How bleak? Top publisher alliance tips shift from audience to effectiveness; end to old Fairfax-Google ad deal; contextual targeting boost as cookies collapse
Australia's media companies think massive audience growth during Covid-19 will hold as the new normal. The recently launched Premium Content Alliance of top publishers says advertisers in retail, banking and insurance have returned and learned the trust and efficacy of professional content environments but admit the easy way to trade with Facebook and Google needs to be countered in the next 12 months. "Nothing is off the table", it says. Meanwhile, they aim to change the conversation from one dimensional audience metrics to effectiveness. If they can work together - a private exchange has again reared its head - the rebel alliance hopes it may yet loosen the duopoly's grip on Australia's ad budgets.
Check out this week's podcast below:
A bit of context
There’s a certain irony in Covid-19 giving traditional media, TV and news, a massive audience and engagement boost just as advertisers run to the hills.
Corona-induced panic saw brands cut spend 35 per cent in April and that trend looks set to continue in the short term.
However, Australia’s big media owners think Covid audience uplift will reset the baseline and become the new normal. Through the Premium Content Alliance they are trying to give advertisers hard evidence that content produced professionally in Australia for Australians delivers more effective business outcomes for brands.
They also recognise an urgent need to be as easy to buy as Facebook and Google – and in that regard, nothing is off the table.
Meanwhile, the ACCC’s ongoing inquiries should help level the playing field in the not too distant future – and the end of third party cookies in 2022 could present a significant opportunity as advertising's pendulum swings back towards contextual targeting.
“Our audiences have never been stronger. The thing that we have found pretty consistently over the last few years is whenever there's a news event, it creates an uplift in audience and that audience is a new baseline.”
“Our audiences have never been stronger,” says Nine chief digital and publishing officer, Chris Janz. News media, he says tends to benefit in a crisis, as people flock to mastheads they can trust.
While advertising has taken a hit across the board, he says brands are also returning.
“It's fair to say some advertisers had drifted away from news media in recent years, particularly print. During Covid, supermarkets, banks, insurers, they've all returned to deliver key messages in a trusted environment at a critical time,” suggests Janz. “It's where we have a clear edge over Facebook and YouTube. Most people distrust social media and as a result, trust for ads in that environment is negative.”
Janz is confident that the eyeballs flocking back to news media will still be there when life returns to something approaching normal.
“The thing that we have found pretty consistently over the last few years is whenever there's a news event, it creates an uplift in audience and that audience is a new baseline,” he claims.
“A good example is during the Banking Royal Commission, the Financial Review's audience across both print and digital had significant increases - and from there, that was that was the new normal. There's an uplift and it's consistent across all news publishers.”
People have been watching a lot more TV and video during lockdown too. Seven West Media's chief digital officer and chair of Think Premium Digital, Gereurd Roberts, says video on demand (VOD) numbers for platforms are up 50 per cent “across the board” for alliance members.
“That is phenomenal and it is engagement. It is not just access to the platform, but time spent with the platform [that has increased by that much]. So across the board, we are seeing incredible numbers.”
Kim Portrate, CEO of both the Premium Content Alliance and Think TV, says linear TV is up 30 per cent during the lockdown period.
She says those numbers “may come off a little” as Australia emerges from lockdown. “But in my experience, growth in audience is generally a leading indicator of growth in share. So certainly we think we’re going to be in a stronger position; we think appetite has been reignited through lockdown and we think that is going to be sustainable in the second half.”
Move fast and fix things
Audience growth may outlive Covid, but the alliance is acutely aware of the need for speed in regaining the initiative. The plan is threefold: Push the message on local content for local people; change the conversation to effectiveness; and make trading with the alliance as easy for advertisers as it is to buy Facebook and Google.
To change the conversation around effectiveness, Portrate will use the same playbook that Think TV has been using in recent years: Robust, peer reviewed academic research that gives advertisers the proof they need to invest.
She says the Alliance aims to bring that evidence to market in the third quarter, fourth latest, in time to help brands navigate what may prove to be a significant recession.
“There are lots of quick fixes that can be put in place. But a premium exchange and pool inventory … is a much bigger piece of work.”
An inventory alliance?
Making it as easy for advertisers to buy the audiences they want from Australian media owners as opposed to the duopoly is no mean feat. Google and Facebook are extremely simple to buy and offer marketers the metrics required to justify spend.
Would a single platform and pooled inventory solve the conundrum? And would it work, given New Zealand’s KPEX private ad exchange failed?
“I don’t think anything is off the table,” says Janz, who suggests KPEX “fell over because some of the shareholders were only contributing part of their inventory to the exchange. Therefore it wasn’t serving its purpose - so it doesn’t mean the idea is a failure.”
Roberts agrees a private exchange cannot be ruled out. But Australia’s media owners have come close to getting together before, only to stumble at the final hurdle for fear of losing control.
