In the face of less and less valuable online ads that struggle to deliver value to both brands and publishers, is it time to rethink the church-state divide? Asks Jonathan Carter of Acxiom.

With news and magazine publishers having previously enjoyed enviable relationships and influence with dedicated readerships, the digital revolution has turned the media world upside down with many struggling to adapt and face this new reality.

Now, the customer journey has become much more complicated and as a result, we are in the midst of a cross-industry shift toward an audience-centric model. The bottom line is that it’s not only possible for marketers to know a lot more about customer behaviours and to develop targeted campaigns or communication approaches, they actually have to. 

Publishers face the same challenge: applying the same old revenue models won’t work anymore. Media houses have to develop distinct revenue strategies targeted to particular groups. As both brands and publishers become more customer-centric versus product-centric, they need to start breaking down their functional silos to present a united and single view of the customer. However, while publishers know their organisations need an overhaul, many are struggling with a real division between editorial and marketing teams. As the landscape shifts, there is a greater need for collaboration amongst the previously separate teams.

As the majority of visitors to publishers’ websites remain unknown, they leave behind no actionable first-party data. In order for a brand to understand a potential or existing customer’s behaviour, it first has to identify them. Publishers therefore, must focus their efforts on centralising and connecting all relevant data around their audience and the individual’s interactions with content, products and services over time. Similarly, companies like Google and Facebook have already offered up detailed targeting options, and third-party vendors offer the same array of choice. Slowly, we’re starting to see more publishers target people based on the articles that they've read or based on a lookalike audience of their ideal reader.

In the midst of this flux, publishers that understand that the customer’s experience of a brand is influenced by each interaction they have with a company are turning to people-based marketing. This is on the rise as it is all about using data to target real people wherever they are. It is taking over from traditional product-based models, enabled by rapidly developing marketing techniques. Media and publishing companies who adopt a genuine people-based approach that connects their customer data in practice not just in theory, will be those who can synchronise both content and commercials and achieve a greater balance between short term metrics and the long term value of the customer.

These will be the publishers that can develop long-term, profitable customer relationships through subscriptions or related products and services. Knowing who an individual is and what their current media consumption behaviours and personal interests are is valuable data that can fuel a number of revenue-driving efforts, from helping brands with more accurately targeted advertising to paid subscriptions and related offerings.

Things are changing slowly – there is a lot more of a shift to organise around customer segments and the individual journey of each customer. But in order for this to work effectively, brands too need to ensure marketing becomes more of an intelligence agent for the entire organisation not just the production house. It’s about embedding people-based marketing into the fabric of the business.

Across practically all revenue initiatives, the concept of individual identity is critical for the future of publishing. The industry needs to look at creating an integrative ‘common language’ in order to better define and unite audiences. One company may make microwave ovens and another LED TV’s but both work to 240v (UK) electricity as a standard. We drive a myriad of car types and brands but all adhere to industry standards for fuel, safety and in many cases driving laws.

In a similar vein, perhaps the time is right for publishers to turn to a common identity despite their varied and often competing content. This is especially important when it comes to providing different types of content for a range of audiences, as it will allow advertisers to reach them consistently and at scale across media channels, rather than buying unique audiences from each publisher. By creating a ‘connected media’ audience for advertisers, the publishing industry would be able to offer both the depth in terms of insight and the breadth in terms of reach that advertisers are truly looking for, and so often only find on global platforms.

Lastly, when it comes to GDPR and the new e-Privacy Directive, there is a lot of uncertainty about how things will play out after they come into force in May. To combat this, publishers need to rethink everything, from how they communicate the legal basis under which they collect and store audience data, to investing in new tech. While the original content, consumption knowledge, insight, and therefore power lies with media agencies to ensure this, they will also have to reinvent themselves and their relationship with their audiences in order to meet the opportunities ahead.