More than half of marketers predict they will reduce their programmatic spend this year in response to turbulent economic conditions. 

As is often the case, the open web’s loss appears to be Google and Meta’s gain, as the same research found over a third (37%) of marketers forecasted an increase in their investment in the walled gardens.

However, marketers aren’t exactly thrilled about this situation: when drilling down into sentiment, the research found many feel constrained by their reliance on the walled gardens and worry about their revenues if they can’t target beyond them.

But it is possible for marketers to escape this love/hate relationship by exploring the targeting opportunities offered by digital publishers, who have been busy building precise and transparent targeting solutions from their wealth of valuable first-party data. 

Open programmatic is in a tough spot

Even without considering current downward pressure slowing the growth of ad spend, open programmatic has been in a tough spot as cookie deprecation and privacy regulations have eroded much of its core functionality. Meanwhile, inefficiencies and waste in its ballooning and fragmented supply chain have frustrated marketers and publishers alike, as fees from intermediaries ate away at revenues and poor data quality undermined campaign reporting.

Though ISBA’s recent audit — a follow up to the 2020 study that exposed these issues — found improvements in spend reaching the sell side, this may be too little too late for the marketers that have deprioritised open programmatic in their revenue streams.

But marketers pulling back on open programmatic shouldn’t default to spending on the walled gardens. In response to the broad ecosystem changes mentioned above, many premium publishers have rebuilt their advertising suite to focus on direct deals and private programmatic auctions fed by their audience data. Through these channels, marketers gain access to targeting, measurement, attribution, and reporting tools that can follow an audience from lead to conversion.

Such performance data is especially valuable in a market that has lost 50–60% of the signals once accessible for targeting and measurement, and publishers can deliver it with far greater transparency than the walled gardens that obscure their inner workings.

Publishers have a unique sales proposition

Google and Meta may be unbeatable in scale, but their billions of users are more drawn in by necessity and convenience than any particular love for the brand. Publishers, on the other hand, can establish loyal fanbases who keep readers coming back because they enjoy the work of their favourite content creators or align with the overall editorial direction.

A consistent user base comes with a number of benefits. Publishers gain deep familiarity with their audiences both through their first-party data and direct community engagement, with specialist or regional publications offering advertisers a chance to target a highly specific niche. Even publications with a broad reach, such as news sites, will inevitably have audiences skewed towards certain demographics.

This familiarity allows publishers to provide services beyond display advertising, such as sponsored content and affiliate marketing that is tailored to provide genuine value to their audiences. Publishers can also offer bespoke and exclusive advisory services by leveraging their user data and insights for customer intelligence, assisting brands with wider market research and campaign planning.

Beyond the benefits of a defined audience, premium publications provide a brand-safe environment where the audience is more engaged and less distracted than when they are trawling through search results or scrolling through infinite social media feeds. This effect is multiplied when combined with premium inventory formats. 

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Making publisher data work for you

At the most basic level, marketers can buy ads based on the surrounding content of the site. For example, it’s reasonable to assume that visitors to the style section of a site are likely to be fashion enthusiasts, making the inventory more valuable to clothing brands. But going by page context alone only scratches the surface of understanding and targeting valuable audiences.

By collecting data on how users move around their site (or sites) and combining it with whatever other online and offline sources they possess, the publisher could build a fashion enthusiast audience segment that marketers can then target outside of the style section.

Targeting doesn’t have to be limited to known users, either. A sample of consenting site visitors can be algorithmically expanded to unknown users through sophisticated lookalike modelling. In this example, a fashion enthusiast persona would be able to represent a larger pool of users by acting as a mimic of the fashion enthusiast segment.

Marketers needn’t be passive consumers of publishers’ targeting solutions, they can be active participants by bringing in their own data to discover shared audiences. If both the marketer and publisher have incorporated one or more identity solutions, they can deploy ID matching to deterministically and/or probabilistically to find overlap. Another option, for marketers with well-ordered data, is to use data collaboration tools to share pseudonymised audience data with the publisher and vice versa.

Now, instead of simply buying inventory in the style section to target fashion conscious consumers, marketers can target both known and unknown audiences across the publisher’s network, garnished with valuable insights into their wider interests, other sites visited, and brands they have engaged with.

Another benefit of advertising on publisher properties is the opportunity to test campaigns in cookieless environments. Between Safari and Firefox, a significant portion of a publisher’s site traffic will already be operating without third-party cookies, well ahead of Chrome’s much-delayed deprecation.

Digital publishers — whose revenues depend on being able to solve the problem of cookieless targeting — are on the frontline of innovation in this space, offering opportunities for experimentation and incremental lift for marketers struggling to reach unaddressable audiences.

While the scale of Google and Meta means they will inevitably feature in most media plans, marketers have much to gain by capitalising on the direct relationship premium publishers enjoy with their audiences. This data-rich, brand-safe environment provides transparency and the chance for collaboration for marketers frustrated by the opaque and hands-off approach of walled gardens, while also supporting the quality content that is the lifeblood of the open web.

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