Is news media ready for the growth opportunities in a cookieless future?

By Shelley Seale


Austin, Texas, USA


The demise of third-party cookies doesn’t mean publishers need to panic. In fact, companies like Mediahuis have shown it’s possible to create new opportunities by building on direct user relationships and benefiting from the shift from unreliable third-party data to zero- and first-party data.

On Wednesday, INMA presented a Webinar for members with presenters Michael Silberman, senior vice president strategy at Piano, and Geert Desager, strategy director at Mediahuis, to discuss how the user data landscape is changing and how media companies can prepare to benefit.

INMA Webinar: How can publishers prepare to thrive in the cookieless future?
INMA Webinar: How can publishers prepare to thrive in the cookieless future?

Piano is a software and services company that helps its clients’ accelerate their digital performance by understanding, engaging, and monetising digital customers. Mediahuis is a leading European publisher with headquarters in Belgium.

The end of third-party cookies

“We’re in the middle of a fundamental shift in the way users are tracked on the Internet,” Silberman said. “This change has been driven by users themselves, who have made it clear that they’re no longer comfortable with unlimited tracking across the Internet.”

It’s been clear this change was coming for a few years, particularly after the introduction of GDPR privacy rules, he said. Even so, when Google announced in January that it plans to phase out support for third-party cookies in Chrome within two years, it sent everyone in the ad industry into a panic.

“But it’s our belief at Piano that this change is fundamentally good for publishers,” Silberman said. It adds to the strength and capabilities that publishers can offer to their advertisers, while at the same time helping to build their relationships with users.

“A fundamental reason is that the end of third-party cookies means that advertising is going to depend on zero-party and first-party data, and publishers are best positioned to collect it.”

Zero-party data

Silberman paused to clarify what this relatively new term actually means and how it’s different from first-party data.

“Zero-party data is the data that users explicitly volunteer to a publisher or a brand.” This can be e-mail address, name, gender, age, or profession. “That data is the most valuable kind of data because the sourcing is clear, the accuracy is high, and it typically comes along with specific consent from the user.”

First-party data, on the other hand, is any data that is passively collected, such as content consumption, geographic location, and device history.

What are these implications for publishers? And why does zero-party data put them in a good position?

  • Because of the direct relationship between publishers and users, it’s easy to ask for and collect zero-party data.
  • Publishers have valuable content and other assets around which they can build engagement. That engagement, trust, and brand loyalty are the first steps toward asking for data.

“It’s definitely going to require a shift for many publishers who, in the past, built large, lightly engaged audiences that were optimised for programmatic advertising,” Silberman said. “That strategy will not work going forward. The future of user data is going to require deeper engagement and building pools of known users.”

This will require new thinking about product and editorial strategies. Publishers will need to create compelling reasons for users to volunteer that valuable data.

How Piano Zero enables publishers

Silberman led the INMA audience through the ways in which Piano helps publishers develop this type of strategy.

  • Segment: Piano’s segmentation tools identify the right moment to intercept each individual visitor.
  • Convert: Piano then presents that user with an offer to register for special access to content, community, or any other valued site feature.
  • Identify: User identity is unified across devices, browsers, and Web sites with shared login, to collect and store user consent.
  • Profile: Using Piano’s system, users can be progressively profiled and encouraged to add more data over time.
  • Monetise: Based on first-party behavioural data, Piano extrapolates the users’ volunteered zero-party data up to larger look-alike audiences, making the entire audience targetable without third-party cookies.

“So what is this going to mean for marketers?” Silberman asked. “And what are some of the still unanswered questions we are all facing?”

He identified three key areas, saying that the biggest shift would be in programmatic advertising.

  • Programmatic advertising: Audience buying will shift to first-party data and context, as third-party cookies disappear and data transparency becomes essential.
  • Identity resolution: Matching users across sites will require registration and login — and direct user relationships.
  • Attribution rethink: Cross-site attribution, which was never very reliable, will be reinvented with identity and consent at the centre.

“It’s not exactly clear what will happen next,” Silberman said. “But it does need to be reinvented, and privacy concerns are going to be foremost.”

Publishers’ next steps

So what do publishers need to do to be prepared?

No matter how things evolve, Silberman said, publishers will establish value if they focus on building user relationships, driving user action, and collecting zero- and first-party data.

To prepare for the cookieless future, publishers must focus on user relationships.
To prepare for the cookieless future, publishers must focus on user relationships.

This is the right model whether a publisher is focused on ad or reader revenue. With the ad landscape so changed, publishers are valuing known users even more.

For more information, INMA members can look at the new Piano eBook released on April 30 and available at their Web site.

Scenario planning for a cookieless future

Mediahuis, which has 35 verticals in four European countries including local and regional newspapers, classified, and magazines, reaches about 10 million people per day. The main strategy for all of the Mediahuis properties is reader-focused, Geert Desager said.

The Mediahuis strategy across its 35 brands is to focus on being reader-first.
The Mediahuis strategy across its 35 brands is to focus on being reader-first.

“The strategy is all about starting from that first-party or zero-party data,” Desager said. “That is the core where everything starts.”

Mediahuis group organises its strategy in a pyramid, going from top to bottom:

  1. Consumer centric
  2. Digital shift
  3. Simplify
  4. Collaborate
  5. Solid basis

Mediahuis started from a solid base, which made collaborating and taking a digital shift to become reader-focused easier, Desager said.

