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Putting first-party data first

Like many publishers, the Evening Standard is working hard to expand its first-party audience data and to monetise the insights this will bring. Philip McMullan talks to Ciar Byrne about the publisher’s developing data strategy.

By Ciar Byrne

Putting first-party data first
Not only digital first, but specifically mobile first…

How to monetise digital content is the big question for all publishers. Gathering audience data has been the answer for many, but as third-party cookies – the little bits of code that follow a user around the internet – are being phased out over concerns surrounding privacy, publishers are having to look instead at first-party data; information that users have handed over willingly in exchange for access to content.

As head of audience and data at the Evening Standard, Philip McMullan is at the forefront of this culture shift. He believes audiences need to be educated about the value of content. He points out that in the UK, 49 million people access published media every month; that’s 90 per cent of the population. But he adds that as an industry, publishing created a problem for itself by giving away content for free when the internet first emerged as a mass communication phenomenon 25 years ago.

Philip McMullan: “We are businesses; we need to be able to monetise our content.”

“It was new technology, people didn’t really understand it, and back then, you couldn’t take payments easily and securely. But that’s created an expectation in audience’s minds about free content. There’s a big education piece for us as an industry and for individual publishers about the amount of time and effort and money they spend in creating content,” he says.

The answer, he believes, is to gather data in a secure and privacy compliant way and ensure audiences understand the value transaction.

“It’s not audiences’ fault that we didn’t charge them, but as an industry we need to thrive. We are businesses; we need to be able to monetise our content. We want to produce great content and give it to audiences, so it is that education piece, slowly letting consumers know we want to continue delivering great content, but we will need some help from them to monetise that, whether it be data or payment,” he explains.

Investing in insight

McMullan admits that having a data and insight team is a significant investment for a business and one which they have to trust will deliver value back to them. Not only does data have to be gathered, you have to employ people capable of providing insight, as well as keeping up with rapidly shifting technology and doing some future gazing.

He says: “An insight and data team could be supporting a commercial team, an e-commerce team, the editorial team, maybe you’re supporting the C-suite in some decision making; then you’re also involved in audience measurement and what’s happening at an industry level and then you try to look around the corner to see what’s going to happen.”

One of the biggest challenges is overcoming a reliance on third-party cookies. Google has set a target date of December 2023 to eliminate these, putting the pressure on publishers and other retailers to set up their own in-house system of first party data collection. McMullan believes premium publishers such as the Evening Standard are in a strong position, both because they provide environments which advertisers are keen to come back to, but also because they have already started the journey of gathering audience data.

Collecting first-party data

“There are lots of clever people looking at what we do now that third party cookies are leaving the system. I think there’ll be lots of collaboration and, necessity being the mother of invention, there’ll be some new technologies coming out that we’ll need to get to grips with,” he says.

Aside from the lack of transparency over how advertisers are using our data, he points out that third-party cookies are not the smartest piece of technology – “we’ve all had the experience of buying something online and then being targeted for the same product for the next three months”.

At the Evening Standard, they are building their first party data assets in a number of different ways. The first is targeted newsletters, including what’s on in London, as well as harder news. People registering for these actively participate in selecting what content they want to see. The Evening Standard also holds high profile events which are a good opportunity to collect data, as are competitions. Working with a third-party provider, they have built a data management platform which allows them to onboard client data in a privacy compliant way. They can also model audience behaviour in such a way that it allows advertisers to see who might become new customers for them. This profiling tends to be around people’s interests and what content they like to look at, allowing the newspaper to tailor a better advertising experience for them.

“Are they sports fans, are they interested in interiors, are they news and politics junkies? Are they looking at family holidays? It’s interests, behaviour, what they’re really engaged with that helps us to target them with advertising that’s going to be relevant and ultimately make their experience around our site better,” says McMullan.

The answer is to gather data in a secure and privacy compliant way and ensure audiences understand the value transaction.

