Time's Up Pubs: Director's Cut

articles May 02, 2021

The original version of this article was published on AdExchanger March 24th, 2021. Consider this the director's cut where I've added some additional thoughts / links that didn't make it into the published article. 

Time's Up Pubs: Start Talking To Your Users NOW (Director's Cut)

Publishers, your time is up. What has worked in the past will soon stop working for us. Problems we've not attended to will soon bite us in the ass. It's time to act.

Here are the problems: Publishers have not truly engaged with our audiences to explain our value proposition to them. People do not understand how digital advertising works. They are not interested in learning. 

Regulations will only continue to hamper our businesses in new ways. Their attempts to rein in the platforms and bad actors in our space will hurt all of us in the process. The war for Internet supremacy between the big guys will hurt us as well. Genuine legit publishing businesses are always collateral damage in all of this. The playing field is changing underneath our feet.

The good news is that people love content. A successful publishing strategy that will not only survive, but thrive, must have a relationship with its users at its core.  Your audience needs to choose YOU. They need to say, "yes, you are valuable to me. I will work with you to make sure you continue to publish what I want to see."

The alternative is to serve so many disruptive, ineffective ads to people that you exacerbate the whole problem. If my laptop's fan spins up on your home page, it's the last page I will visit. I should not be able to heat my house with my computer by visiting your website. Stop that. Talk to me.

Identity solutions and first-party data strategies will not be enough. They are a part of the solution, but they are NOT the solution. Identity requires authentication. Authentication requires communication with users. First-party data only gets interesting when you engage with your users.  (Visit our Identity Central Wiki for more information about key concepts and strategies).

Just asking for emails or information from people to serve better ads is not a real relationship. That’s a one-sided relationship that won’t stand the test of time. We have to create more touchpoints with users and better explain our value proposition. 

We need to start now. Relationships take time. They take consistent messaging. In a relationship, you need to speak up, but you also need to listen. 

But enough of the relationship advice. Let's talk about actual tactics. 

Evolve your privacy-related messaging. Right now, the strategy is to get GDPR or CCPA consent in as non-invasive a way as possible. This is not wrong. More people accept the use of data than don't.  However, regulations will change. Regulators will want to educate consumers with more and more in-your-face tactics so that consumers don't just click "accept" but think about what we are doing. 

Turn these pop-up consent messages into an opportunity.  If you are compliant, share the extent to which you value the relationship. Use that messaging as an opportunity to offer options like subscriptions. (See our First Impressions with OneTrust to learn more. Must log in as a publisher to access). 

App developers are scrambling to figure this out now. With the new iOS 14 privacy changes on the way, here, apps have to test "primer messages" to try to persuade users to not accept Apple's offer to disable tracking. Assume everyone will need to do more of this "priming" in the future and start figuring it out now. (We talked about Apple's privacy changes in February as a PubsOnly conversation, much of which is still relevant.)

At some point, privacy and compliance messaging should become a competitive advantage. Messaging well will win.

Push but push well. Push notifications done poorly are a terrible experience. Push notifications done well are exciting. They create first-party data, user loyalty and cut through the clutter. They can drive traffic better than newsletters or social media.

For example: As many people know, I'm a Syracuse Men's Basketball fanatic – I bleed Orange. I want news about the team NOW. I do not want local Syracuse news (I know it's snowing). I do not want to wait for a newsletter. Social media helps, but is also noisy. A notification from my favorite source? Yes, please. As a publisher, if I have a relationship with my users, I can prompt them to visit my most valuable content in close to real-time. Start building this relationship.

(See our First Impressions with Pushly to learn more. Must log in as a publisher to access). 

Take newsletters off auto-pilot. It’s hard to talk about the identity solutions that the industry is currently exploring without bringing up hashed email addresses. On one hand, it troubles me that these solutions so heavily rely on publishers getting people to give up their email addresses. It. Just. Won't. Scale.

However, I don't see how you can't put time and energy into a newsletter/email strategy. Don't do it for the identity solutions – do it for yourself. For many publishers, newsletters feel like an editorial chore. But a well-done newsletter is going to make you money while strengthening your relationship. (This article about the future of newsletters according to OAO is free for all to access)

Start protecting your users. Allow someone to be served malvertising – while doing everything else well – and all is lost. When malicious actors enter our ad ecosystem, publishers bear the brunt of the blame. "Shoot the messenger" is the way consumers will always see it. It's time that publishers push back on their partners and clean things up. I am a big proponent of the buyers.json spec and moving that forward. We need to have transparency into who is buying us.

Open a store. Not all publisher brands lend themselves to ecommerce – I get that. Still, nothing says more about a user's affinity for your brand than purchasing something on your site. If they don't trust you, they certainly aren't getting out their credit card. If they do trust you, one purchase might generate more revenue than a year of ads....and you still get to serve them ads! It's all about execution. 

The road ahead is unclear. The technological basis upon which a publisher builds their business is a question mark. But faced with the choice of tying your future to the changing winds in ad tech or the people you serve with your content, I’ll take my audience every time.

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