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Amid the increasingly complex conversation surrounding data privacy in advertising, publishers have often been an afterthought. However, modern publishers have a unique opportunity to protect audiences’ privacy while diversifying their revenue streams, writes Mimi Wotring, senior vice-president of publisher client services at brand safety-focused adtech firm DoubleVerify.

The foundation of the digital ad industry has been shaken in the past few years. Users have increasingly demanded more privacy and control over their data, governments around the world have tightened up data privacy regulations and the tech giants themselves have taken aggressive stances to limit cross-platform tracking.

The industry has both an opportunity and an obligation to rebuild on a stronger foundation. But for right now, all industry stakeholders are feeling the heat, and their business revenue is at risk.

There’s been a lot of discussion about how brands and agencies will be affected by these changes. Currently, there’s much focus on what Google’s third-party cookie deprecation timeline and Apple’s suddenly aggressive cross-app tracking policies will mean for targeting and measuring multichannel campaigns. There’s considerably less discussion of how strong an impact these privacy moves will have on publishers.

Putting publishers in a pickle

These changes across the privacy landscape will affect publishers’ ability to optimize ad revenue. Without industry-wide agreement on new identity solutions, publishers will face real challenges in proving the value of their audiences to marketers. That could lead to falling CPMs, driven by new barriers to personalization (which is of great value to marketers, as 80% of consumers say personalized ad experiences make them more willing to purchase), measurement and addressability. For publishers still recovering from 2020’s pandemic-driven 10.2% year-on-year decline in ad spend, these new issues could feel like a twist of the knife.

Publishers need to be proactive – to take ownership of their audiences, their content and their data, and to work with their advertiser partners to satisfy the needs of both buyers and users.

Brand marketers and agencies demand a sure thing: that they will reach their target audiences and gain campaign insights they can use today and into the future. To meet buy-side expectations and continue to grow their ad revenue while preserving users’ data privacy, publishers need to take these steps:

1. Stay informed

Talk with other publishers and your advertisers. Stakeholders across the ad supply chain have been offering guidance on identity – and we shouldn’t count on one uniform identity solution taking hold anytime soon. Look at the solutions offered right now, and ask which solutions work for your content, your own first-party data and your advertisers’ campaigns. Identity-related decisions are too important to be made randomly, at the last minute or without consultation with your ad partners.

2. Develop a first-party data plan

In the absence of large volumes of third-party cookies, publishers will be well-served to develop solutions that combine first-party and contextual data. It will be critical for publishers to establish policies for collecting and processing their first-party data and making that data actionable.

Publishers should start by clearly stating their goals and auditing their data and workflows. Understand the value that your first-party data holds for advertisers who need to reach their target audiences. Identify stakeholders within your business and let them know what their role is in this process and how their role contributes to the business’ goals. As part of this process, a publisher will need strong privacy-forward policies for structuring, storing and distributing that data. Your internal teams – including sales, ad ops, editorial and marketing – will need to access that data, so it’s crucial to understand how they’ll be using it.

3. Leverage contextual signals

Third-party cookie deprecation brings contextual targeting right back to the top of the publisher’s toolkit. And in the end, that gives publishers more control over what marketers know about your digital properties and what value your content can deliver for their brand.

The certainty that publishers can provide by using contextual data has clear advantages for marketers, compared to probabilistic third-party data. So let them know: disclose contextual data points such as full-page URL, app bundle and insights about the page content in the programmatic auction. Be as specific as possible about the content vertical, category and subject matter to communicate to buyers what they’re getting from your environment. This will enable budgets to shift toward contextual targeting.

4. Build relationships

Getting closer to your users and advertisers gives you the opportunity to improve user experience, expand product offerings and boost engagement. It also helps publishers understand what your users want and value (and why) in the content and overall user experience.

In addition to looking at site analytics, understand what your own marketing team can tell you about your audience’s behavior, and look to tools such as newsletters and surveys to gain new insights and feedback. You can take all that knowledge straight to your best advertiser partners to let them know what they stand to gain from a closer relationship with your business. Publishers and advertisers can then work together to ensure this data is put to good use in a privacy-safe, compliant way.

5. Explore supplemental revenue streams

The trend of diversifying revenue beyond ad inventory isn’t new, but this is the right time for any publisher to take another look and make sure they’re getting the most value from various revenue sources. Will your audience support a subscription or ‘freemium’ model? Can you bring value to your audience through events, digitally or in-person? Will sponsorships – of content, events or otherwise – from business partners serve your audience well? Any publisher’s ability to take advantage of these alternate revenue sources depends on your audience’s needs as well as your operational and structural capabilities.

Publishers need to make the most of the delay of third-party cookie deprecation. This is an opportunity to take control. The goal is more privacy for your audiences, more trust from your loyal users – which translates to more monetization from repeat visits – and more value for your advertisers. With the right strategy, publishers can have privacy and revenue at the same time.

Mimi Wotring is senior vice-president of publisher client services, DV Publisher Suite at DoubleVerify.