Mobile-first future

Charles Yardley joined the Evening Standard as chief executive from Forbes in June 2020 with a remit to move not only to digital first, but specifically mobile first. The title recently brought in a new content management system which doesn’t publish just to print or digital, but across all formats. Alongside this, the publisher, owned by Evgeny Lebedev’s ESI Media, has brought in new formats for its commercial partners offering alternatives to display advertising. Brand Posts allows commercial partners to target potential customers with in-depth editorial, while Brand Stories is an image-led format, which works well for luxury, travel and entertainment brands.

While the Evening Standard is still focused on London, 71 per cent of its audience across all platforms is now outside the UK capital. When it comes to digital-only, this figure rises to 79 per cent.

“It’s London, but also people who aspire to London and people who are interested in what’s going on in London as a global city,” says McMullan.

He adds: “What can happen now for premium publishers is there’s this opportunity with fantastic contexts where you can make sure you’re reaching audiences. If they’re on a travel site, maybe they’re going to be interested in travel advertising. There’s also no doubt that my clients will want the ability to target and that’s where first-party data comes in, so we will have a really deep insight into our audiences and that will no longer sit with programmatic desks, it will sit with publishers. [There is] this move back towards publishers having a little bit more control over the advertising eco-system.”

He caveats this by saying that as the technology changes, the power balance between publishers and platforms will also change and no one knows where it will end up.

B2B roots

McMullan started off in B2B journalism working on legal and recruitment titles. It was while working for Centaur Media’s The Lawyer magazine that he started working on data products, including the UK200 list of leading law firms. When the opportunity came for him to move from editorial into an insight and data role, he decided that was where his interest lay. It was Neil Sharman, former head of research and insight at the Daily Telegraph and working at the time as a consultant, who brought him into the Evening Standard from B2B at the mid-stage of his career.

“It’s a really exciting time to be involved in this world, because we’re seeing so much change so quickly. The day to day role that I do could be anything from supporting someone on the commercial team on a pitch, doing post campaign effectiveness for clients, making sure we can prove their messaging has worked well and resonated with our audience, to getting briefs from senior management.”

As marketing budgets are squeezed, demonstrating the effectiveness of campaigns to commercial partners is an important part of the job.

Demonstrating ROI

As marketing budgets are squeezed, demonstrating the effectiveness of campaigns to commercial partners is an important part of the job. He cites the example of the gaming company 888 who sponsored the Evening Standard’s coverage of the Euro 2020 tournament.

“We were able to prove through our post-campaign research that people were aware of the campaign and offers [such as] free bets. People had gone to 888 to make those bets, so we were able to demonstrate that campaign had resonated with our audience. It was very gratifying that the client in terms of their own data had seen that as well,” he says.

Essential to the task of demonstrating return on investment (ROI) is establishing a shared trusted way of measuring audiences. McMullan works with other media owners, agencies and brands on the tech committees of UK Online Measurement (UKOM) and the Publishers Audience Measurement Company (PAMCo) as well as on the research group of the Association of Online Publishers.

McMullan says: “The UKOM and PAMCo tech groups work really hard to ensure that there is independent, robust and audited measurement of publishers’ audience figures so that our commercial partners can have confidence that their campaigns are reaching the desired target market. It’s often very technical work, and not at the glamorous end of media, but it’s so important to establish trusted metrics so that buyers have confidence to invest their marketing budgets in the publishing sector.”

London post-pandemic

As well as meeting the challenge of the third-party cookie leaving the publishing eco-system, McMullan is looking forward to London coming back post-pandemic and is currently involved in thought leadership around what the city will look like.

“It’s opening up again, but what is that going to look like in 2022 and beyond, because obviously there’s been seismic changes. What behaviours will go back to pre-pandemic, what behaviour changes are here to stay? There are people saying everyone’s going to come back, people saying no-one’s going to come back. I don’t think anyone knows yet but tracking that and trying to understand that in a way that we can communicate to our commercial partners and to our editorial teams, I think is an exciting challenge.”

It’s so important to establish trusted metrics so that buyers have confidence to invest their marketing budgets in the publishing sector.

This article was first published in InPublishing magazine. If you would like to be added to the free mailing list, please register here.