If data is the new oil, publishers should be ready to go to war over it

Data is being heralded as a way to arrest the declining revenues of digital but there’s a problem with giving it away too cheaply.

Ronan Shields

I spent yesterday at an AOP conference where, in case there was any doubt, I had it confirmed that “data” is the new buzz word of the publishing industry, as assorted speakers repeatedly urged attendees to begin using it effectively and most importantly not to give it away too cheaply.

Wise words indeed, but a key point was not addressed on the conference stage – rather it was one raised with me on the sidelines. This is a dilemma faced by all publishers on just how to monetise this ever-increasing well of data as we make the shift to digital consumption.

As we all know media trading relies on standards and currencies, something that has popped up repeatedly in recent weeks with the AOP itself lobbying its members and third party media agencies to further standardise how viewable ad impressions are measured in a bid to further transparency in the sector.

This is a situation brought about by current levels of fragmentation in how ads are served failing to deliver directly comparable results and is also one that the IAB, MMA and MRC are working to resolve separately on the mobile front. So far, so good.

However, the continuing drive to achieve standards in online media further requires verification – from third parties such as UKOM or from data-sets used by agency trading desks – for advertisers to better target publisher audiences and feel they are getting value for money. As evidence of this trend, UKOM partner and research firm Comscore was exhibiting at yesterday’s AOP event, urging publishers to use its data tag to help have their data verified. And here’s where we run into a few stumbling blocks.

First of all, this process involves giving third parties access to publishers’ all-valuable data in a bid to offload what is often referred to as “distressed inventory”, i.e. often at a fraction of the cost they sell premium inventory. True this helps publishers sell what would otherwise effectively be a loss-making impression, or set of eyeballs, but it’s the leakage of the “all valuable” data here for little monetary gain that I believe is the area of concern. As more parties get access to publishers’ audience data, its value becomes eroded as these third parties can serve cookies on the site and then buy the set of eyeballs elsewhere, again at a discounted price.

However, without this layer of data and intelligence, agencies are going to feel they are not achieving value for their clients and with many traditional media-buying agencies now operating their own exchange desks – which have the sole aim of driving down the cost of a media buy – we can see that publishers are fast approaching a situation where they’re damned if they do, and damned if they don’t.

AOP chairman John Barnes proposes that publishers put in place strategies to remove undesirable third party tags and cookies from their sites as a method of defence against advertisers looking to lower the floor price of their data, or even more radically, start selling their inventory through their own ad exchanges or networks. A move that could lead to a Mexican stand-off – or Cold War – between them and their former best customers. As always with digital media, interesting times are ahead.