of the first-party data that we collect when people land on our websites or come to our events, we created CDP as a platform that could scale across all of public media to help tiny local stations, even in rural areas, fundraise at scale and without extra expense. It's been very successful. Coming up with your own endemic solutions can be beneficial because you do control it.”

PBS’s successful passport program is another example of cookieless innovation. “This doesn't get enough airtime for being an identity management solution, but trying to herd the cats and get them behind a single solution is a problem we've had to face as publishers in our microcosm of public media for some time,” Kuklewicz says. “Being able to have something that everyone can use as a best practice has been huge.”

Google’s insistence that alternative identifiers, like Unified ID 2.0, would not work with its Privacy Sandbox as a cookie replacement, has made open-source options like UID 2.0 difficult to commit to. The New York Times has said they will not use identity tech and will remain a subscription-based business, but the majority of publishers don’t have that luxury.

Regarding the use of email registration or sign-ups, not all media brands want or intend to go fully behind the metaphorical paywall. “We don't want to create an unnecessarily high barrier to entry, like email registration,” Sullivan says, and none of our panelists saw email registration as a long-term cookie replacement. Badler pointed out that requiring registration would not only hurt the SEO efforts of her various Dotdash sites, but that it essentially goes against the company mission of helping readers in real time. “Whether it's ‘Why is my 2-year-old up crying at night because she's teething’ or ‘How do I manage my 401(k)’— these questions range from health-related contextual alignment to lifestyle,” Badler says.

“Signups, registrations and knowing more about the consumer are going to help some of your first-party data, but it shouldn't be the only strategy,” Blom adds. “We're thinking a lot more about the signals we collect and the cohorts that we can create. Email would be a really great way to supplement and add to that over time, but it's not going to be something that happens very quickly.”

However, when sign-ups work, they work very well. “We don't require registration on our website, but we do offer it in an effort to optimize someone's experience,” Cassidy says. “Say they watched a ‘Masterpiece’ drama last time they were on our site—now we know to recommend what's new on ‘Masterpiece,’ sort of in the Netflix algorithm model. It's an endemic solution, but it's working for us. And we certainly saw an acceleration of that trend with people being more willing to opt in because we had so much free content to offer.”

Taking the time to test and train

Testing these new platforms and learning how to maneuver in a new space takes time, but thus far, our panel’s experts feel like they have a handle on the matter. “It's important to understand the API [application programming interfaces] that live inside the Privacy Sandbox—the framework and the foundation for each of them in general,” says Sullivan, “but I also think spending too much time picking apart the intricacies of Turtledove versus FLEDGE versus all the other avian-themed frameworks is counterproductive because so much is going to change.”

As Badler says, the industry is growing up. “Now it can't just be about how many clicks an ad gets,” she notes. “We've got to get a little bit more sophisticated.” This includes how we think about measurement, analytics and the very concept of consent, she explains. “We have to get out of targeting specifically one person; now you're targeting a panel or a cohort. From a moral position, it’s definitely the better thing to do.”

Kuklewicz calls it “respecting the exuberant consent” of listeners who choose to become members: If people actively choose to join their email lists or participate in any of the ways that PRX engages or identifies new people, their privacy needs to be appreciated.

Not putting all her eggs in one basket is one way Cassidy plans to say in front of these changes. “We have to stay nimble,” she says. Blom agrees, “This will be a year of testing. If people are testing FLoC, how is that going? If they're testing clean rooms or first-party publisher solutions — when cookies really do go away, what did all of these months of testing lead into? No one wants to spin up an investment and then realize we don't need it in the future.”

Blom distinguished it as  “not entirely uncharted territory,” noting even if there’s some residual uncertainty, he’s confident all parties will figure it out. “We've seen this type of pattern or behavior before. Something new comes out, you invest in it and then it becomes the norm, whether it's programmatic, branded content—or the cookie-less future.”

It’s clear that our panelists and others in the media industry are being thoughtful and strategic about the most viable options to replace third-party cookies. As they conduct their due diligence in evaluating the best solutions for their businesses, publishers will help move the entire industry towards a better value exchange with consumers — and the ‘cookie apocalypse’ might even get to steal a bit of the credit for igniting this long overdue change.

This article originally appeared on AdAge.