In late September, European news publishers gathered in Amsterdam for the Media Innovation Week hosted by INMA. The presentations and discussions that followed confirmed pervasive trends emphasising paid-for subscriptions and a focus on owned and operated platforms, even though news publishers are still very much present on social and distributed media.

However, perhaps most interestingly, the conference showed news publishers such as Ringier and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (and JP/Politikens Hus, of which Ekstra Bladet is a part) are beginning to embrace first-party data platforms and machine learning, integrating these technologies deeply on both the editorial and commercial sides of their business. As a part of this trend, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and other efforts to limit the free flows of third-party data are being perceived as a window of opportunity.

Nico Wilfer speaking at INMA's Media Innovation Week in Amsterdam last month.
Nico Wilfer speaking at INMA's Media Innovation Week in Amsterdam last month.

1. The GDPR is an opportunity for news publishers.

At the conference, many people powerfully argued the introduction of the GDPR is a window of opportunity for news publishers. They need to keep their eye on the GDPR and the coming of ePrivacy directive in the European Union, as well as technical changes in browsers (e.g. Safari in iOS12) and on social platforms (e.g. Facebook’s new limitations on data available via its APIs). All these changes are a part of the same trend of limiting the flow of third-party data, which is affecting news publishing and digital advertising.

Shortages of third-party data provides a short-term challenge to the digital advertising ecology on which most news publishers’ business models continues to rest in part or in full. However, the limitations provide a strengthened opportunity for news publishers to position themselves as brand-safe environments, not only because of the “premium edited context” that news publishers provide but also because of the data transparency that complying with the GDPR entails.

To provide this brand-safe environment (both safe from harmful content and data leakage), many news publishers are introducing practices embracing the GDPR by informing users of data collection, allowing users to control what data is collected and informing them on how this data is used. Although news publishers’ ways of doing so vary, an increasing number of news publishers are adopting the IAB Framework.

2. Publishers are regaining control of data.

The presentations and discussions in Amsterdam also showed many news publishers are ramping up efforts to build platforms for collecting and processing first-party data using machine learning, among other techniques. We know Schibsted has been at this for a while, but more news publishers are taking the leap, including Ringier and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

One reason for the move toward creating first-data platforms is the limitation in the flow of third-party data described above. This is because increased capacity for collecting and processing first-party data substitutes the potential weakening of the third-party data flows. However, another reason is news publishers regaining control over data appear to be betting on better returns on data in several parts of their business models. Three specific use cases were presented at the conference:

  • Increasing engagement with content: News publishers are using their first-party data platforms to build audience segments to target editorial content. Naturally, this has been done on the basis of third-party data as well. But now publishers can document increases in engagements rates by more than 120% measured by indicators such as clicks and session time when areas of their Web sites or applications are devoted to deliver thematic content — a sports reader segment, a news reader segment, or a video-loving segment, for example.
  • Increasing conversion rate for product sales: Another use case showed exposing segments of users that are statistically comparable (i.e. “twinning”) to users who have bought a product increases the segment’s likelihood of buying the product. In the best cases, news publishers were able to double conversion rates compared to a randomly sampled control group.
  • Increasing conversion of subscribers: At the same time, news publishers are using similar segmentation to target editorial content behind their paywalls and tactical sales communication aimed toward potential subscribers. As in the two other use cases, the results are encouraging.

3. News publishers are embracing new competencies.

The move toward taking back power over data reflects the fact news publishers are expanding their core competencies from journalism and sales to data management and machine learning.

It’s not that news publishers haven’t already been hiring engineers to develop their Web sites and applications or using traffic data to inform editorial and commercial decisions. The new and different thing is that many news publishers (and not just the giants) are housing analytics platforms and machine-learning capabilities in-house rather than relying on third-party suppliers. This signals a move of including development, maintenance, and use of some analytics and data management technology as part of digital news publishers’ core competencies.

At the same time, first-party user data is increasingly integrated on both the editorial and commercial sides of news publishers’ businesses.

Time will tell to what extent this trend will be embraced by mainstream news publishers. However, judging from the discussions at INMA, these trends might produce a new and expanded answer to the question “What business are we in?” for news publishers.