“To give you an idea on how we looked at that digital shift, we went from a focus on our brands and products to a consumer-centric focus. We went from a print company (with a little bit of digital) to a digital company where print is just one of the media within our portfolio.”

The organisation also went from selling reach and brand reputation to becoming a strategic and creative partner — and from making decisions based on gut feeling or intuition to making data-based corporate decisions. Lastly, it brought speed and simplicity into that decision making and new product development.

“It sounds easy, to look at this on one slide, but it’s really a whole change management process,” Desager said.

After the Google announcement in January, people from across various Mediahuis brands sat together and did what Desager called good, old-fashioned scenario planning. The team looked at four different possible scenarios and created a strategy for each of them.

Scenario 1: Don’t do anything

This scenario was a bit of a “wait and see” strategy. The company would follow the leading players (such as Google and Facebook) but have less knowledge. The collaborations with advertisers and agencies would become less close.

“If we don’t do anything, they will come up with solutions and we still will get revenue out of that,” Desager said. “But we will have less knowledge of our readers, what they do on our platforms, and what advertisers want.” In short, less knowledge that would make Mediahuis less valuable.

Scenario 2: Every publisher acts individually

Each Mediahuis publisher has a good subscriber base and knows its readers very well through first-party or zero-party data. However, the media group is too small for each publication to give the reach and insights that advertisers want. This also gives limited value for agencies.

“We know this scenario well, because in a way that is the scenario we are in today,” Desager said. “We know we are taking steps in the right direction.”

One scenario Mediahuis planned for was operating its 35 publications on national or EU levels.
One scenario Mediahuis planned for was operating its 35 publications on national or EU levels.

Scenario 3: Publishers unite nationally

Looking at it a bit more deeply, the team asked what would happen if the Mediahuis brands, and even publishers outside the group, looked at the problem together within each country. This would result in publisher-led identity management.

“Those alliances can be on many different levels, but we would look at it as a problem that we would try to tackle together,” Desager said. “There are opportunities to cut out the middle man. If the cookies are gone, there is a whole playing field that will be redistributed, and there is an opportunity to take some power back for ourselves as publishers.”

This would also result in closer collaborations with advertisers and agencies.

Scenario 4: Publishers unite at the EU level

The last scenario was basically the same as the third, but on a bigger level pulling all the European Union properties together. This would also mean that Mediahuis would not be dependent on the platforms like Google and Facebook anymore.

“Of course that’s going to be very difficult because you need to collaborate, but then again we think there are opportunities,” Desager said. “If we don’t do that as publishers, then ad tech industry will make other choices for us and we will not have our future in our own hands.”

There are tremendous opportunities in this scenario, but the team felt like they needed to proceed through scenarios two and three first.

“In a way, that is where we, Mediahuis as a company, are today. We are working today on scenario two. We have a very large subscriber base that helps us to monetise much better than only relying on cookies. So we are not so much afraid of what is going to happen next year. But we think we need to do more.”

From the current scenario two, the team is trying to reach scenario three, and wishing for scenario four. They are focusing on:

  • Alliances in many forms, from standards and sales to technology.
  • ID management, working with Piano and other technologies.
  • First-party data management is extremely important.
  • Contextual possibilities to not be reliant on cookies.
  • Driving subscriptions, because that is the basis of everything and what the company is monetising the most.

“Those are the scenarios we looked at, and the tactics that we have identified to make sure that next year we are in a solid position to continue getting as much advertising dollars out of the market,” Desager concluded.


INMA: When you were implementing your user data strategy, what were some of the biggest problems you needed to solve or lessons learned?

Desager: I think the first one is an understanding that we are all working towards the same goal. It’s not four different departments. Trying to convince everybody that having pop-ups or asking for registration or log-in procedure is valuable is absolutely the first step. Also, making sure that everybody understands that quality content has a price, and the days that content is free are completely over. Invest in your data team.

INMA: Can one use a same solution as sharing and also focus on Web site personalisation?

Silberman: Absolutely. That’s part of the capabilities. It brings in data and optimises it for each individual client.

INMA: Can you share about the changes in the advertiser-publisher relationship in this cookieless world?

Silberman: Fundamentally, advertisers are going to have to turn to publishers more and more to get the kind of data they want to target their audiences more and more, and actually even identify those audiences.

Desager: There is an opportunity, the only thing is it’s not easy. First of all because privacy and GDPR are some of the elements, for the right reasons, that don’t make it easy. Those are part of the alliances we’re looking at. That is something we need to embrace as an industry because it will give us the potential to be back at the table with those advertisers. If we play it well, that could be a real game changer.

INMA: How do you see the world of current third-party partners changing?

Desager: I think that we will not become the data collection expert, but we will look in the market for those parties that can play the Switzerland in that. Making sure we have enough data reach, combined with the data our advertisers want, in a way that’s GDPR proof. If we put the reader first, we need to cherish the data that we receive from our readers.

INMA: What do you think are the important metrics in a cookieless future?

Silberman: Known users becomes a really important metric. We have a tremendous amount of data we collect across our clients. Almost 70% of users are looking at a single page view and then disappearing. They only consume, however, 20% of the total consumption. So focusing on active users becomes a lot more important. You’re still trying, out of those active users, to convert the anonymous users to known users. Active users and known users become really important metrics. In terms of advertising, behaviourally targetable users becomes an important metric.

About Shelley Seale

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