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Use free Google Analytics (and imagination) to target loyal readers

By Sebo Banerjee

HT Media Ltd.

New Delhi, Delhi, India


Let’s call users to your news Web site first-party cookies. They are digital gold.

You, the publisher, own them. If you use Google Analytics, you own them by the devices they use.

Publishers can target loyal users through existing free Google products.
Publishers can target loyal users through existing free Google products.

And though Google has empowered publishers in many more ways than I can describe, the company has unfortunately decided it would be a folly to let the actual owners (who use free Google Analytics) have complete targeting capability through these cookies. Aren’t you using a bunch of other Google services for free already?

Google Analytics 360 offers ready-made solutions to target various slices of loyal users through connected DFP ad servers. This is a major benefit of the investment in analytics. Except for that part, there isn’t much a medium-sized news publisher — sending 40-50 million page hits per month to the analytics server — would achieve from the hefty expenses. I say that with some trepidation as many may argue differently.

The sampling level still wouldn’t be too bad for regular analyses, assuming no e-commerce or subscription activity is tracked. Sites sending higher page hits may see the samples becoming ridiculously thinner. Advanced Google Analytics users could still fetch fairly good quality data through Google Analytics Management API integration, but as of late, Google Analytics has put some blocks there too.

Then how do free Google Analytics users target first-party cookies of loyal news readers with news apps? Not every publisher can spend a few thousand dollars every month on analytics! My previous post describes why retaining loyal news readers is now an existential question — for better ad revenues or for a subscription-based future.

How do free Google Analytics users do that?

Before I get to the tricks, I want to say what I always wanted to say: Google needs to realise that even the lowest tier of Google Analytics 360 (up to 500 million page hits) costs an outrageous amount. The limit counts interactive event hits as well.

Why can’t Google just exclude those hits? Forget paying for analytics, many news publishers with ad-supported revenue models are not making enough money to sustain business. Might we expect Google to create a special plan for mid-sized publishers?

Google makes more ad money from sites with compelling article and video pages that get more quality ad impressions. Isn’t it in its own interest to make the life of publishers easier in order to do that? Have publishers ever combined their voices to ask how much Google actually keeps from an ad impression delivered through Ad Exchange or AdSense?

Let’s cut to the tricks.

First, know your loyal cookies. If you are an advanced analytics user, collect data through Google Tag Manager and enable tracking of client IDs. Now, there are several direct and indirect ways to calculate the ad revenue potential of each client ID using a BigQuery account, knowledge of App Script coding, average eCPM rates from various channels, and the ratio of ad impressions to pageviews.

The client ID-specific projections can be pushed back to Google Analytics through the data upload feature. This is a long and complicated process; I hope to write about it in future.

Now, once you are able to pass those revenue potential values to Google Analytics, you can also fork out a segment of high-revenue potential users. Pass that segment to Google AdWords, wait for 3-4 days, and use your innovative ad targeting skills. This process may give you downloads by users who actually read and may buy subscriptions in future.

Here is the second trick. Has your brand and marketing team ever looked beyond free or paid ads? If it hasn’t, it’s time. There’s so much to do once you stop channeling all your creativity only through ads. Why not target “experience” instead? Have you used Google Optimize lately?

The idea is to create user interface/user experience (UI/UX) variants of pages that trigger app downloads or other intended user behaviours. Then target this to the most suitable audience.

Yes, I know the free version of Google Optimize bars targeting to custom audience segments. So, the option of using a high-revenue potential segment that you may be planning to create is technically out. But the targeting criteria setup allows regular expressions (regex) filtering of Google Analytics data.

My suggestion is to identify the pages that drive high engagement. Pass an identifier through the URL. Now try filtering the identifier through Google Optimize. That’s not very difficult.

And, yes, strangely enough, Google still allows you to target specially set first-party cookies through Google Optimize. So, if users (devices) with an intended behaviour can be assigned custom client IDs with a common element using some Google Analytics programming, Google Optimize can create an audience by tracking that common element. You can then target an intended UI/UX to that audience.

The other path is through external data management platforms (DMPs). DMPs connected to your ad server generally allow niche audience segment creation and targeting, but their costs are high considering the benefits you derive. Also, be forewarned, you are actually letting a third-party peek into your audience pool. Not every company has ethical practices in place. There have been incidents in India where a large DMP platform was allegedly found to be selling cross-platform targeting of publishers’ audiences to advertisers.

Finally, the user experiences that are supposed to bring more app downloads have to be absolutely compelling. With banner ads, you don’t have much UX-level freedom. Using Optimize, you do. Use it to the fullest extent until Google reserves this ability for paid users.

Thankfully we still can, technically, say that money is just another means. Some roads still give you a free ride to the end. But there’s no doubt, those roads will be shutting down on us very soon.

About Sebo Banerjee

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