Audience Engagement Digital Publishing
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AOP Publishing Tech Talk: Key insights on metrics, experience, privacy, and revenues

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The Association of Online Publishers’ (AOP) annual Publishing Tech Talk provides publishers with an annual forum to catch up with the latest technologies and innovations used to grow audiences, increase revenues, and empower content creation.

This year’s event held in London was focused on four key areas: metrics, experience, privacy, and revenues, with speakers from across the publishing and technology spheres sharing their insights from the frontlines of our rapidly evolving industry.

Here are the key findings from two days of in-person presentations and panels.

Enriching audience segments with panel data boosts revenues and improves journalism quality

Scott Thompson, Associate Insight Director at Publicis, highlighted the distinction between analytics and measurement. Analytics might reveal that a client is reaching 10 million people a month, but without a contextual base to that data it’s impossible to gauge whether that number is big or small. Panel data — such as that provided by Ipsos Iris — provides this context, allowing marketers to segment audiences by their values rather than broad demographic sets based on age and location.

For example, in the fashion vertical where Thompson has recently been focused, Ipsos Iris allowed brands to sort audiences into various attitudinal segments. These included customers who prioritise price over quality and vice versa, whether they valued premium customer service, or if they were fashion conscious. Brands could also see how their audience compared to competitors and identify which segments should be prioritised in marketing.

For David Higgerson, Chief Digital Publisher at Reach plc, Ipsos Iris provided an opportunity to improve the quality of the journalism at Birmingham Live by seeing who their readers were, where they were, and how often they visited. Higgerson discovered unexpected regional hotspots — such as 40% of people in Worcester visiting monthly — and that they were reaching 46% of Birmingham’s population.

But what could the site do to reach the other 54%? Higgerson found that while they reached equally across all segments, they under-indexed in engagement with non-white communities: “That led across our company to a project called the Belonging Project, where each newsroom identifies communities who we don’t engage with very well … and asking them why they don’t feel we’re a part of their lives at the moment. That’s led to some revelatory changes.”

Using attention metrics paints a more detailed picture of inventory value

It’s common sense that attention increases engagement with an advert, but planners need metrics to be able to prove its effect. This is not clear cut, as the threshold at which attention’s effects are felt changes depending on the context of the advert, the format it’s presented, the creative, and the audience viewing it. The day’s discussion on attention determined it is a highly valuable complementary metric, but the lack of standardised definition and the smorgasbord of measurement methods means it’s not yet a trading-ready currency.

At Mail Metro Media, Insight Manager Samantha Eales detailed how attention is used to measure the CPMs of its various advertising formats and present sales packages to premium advertisers. While the highest attention formats such as homepage takeovers may be expensive, the number of eyes on screen meant their CPM was comparable to value formats such as banners while offering far greater scale, with 1.9 million minutes of attention per day.

What is a high-attention audience? Is it someone who spends five minutes on a page? Is it someone who frequently returns? Is it someone who is always exposed to high-attention formats on desktop? That’s really incomparable, because my attention segments on Mail Online are different from my attention segments for This is Money and i-news and Metro, but they’re all top 10%.

Samantha Eales, Insight Manager, Mail Metro Media

Personalisation must look beyond demographics to in-the-moment needs of the audience

AI-powered personalisation engines are set to redefine how publishers serve their audiences, with each visitor given a unique experience based on their preferences and behavioural profiles. Rachel Shekhtman, SVP of Revenue at Browsi, demonstrated how the company’s personalisation engine can balance visible inventory with user experience by dynamically inserting and streaming in creative at moments of high attention without bombarding the visitor with multiple ad slots.

But in the age of machines, what role will editorial curation have? Katrina Broster, Marketing Performance and Tech Director at the Financial Times, believes there always has to be the editor’s touch, not at the individual user level, but for amplifying the right content for the right audiences. Audience insights from personalisation technology allow editors to tailor their content strategy towards their “North Star goals” of a bigger readership and a distinct offering.

Terry Hornsby, Group Innovation and Digital Director at Reach plc, warned that personalisation should not be too personal, and that the capabilities to serve a visitor’s needs at a specific point in time is more valuable than knowing their name, age, gender, or location. The more well-served a visitor feels and the less their time is wasted, the more they will trust the brand and keep coming back. Personalisation must provide a fair value exchange for the user’s data and at its most successful will be invisible to them — if they notice, they lose trust.

The thing with personalisation, we always think it needs to be super personal. Actually, we’ve learned that if we show five [personalised] boxes, and we show one random one, that random box does really well … as human beings, we don’t always want to be on the same journey, we want change

Terry Hornsby, Group Innovation and Digital Director, Reach plc

Privacy and consent policies must be meaningful, memorable, and manageable

Aurelie Rimmen, Head of Strategy & Operations EMEA at Google, shared findings from a study with Ipsos which found that bad privacy experiences damage user trust almost as much as data theft. Rimmen urged publishers to design their privacy and consent policies around the three Ms: meaningful, memorable, and manageable.

A meaningful privacy policy is transparent on what someone’s data is used for and communicates the benefits of giving permission; memorable means periodically reminding people what they agreed to so that consent is always up to date; while manageable refers to providing privacy controls that can easily be viewed and updated at any time. This should all be wrapped up in a unifying principle, such as the Financial Times’ much-envied reader charter.

In the following discussion, the consensus was that privacy challenges are compounded by fragmentation in the programmatic supply chain, which requires industry-wide regulation to clean up. Publishers often have to push back against ad tech vendors inserting tags that siphon data for unknown purposes, potentially breaching privacy policies. With both buy and sell side frustrated by the lack of vendor transparency in the middle, PMPs and direct deals are gaining favour for the control and security they provide.

