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How can publishers make first-party data collection feel valuable to readers?

  • 5 min read

Fundamental changes are coming to the way publishers collect user data. But that’s no bad thing – it opens up a golden opportunity for a more balanced first-party value exchange.

Between Chrome ending support for third-party cookies and never-ending privacy legislation, the clock is ticking on current cookie-based workflows. CPMs will drop, and retargeting, personalisation and end-to-end measurement based on third-party cookies will no longer provide advertisers with the capabilities they’re accustomed to.

It’s no wonder we’re witnessing an increased focus on first-party data.

First-party data falls roughly into two categories: the data you collect from user activity on your site, and the data that users intentionally give to you (sometimes referred to as zero-party data).

While the use of third-party cookies has allowed publishers to leverage data with minimal interaction from readers, leveraging first-party data requires both parties to engage in an active relationship. This most often occurs when a reader provides some form of data in exchange for an experience or valuable content.

Moreover, this value exchange could actually be the answer to some of the biggest issues at the heart of data usage today, namely trust and authentication. 

If readers are given power and control over their data via more transparent methods (like a sign-in), then it’s a far more valuable form of authentication, making that data more valuable for the publisher. And if the reader is actively involved in the value exchange, it gives an opportunity to regain trust in a world where consumer trust has been sorely tested. 

So, how do you achieve this? Let’s look at some of the successes and failures from publishers already attempting to create value exchanges for first-party data that feel valuable to all parties.

No one-size-fits-all for first-party data value exchanges 

It would be great if there was some silver bullet, some template that has worked time and time again, that publishers could implement, but unfortunately it’s not that simple. 

In fact, the same exact technique used on two different publications owned by the same publisher can (and has) had completely different outcomes. 

Talking at a breakfast LiveRamp hosted for publishers in January, Alessandro de Zanche, founder and director of ADZ Strategies shared this experience involving The Sun and The Times. “Both the same publisher, both go behind a paywall. Same team, same publisher, same strategy. One was very successful, the other was not.”

In 2010, News UK put two of its most popular publications, The Times and The Sun, behind a paywall. The Times was the success Alessandro was referring to, with 300,000 online-only subscribers by 2019. For The Sun, however, it was far less successful, so much so that the strategy was dropped a little over two years after it launched. Interestingly, this was not because The Sun’s audience wasn’t willing (or able) to spend money.

“Was the audience of The Sun not paying? No, they were paying but in different situations. They were paying in Sun Bingo, Sun Betting, Sun Play.” The Sun successfully monetised these areas of their readership, yet readers weren’t willing to pay for editorial content.

Understanding your audience

Where it gets really interesting is looking at two different publications with similar output but very different collection methods. 

Alessandro went on to share, “The other example is The Times and The Guardian. Two completely opposite views of media. One ‘Quality journalism should be paid for’. The other ‘Quality journalism should be free for all’. Both have a paywall and a membership strategy, and both are very successful. 

“The difference is that The Times audience pays to access content behind a paywall. The Guardian audience is happy to pay a membership which allows the whole audience to benefit from free quality content.”

The Guardian has a subscription model that allows members to access some select benefits (like the app or a physical paper), but keeps the online journalism free for all to access.  

“But you can do that if you know your audience, and that’s a way that you can collect first-party data,” continued Alessandro.

Examples of first-party data value exchange

Ultimately you need to pick an authentication strategy that works for your audience. So what are the methods you have to choose from? Here’s a (by no means exhaustive) list of methods to consider and how they can benefit both publishers and readers:

  • Paywall

By far the most popular as it both serves as a way of collecting data and a way of monetising readership. There is a sense of exclusivity for readers, as they get control over the data they are sharing in exchange for higher quality and more valuable content behind the paywall.

The obvious downside to this method is that it creates a barrier for increasing readership and could scare off current readers.

There are lots of methods for softening this downside: providing X number of free articles a month; “paywall down” events that tie in to special occasions; paywall discounts for actions like filling in surveys; membership-only paywalls (where readers need an account but don’t actually have to pay).

  • Ecommerce

Another method that combines first-party data collection and monetisation is hosting an ecommerce platform. This allows the reader to get direct value from a shopping experience, but it’s important that readers fully understand how their data will be used.

While this can be very lucrative, it needs to make sense as an offer for the publication, which is rare.

  • Interactivity/ community

If the publication serves an audience who are likely to want to take part in discussions or  interact together, creating a portal for this to happen is a great way to boost engagement and exchange data.

For example, the football audience is full of people who passionately want to dissect and discuss everything from gameplay to transfers. They also tend to like fantasy football. By making a forum where engagement can happen, readers will happily share their data.

  • Personalisation

One method that Alessandro brought up during his talk that he sees as a missed opportunity is offering readers explicit control of the data in the value exchange and its uses. 

If publishers offered readers the chance to be part of the conversation about personalised ads and data, they would engage. Using a consent management platform would allow users to sign in and actively engage in a meaningful value exchange.

Also, by creating an account-based personalisation tool, it would be possible to create a custom reader experience, building a stronger bond with the reader. 

Creating value

There’s no doubt that the stakes are high for publishers right now. The most common method for collecting audience data is changing forever. There’s a real risk of more budgets shifting towards the walled gardens. Consumer trust has been damaged.

But if the threat is large, the opportunity is even larger. These huge changes give us a chance to start again, creating a relationship and an ecosystem built on trust. An ecosystem that delivers greater value for publishers, readers, and advertisers.

By making the right moves now, publishers will be able to benefit from this brave new world.