In the face of third party deprecation & privacy shifts, publishers globally are focusing on how they can safeguard their revenue and monetisation strategies.  Subscriptions have become a key focus for growth, but with advertising growing at record levels and the growing influence of first and zero party data it’s clear that user choice has become the key theme.  By giving users the choice of how they engage and what the value exchange looks like – ads, data or money – then publishers can strike the perfect balance for each individual.

Carbon recently hosted a panel session to discuss the future of publisher revenues; specifically looking at whether subscriptions, zero party data and other models could ever reduce our reliance on advertising.  We were joined by an incredible panel including Alaina Browne from The Atlantic, Dominic Young from Axate. Lorna Willis from Archant and Chad Hussain from Narratiive.

You can watch/listen to the full panel discussion here, but if you’d prefer the highlights then below are some handy summaries and clips of the main themes to come from the session.

Understanding audiences to deliver value

To deliver valuable experiences to readers that facilitate a fair value exchange where everyone wins – advertiser, publishers and consumer – understanding what they value is crucial.  That understanding goes beyond what content they want to read and extends to how they want to digest it (online vs offline) and how they want to pay for it (paid subscription, registration, ads, casual payments, etc).

Ads still have a place! When done correctly, advertising should add value to the reader experience whilst connecting them to national & local brands that rely on publishers like Archant to make that connection. Even with paywalls, subs or casual payments it still comes down to relevance – before charging consumers for content, we must understand what constitutes valuable user experiences to each user.

Publishers’ superpower is their vast network of users

Publishers’ great unexploited super power is that collectively they have a network of users that includes pretty much everyone, but reaching & engaging with everyone within this network requires a mix of business models.  For instance; subscriptions can alienate those that either can’t or don’t want to pay for content, whilst those that take up a subscription for one publisher may do so at the cost of another.  Furthermore, the appetite for subscriptions can lead to discounting which risks alienating those paying more for the same content.

The key is to create a network of publishers and users where the content and the brand are driving user choice – including subscriptions (paid/unpaid), casual payments, and ads – then we can create an expanding market that doesn’t incentivise blocking user journeys from each other.

Better data beats more data

There’s a massive opportunity for publishers to reclaim power back within the digital ecosystem by leveraging both first party and zero party data to drive transparent value exchanges.  Given that paid subscriptions are likely to only apply to a small number of premium publishers, alternative models are crucial.  For instance, a logged-in user strategy is one option where data is exchanged for content for improved audience modelling as well as creating a prospect funnel for subscriptions.

Zero party data, for instance, is transparent by design as it represents declared signals and can be used – just like first party data – to create models to fuel the value exchange for anonymous users.  More data beats clever algorithms, but better data beats more data.  The route to better data is built around trust and a transparent value exchange whether that’s zero and first party data collection, unpaid subscriptions, through to paid subscriptions.

Put the value of the user at the core

The challenge for publishers is understanding the various moving parts of the value exchange to leverage data to power the best user experience for each user.  For instance; using dynamic paywall experiences to identify the readers most likely to subscribe, as well as identifying the highly engaged users that won’t subscribe to develop those relationships in different ways they want to transact.  This might mean an unpaid subscription, or zero party data to fuel audience modelling and find segments that advertisers want.

The Atlantic, for instance, have used data science to understand what can predict readers’ likelihood to subscribe; whilst also determining what users value e.g. access to a specific perspective, features, free app, etc.  Leveraging user data requires transparency in communications as to what the data will be used for and what value it provides e.g. improve the experience with better content recommendations, user journeys, etc.

Building a network of trust

Moving away from third to first party data will mean publishers having to adapt to a more challenging way of collecting data, but with transparency at its core we can build a better and more honest network of trust moving forward.  The value exchange between consumers and companies, of data for content, is a collaborative marathon to collect the right data from consumers, not a sprint to collect every possible data point.

This way we can enhance the UX through personalisation or leverage the Insights from the data to provide products/services, or ad opportunities that further enhance our relationship with the user and the advertisers that rely on publishers for reach.

Will subscriptions & zero party data put ads on ice?

Probably not. There’s a spectrum of revenue channels for publishers to leverage that address the differing consumer needs and requirements in privacy compliant ways, but there’s no one-size-fits-all approach.  Whilst ‘reader revenues’ seems to be the dominant focus, that doesn’t have to mean subscriptions, it means readers paying cash for content which can take other formats such as casual payments where there’s a fair value exchange.  A fair value exchange can also mean exchanging data for content (i.e. zero party data) that can help publishers improve user experiences, or consuming ads as part of the user experience where advertisers get value too.

At the beginning of our panel discussion we asked panelists to choose between subscriptions OR ads; but in reality it’s not a binary choice.  At one extreme we’ll have some consumers prepared to pay for multiple subscriptions, whilst at the other extreme we’ll have users that want their content for free and will accept ad experiences.  In between those 2 extremes there’s a number of new models – including casual payments and zero party data – that can further fuel our understanding of our audiences, and that’s the key:  Understanding what our audiences value – content, UX, features etc – so we can deliver that to them in a profitable way that facilitates publishers and advertisers.

Carbon is now part of Magnite.