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March 16, 2022updated 30 Sep 2022 11:06am

Publishers ‘broadly optimistic’ about life after cookies – but should they be?

By Charlotte Tobitt

Publishers are feeling “broadly optimistic” about the post-cookie future of their digital businesses, but the tech platforms they work with are less so.

Asked to rate their confidence for a cookie-less future out of ten, publishers gave an average confidence score of six-and-a-half.

By contrast, solutions providers that work with publishers were less confident about their clients and the industry, giving a confidence score of 4.9 out of ten.

The findings come from a survey by the Association of Online Publishers of 111 industry leaders between 5 January and 9 February. Some 83% of respondents worked at publishers, mostly in head of department, team leader or board-level roles, while the other 17% were from organisations providing solutions to the publishing sector.

Google has said it plans to end the use of third-party publisher cookies on its Chrome browser by the end of 2023. It has recently given the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority the final say on its proposals for an alternative, which is currently looking likely to be an interest-based advertising model called Topics.

Most publishers expect to see more collaboration with their peers as they assess how to survive in a post-cookie world. Cookies are the files which allow publishers to serve personalised advertising and underpin much of the advertising ecosystem.

Some 12% of publishers were still unsure of their next moves while a further 12% were not planning to collaborate. But three-quarters were at least open to collaborating, with a fifth already doing so and 16% in discussions.

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AOP managing director Richard Reeves said  “confidence levels are broadly optimistic, with publishers realising that the year ahead heralds a new era, where they can begin to truly harness their unique understanding of their audiences”.

He added: “Collaboration is going to be a key factor, and we’re already seeing the value of shared testing and learning through our dedicated working groups.”

With the increased focus on first-party data, most publishers (65%) are now focusing on demographics when identifying and segmenting audiences for online advertising rather than interest and activities(27%). This split was backed up by the responses from solutions providers about their clients.

Just 17% of publishers said their teams were all aligned internally around their audience data, and 8% agreed that having a joined-up internal strategy around audience data was important but said they do not yet have one.

Three-quarters are however currently "working to ensure that audience data informs everything and investing in tools to help achieve this".

Half of the solutions providers who responded suggested "that while publishers understand being joined up internally around audience data is important... many publishers don’t yet have a strategy in place to achieve this" .

Data privacy and transparency ranked second when publishers were asked what their organisational priorities currently are when making strategic decisions.

The AOP said that "unsurprisingly" the top priority was developing new revenue streams through product innovation, with this ranked 4.3 out of five on a scale of least to most important.

This was closely followed by data privacy compliance and transparency (also on 4.3 out of five, but most important to consumer publishers on 4.6) and developing new first-party data strategies (4.2).

The next biggest priorities among publishers were recruiting and retaining new talent and ensuring a diverse and inclusive workplace (both given an importance ranking of 4.2 out of five).

Although tackling misinformation and disinformation was seen as a lesser priority (3.2 out of five), publishers were asked what they could best do in this area.

The report said: "The responses suggest that publishers believe the most
effective way to respond to this challenge is to hire more diverse journalistic talent, with this receiving an average rating of 3.7 out of five, where five is 'of high importance to me'.

"Publishers also believe that they need to break the echo chamber by deliberately seeking and amplifying diverse voices in their content, with this receiving the second highest rating of 3.4."

Publishers were less bothered about a push for industry-wide regulation as a way to tackle misinformation and disinformation (2.6 out of five).

The diversity issue came up again as just a quarter of publishers felt they have a good diversity, equity and inclusion strategy in place. Half said they had made good progress but still had room to improve, while a fifth said they could do "a lot more" and 5% said they had no clear diversity strategy in place.

The survey also showed signs of a recruitment gap more generally, with 70% of online publishers and 93% of solutions providers saying they were experiencing a shortfall of talent across all areas including journalism, sales and technical roles.

Asked about how they view recruitment and workforce development, three-quarters of respondents said "supporting and retaining current employees" was their biggest priority.

Separately, despite assurances from the Government regarding the Online Safety Bill that news media will be exempt, publishers remain unsure about the impact it will have on them.

They gave a low confidence rating of 4.5 out of ten when asked whether they understand the impact the bill will have on them, while when asked what they were doing to prepare most said "variations of waiting, reviewing, consulting legal teams, or simply 'not sure'".

"This suggests that there is a need for more information before publishers
feel confident in their preparation for any changes they will need to make," the report said.

The AOP said it would continue to facilitate discussions between publishers on areas such as first-party data strategies, subscriptions and e-commerce following the report's findings.

Picture: Shutterstock

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