Against this backdrop, where does Google’s upcoming Topics solution fit in? Katherine Le Ruez, Director of Commercial Strategy & Operations at The Guardian, worries that non-consenting users will not understand that interest-based targeting is determined at browser level and will instead assume The Guardian did not honour their wishes. Meanwhile, as addressable audiences shrink, James Aylett, Chief Data Officer at Annalect, questioned whether developing sophisticated consent technologies is worth the investment if few users provide informed consent to begin within.

Open programmatic revenue share has improved for publishers but auditing difficulties remain

The ‘Programmatic Supply Chain Transparency Study’ made a noise in 2020 when it found just 51% of programmatic ad spend was reaching publishers and 15% disappeared into the unknown delta. Steve Chester, Director of Media at ISBA, and Sam Tomlinson, Media and Entertainment Lead at PwC — who conducted the audit — discussed how the industry reacted to the study and provided early insights from its follow-up, due to release later this year.

While publisher revenues and unaccountable spend stole the headlines, for Chester and Tomlinson the most significant finding was how hard it was to audit the programmatic supply chain at all. Log-level data was difficult to access due to uncertainty over who could grant permission, and what data they did receive was very poorly organised. The study took 18 months to complete, and while improvements in data quality and permissioning chains halved that time in the follow-up, it is still far from Tomlinson’s target of a three to four-month audit.

As for the headline findings, Chester stressed it was not just the averages that were a concern, but the variability. Spend reaching publishers ranged from 39% to 67% in the original study and the unknown data ranged from 0% to 88%. Around half of advertisers targeted 5,000 or fewer websites — which Tomlinson considers good practice — but at the extreme end a single brand was appearing on an incredible 150,000.

“I don’t think there are 150,000 high-quality websites in the UK, just to be clear,” Tomlinson added.

Thankfully, early indicators suggest that volume is far lower in the follow-up study, while unaccountable spend is generally below 5% and the amount getting to publishers is above the 70% threshold that was agreed to be a fair baseline distribution. The majority of impressions have been matched end to end, up from just 12% in the first audit. We’ll have to wait for the full findings, but generally there has been an effort to consolidate and refine supply chains, with advertisers and agencies forming more direct relationships with SSPs and publishers.

The pandemic forced publishers to accelerate adoption of new revenue streams

VICE Media Group, Haymarket Automotive, and B2B Marketing all had their revenue streams fundamentally changed by the pandemic and had to adopt new tech stacks or pivot entirely new business models to survive as the world around them transformed.

Zanny Ali, Director of Commerce and Partnerships at VICE Media Group, doubled down on the publisher’s affiliate business to capitalise on the surge in online shopping. More than just diversifying its revenue streams, affiliate content also provided deep insight into VICE’s audiences through their buying preferences, providing opportunities to build loyalty and engagement. As the e-commerce boom plateaus, Ali’s focus has turned to consolidating affiliate data with the help of third parties to make it digestible for the company’s decision makers and content creators.

Haymarket Automotive’s business as usual completely dried up thanks to the double whammy of lockdowns and the auto industry’s supply chain gridlock, explained CRO Chris Daniels. To find new revenues, Haymarket developed proprietary tech to develop content channels to open for sponsorship and analyse user behaviour to offer strategic partnerships to OEMs moving into the e-commerce space. This focus on long-term sponsorship stabilised revenues and funded the launch of new properties, such Move Electric, which is entirely underwritten by OVO Energy.

For B2B Marketing, surviving the pandemic meant a total reinvention of the business from magazine publisher to a community platform, developed in partnership with Zapnito. Building an active community that is willing to pay for access is not a “Field of Dreams experience,” said CEO Richard O’Connor, who emphasised the need to curate moments where members come together to focus on particular topics. As the community grew, so too did its knowledge base, creating a successful self-propagating cycle. Now, with frontline insights on the marketing community’s needs, B2B Marketing can spin off complementary products and advisory services.

But a publisher needn’t have a dedicated tech team or reinvent their business to diversify their revenues. Outbrain’s Head of Business Randi Segal demonstrated how their AI-powered solution, Keystone, dynamically tailors website pages towards specific KPIs the visitor is most likely to engage with — such as subscriptions, podcast downloads, or event sign-ups — allowing multiple business goals to coincide without cluttering the user experience or exposing visitors to products and services they have no interest in.

The publishing industry must show leadership for technology to work in its favour

After two days of presentations and panels from the industry’s best and brightest, it’s clear there is no shortage of tremendously exciting technology available to help publishers improve their user experience, unlock new revenue streams, and offer valuable sales packages to advertisers. But alongside the excitement of shiny new toys there were repeated calls for leadership and collaboration to develop and enforce industry standards across attention, privacy, and consent.

The damning verdict on programmatic transparency in 2020 was a lesson on the dangers of technological expansion without oversight, while the improvements found in the upcoming follow-up study from PwC show the value of supply chain-spanning accountability and cooperation. Publishers are facing a similar dilemma now with privacy, and must present a united front to advertisers and ad tech vendors to ensure their interests and the interests of their most valuable asset — their audiences — are protected.

Richard Reeves
Managing Director, AOP

The UK Association for Online Publishing (AOP) is an industry body representing digital publishing companies that create original, branded, quality content. AOP champions the interests of media owners from diverse backgrounds including newspaper and magazine publishing, TV and radio broadcasting, and pure online media.