Get The Story Behind The Data

For conference programmers like me, the last panel of the last day of a two-day event can be a dead zone of participation. You attendees know the drill. Fly-ins are catching the earliest plane possible. Your headliners are already gone off to their next high-level meeting. That final late afternoon panel at the bitter end can have more people on the panel than are in the audience.

This definitely was not the case at OMMA Global earlier this week. The crowds held well throughout Day 2, and much to my own surprise, a 4:45 panel on publisher data (data, mind you!) almost filled the room.

Panelists from the Rubicon Project, Omnicom Media, Omniture, IDG and IAC all explored the various ways in which publishers are starting to realize the value of the user data they are collecting every second of every day. Obviously, the emerging role of ad exchanges, site customization, and attendant issues of privacy were explored. But one of the most startling takeaways was the Neanderthal state of data collection and use among most content publishers.



I caught up with the moderator for the panel, Steve Ennen, managing director, Wharton Interactive Media Initiative, to ask about the state of publisher sophistication. Ennen's Institute looks at digital data from both academic and commercial perspectives; it helps publishers understand data application. Few are accessing, let alone learning, from the user habits their own site logs reveal. Ennen agrees and sees a low level of digital savvy among content providers.

"Right now, people are still trying to fit the new technology and its by-products into old business models," Ennen says. "You have to rethink them."

For instance, publishers continue to think about data simply as audience identities that you share or sell. "Look at the list serve mentality," he adds. "Publishers made a lot of money leasing out and sending lists to others. It's the same approach to data. If I get a registration, I can sell them to an advertisers, as opposed to thinking about the story behind that data."

The "story" behind the user ID is how that user mind-set is interacting with a publisher's brand. I was hosting a Webinar this week in which brand executives advised publishers that they need to be better "experts" about their own audiences. They need special knowledge of who their visitors are, what their attitudes and desires may be, and what they need at different points in time.

This is the kind of information that the marketer can't get in focus groups, but comes from observing how a user access information, comments and shares information and interacts with peers. The kind of behavior that is evidenced at a Web site, if the publisher knows where to find it and how to parse it. "One of the challenges is capturing that story," says Ennen. "There are vast amounts of data, and you don't have bandwidth and the savvy."

"They have to stop thinking about data simply as a commodity and start thinking about it as organizational intelligence, behavioral targeting intelligence and intellectual property," Ennen says. "It can guide them to how they can construct their business going forward."

Many publishers are focusing on the value of the "list" and missing what their users are doing. Just as behavioral tracking algorithms are employing predictive models, publishers should be able to plumb the same data of users: what content and advertising they respond to best.

How publishers can predict churn or better understand where in their content well they gain and lose audience is in their current data. Publishers should be able to optimize content and ad provisioning as effectively as ad exchanges are optimizing an ad being served.

Ennen credits publishers like B2B powerhouse IDG and multimedia consumer brand Meredith with taking their data most seriously and leveraging it to optimize content. But the problem he experiences in many companies is execution. The technology is there. Some inkling of what the data can do is there. But the infrastructure makes implementation a problem.

"Having the right analytics and the leadership is a driver for the business." Many companies are more focused on the short-term goal of commercializing the data rather than using it to create business intelligence and new models.

Ennen suggests that publishers look more seriously at internal indicators, like vertical search results. "Think about the content and how to make the content more relevant. People are hungry for information or entertainment, and they want it personalized. Serve the content with options and different benefits to go with that: premium membership and privileged information to coupons."

Ultimately, he sees some of the current interactive platforms converging, where search destinations become more portal-like, media brands becoming more like ad and content network, and publishers move out of the traditional publishing metaphors to participate.

1 comment about "Get The Story Behind The Data".
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  1. Mike John-baptiste from Peerset, September 26, 2009 at 2:49 a.m.

    I agree with Steve but more in the sense that publishers can have their cake and eat it too. I have never been a publisher myself but I imagine that most people that get into the business do it for the content or the craft and in the long tail web 2.0 world it may be a hobby that became a business. Data analytics is overwhelming for companies of all sizes which is why companies like AC Nielsen, Business Objects, Microstrategy and Retek are successful in their sectors. Publishers should demand more from firms that want to leverage their data by asking for insights to be fed back to their business and packaged nicely for their own direct commercial benefit.


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