Publishers should re-emphasise their behavioural roots to take on Facebook and Google

When I began life as a media analyst many years ago, the online analytics industry was entering into a period of transition from demographic to behavioural targeting. Segmenting site visitors into age and gender brackets was no longer enough to appease hungry brands who were smitten with the idea of behavioural profiling. Over time, this promise grew into the programmatic industry that we see before us today, with reach and frequency being coupled with automation and artificial intelligence. 

But as we plan campaigns in 2017 we find that the mood has changed. Clients are asking for a level of simplicity that is rarely offered to them across the web. Forget knowing the audiences age, political beliefs, and what they had for breakfast that morning, the question that we are increasingly being asked is, ‘Are these people going to buy our stuff?’ 

Facebook and Google answer this question succinctly because they both have readymade solutions in place to narrate the answer. In the case of Google Search for example, advertisers can be sure that consumers are already searching directly for the type of products that they offer before they serve the ad, and so parting with spend becomes a no-brainer. While the Facebook algorithms may seem more complex, they still present a straightforward package: we know who likes what you’re offering, and we’ll serve ads to them. 

Part of the challenge that traditional publishers face is simplifying their offering for advertisers. With an unhealthy focus on ‘millennials’ and attracting incremental audiences that are ‘different to the print readership’, many media owners have become focussed on who its audiences are rather than what they do, and in doing so abandoned a key USP, particularly in the specialist sector. 

Of course print titles made this seem simpler. Consider the example of a monthly cycling magazine. Here is a universal hobby that appeals to all types of people from all demographics. It does not necessarily matter what the reader does for a living, what their profession is, and which magazine she may read next. The important thing here is that they have shown an interest in cycling and therefore are intrinsically more likely to buy cycling products. Knowing that your young-skewing audience ‘is tech savvy, is very politically minded, is a digital native, knows what they want from life’ is extremely unlikely to convince one of our clients in the legal sector that your current affairs platform is the right channel to sell legal services through.

In many ways this shift in thinking is understandable. As media has transitioned from print to digital and publishers have struggled to keep pace with the increasingly tech-focussed world around them, it has perhaps been tempting to repackage traditional offerings within the context of the technical age. But this is not only unnecessary, it detracts from the core offering – and the core advantages – that publishers can provide in an increasingly fragmented media world. 

There are a few ways that publishers can re-establish their behavioural credentials, better answering the questions of ‘Are these people going to buy our stuff?’ and I have outlined five initial principals here.


Focus on content

We already have ‘search’ and ‘social’ covered in the minds of the clients via Facebook and Google – there is no point trying to sell this to them again. What brands are really looking for – and what there is a real lack of online right now – is quality content. Publishers are well placed to offer very straightforward, structured, content offerings that really strike a chord with the advertisers. If you are the ‘go-to’ resource for athletics news and features online, offering a really interesting and engaging experience for audiences, then training brands will want to be there. 

I need a straightforward solution to be able to make a case for. What makes your content so strong? Do you have quality stories? Interviews? Features? Is it video? Is it short-form? Is it a combined version of the two that gives the reader a choice of consuming the narrative on their preferred screen? At their preferred time of day? There is still a prestige associated with adorning the pages of quality publications, even as an advertiser and even online – a solid, straightforward content offering will help to re-establish this in the minds of advertisers.


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Declutter the offering

To enhance this experience further, an uncluttered advertising space is essential. If something looks messy, audiences won’t want to read it and advertisers won’t want to be there. We recently conducted a fascinating interview with Edson Ferrão, head of digital for Grupo Abril in Brazil, who told us that a 35 per cent reduction in online advertising inventory has actually produced a 46 per cent upturn in overall programmatic revenue. 

And that’s the message. It’s not about removing automation or going ‘back in time’ to simply apply a print approach to online, but the tenets of clean pages and quality production need to be brought back into play if traditional publishers are to succeed through digital platforms. Remember that to most clients an online publication should be exactly that – an online form of a magazine – and as such it needs to appear so.  


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Give your content a purpose

Obviously there is much debate within the industry at present about successful revenue models. John Wilpers, of the Innovation Media Consulting Group, talks about this in his latest industry level publication. I’m not saying that you need to start providing direct sales points and offering profit share models to brands. Far from it. But there does need to be an element of direct response introduced into magazine advertising in an age when the technology at our disposal allows us to go beyond mere display. If you can hyperlink buttons, phrases, video descriptions through to the advertiser site, and then show this direct response benefit to these companies then that is a good start. And tracking shareability across social will additionally give you a ‘pass on readership’ to talk about in your reporting.


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Leverage data properly

This is a hugely important point. Far too many companies – be it in the media industry or otherwise – spend far too much time analysing the wrong data sets. They focus on audiences when really analytics efforts should be around showing off your own performance. If you can leverage Google Analytics to show popular content topics, and really work with existing social analytics across Facebook/Twitter/YouTube/etc., then this should help you to create a clear picture of what’s working both on the site and further afield. 

You can even take this approach a step further. Earlier this year we interviewed Jennifer Brandel, CEO & co-founder of Hearken, who introduced us to a unique approach to content validation. If you are really determined to leverage ‘BIG data’ and accompanying analytics, then this focus should be on what you are offering, and refining that, as opposed to the people you are offering it to. 

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Don’t get lazy

Finally, one thing the internet’s economy of scale has certainly done in recent years, is to introduce an element of apathy to media and marketing. Working between clients and media, I regularly see an apathy on both sides toward planning advertising campaigns. ‘We’ve got x amount of 18-30-year-old site visitors’, ‘we want 10,000 clicks a month’. That’s not how you build a brand, on either side. Product marketing is important and publishers, again moreso than a Facebook or a Google with their huge sprawling platforms and self-service software, are ideally placed to create comprehendible, succinct, and efficient content packages to brands who ultimately just want to understand what they are getting for their money, and see that it is working. 

The scales being offered by the likes of Facebook and Google can these days seem like an insurmountable challenge. But it’s not actually just size that is drawing brands towards these platforms it’s simplicity. Google is search, Facebook is social, they pay, they get a response, the behaviour is predictable. Publishers were themselves playing this game offline for many years: providing simple content offerings, to attract relevant audiences, who who invariably be more interested in the advertiser offering. Rather than trying to keep up with the latest technological trend, re-introducing this structured approach is crucial for online publishing success.


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