The dilemma facing online publishers

[By Richard Mullins]

Publishers used to be the ones in the online space that controlled and understood data, perhaps the most important commodity they have to sell to their advertisers. This is no longer the case, a change which has profound implications for publishers as they try to monetise their content over the next few years.

Think back to the early years of the Web. It was publishers who engaged most directly with the online audience and understood it best. Marketers have since caught up to and perhaps even surpassed most publishers in the way that they use and understand data.

Possibly even more worrying for publishers are the many third-party intermediaries who have built their businesses on collecting and integrating publisher data for resell to online marketers. From leading the industry, publishers are now scrambling to catch up.

The smart publishers know that they made a mistake and are looking to rectify it. Their challenge is to put the right tools and processes in place to understand their audiences in more detail and in a more integrated manner than they do at the moment. From demographic through to behavioural data, the more audience data publishers have, the more attractive their value proposition to advertisers.

Their challenge in harnessing this information is less about their technology than their business models. Today, the average publisher has a wealth of data scattered across a range of systems from ad servers, to analytics platforms, to finance platforms, to sales platforms. And many of these systems sit within different publications, divisions, departments and even separate group companies with little integration between them.

Publisher technologies such as ad servers, analytics platforms, customer relationship management platforms, business intelligence tools and e-mail platforms are all relatively mature and offer publishers a wealth of benefits. However, integration of these different platforms remains an unresolved challenge. This is especially true in the nascent mobile space where publishers are doing lots of custom integration and development because vendors are not yet able to address their needs.

There is a big opportunity for them to package all their information and resell it to digital marketers. But first they will need to get all of this data flowing into one source. The challenge they face is less about the technology than their organisational structure.

Integrating sales management tools with analytics, which links up what is sold to what is happening on the website, is one obvious example of where organisational structure impedes data integration. The publishing side of the business owns a lot of data that would be helpful to the sales side, but it has little interest in sales. The net result is that most publishers have trapped value sitting in their systems.

Data will eventually be traded as a commodity that companies sell to advertisers. Publishers need to start re-evaluating both their business models and their technology infrastructure if they want to be the ones that capitalise on the opportunities in this area.

While some publishers with niche or high-value content might be able fence their content behind subscription or per-view pay walls, most others need to find other ways of monetising their businesses.

The value they have to sell is not just their audience, but also what they know about this audience. It’s no exaggeration to say that data could be the difference between failure and profitability for publishers that are battling to find a way to generate sustainable revenues.

  • Richard Mullins is director at Acceleration

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