Roberts says there are “ways to come together” that stop short of creating a private pool.
“Not to say that's off the table, but from a video perspective, across [Alliance] member assets, we reach 16.4m Australians, almost 90 per cent of the population 14-plus. We can find ways to be able to provide access to those audiences across our video assets that doesn't require pooling inventory. We don't have to move directly to an Australian pool in order to be able to do that.”
Enabling access to inventory that remains on individual media owner platforms, but can be accessed by a single agency or buyer side platform, may be an option, suggests Roberts.
“Again, nothing is of the table and we are actively engaging on how we can better come together in order to give people access to those audiences and those inventories,” he says.
Kim Portrate has experience of trying to herd television’s cats towards a single buying platform.
She says while there are lots of “pretty vocal” people trying to determine the correct approach, perfection should not be the enemy of good, and the Premium Content Alliance will make short, medium and long-term improvements to ease of trading.
“At the end of the day, the buyer wants to be able to buy a particular audience. If the definitions [of those audiences] are quite simple and there is a single gateway, that is probably enough in terms of meeting the requirement of ease,” suggests Portrate.
VOZ, she says, will enable more precise audience definition and the TV industry has already made improvements by standardising the top 50 segments to make life easier for buyers. “So there are lots of quick fixes that can be put in place,” says Portrate.
“But a premium exchange and pool inventory … is a much bigger piece of work.”
“We've had a really good working relationship with Google over the past couple of years. But I think it's fair to say our programmatic partnership was struck at a different point in time ...We'll [likely] have a different relationship with Google moving forward.”
Fairfax-Google deal on the out
Prior to Nine’s acquisition, Fairfax struck a deal in late 2017 whereby Google would sell its programmatic inventory. Chris Janz was one of the dealmakers, stating at the time it combined “the very best that Fairfax has to offer together with the smarts and capability of Google” and would result in “continued investment in journalism”.
But two and a half years later, with investment in journalism and recompense for content very much in Canberra’s eye, Janz indicates the marriage may be destined for separation, if not outright divorce.
“We've had a really good working relationship with Google over the past couple of years. But I think it's fair to say our programmatic partnership was struck at a different point in time, before the government had moved to address the imbalance in bargaining power that exists between the platforms and media owners,” says Janz.
“We're expecting the ACCC's code of conduct work to mean news media is compensated for the value that they bring today to those platforms - and the value that they've delivered to the enterprise value of those platforms over many, many years,” he adds. “And that will likely mean we'll have a different relationship with Google moving forward.”
“I think that the impending ‘cookie apocalypse’ will be really beneficial for premium content producers. So ... 2022 can't come fast enough, given the opportunity that contextual advertising really does offer.”
Bring on the cookie apocalypse
While the ACCC’s ‘rebalancing’ work may ultimately benefit publishers, incoming privacy regulation and the resulting moves by browser companies to cull third party cookies within two years poses significant disruption to the ad ecosystem. (Get up to speed on that here)
Portrate, however, thinks publishers can only gain. She says 2022 – and a wholesale swing back towards contextual targeting - cannot come fast enough.
“I think that the impending ‘cookie apocalypse’ will be really beneficial for premium content producers,” she suggests, arguing that marketers want to buy audiences, not cookies, and that those audiences can be found alongside the right content.
“So I think the context that the content delivers will make a huge impact and offset some of the regulation that is coming,” says Portrate.
Meanwhile, for all the headwinds they have faced in the last decade, Australian publishers have made significant inroads in driving subscriptions and log-ins. Those efforts look set to pay dividend when third party cookies kick the bucket.
“Half of Nine's masthead revenue is now from subscriptions, says Chris Janz. “News Corp has 640,000 digital subscribers and it's growing at 24 percent year on year. The Herald and The Age are growing north of 20 per cent and that's accelerated first through the summer bushfire period and most recently Covid.”
Janz suggests the long-term shift to subscription models ultimately presents upside for advertisers, “not only for the identities and the deep data that we have, but also because subscribers tend to be incredibly engaged and they have high levels of trust in the environment.”
Getting audiences to log in and subscribe should also put media owners in the clear when it comes to privacy concerns, says Kim Portrate.
“Regarding [incoming privacy] regulation, all members of the Premium Content Alliance are already in industries where they are heavily regulated. They meet and in some cases exceed the requirements of the law. So I don’t think that is going to be an issue.”
On the contrary, she says the first party data Alliance members have amassed (“one member alone has 11m unique user IDs”) will be something advertisers actively seek out.
“What’s more important is that it’s transparent. You can absolutely see it is independently measured. And if you're an advertiser and you want to bring your data pool in and marry it with one of the media owners' data, that’s done in a way that is completely transparent. So you always know where it's going, you know where your money is, and you know what you're getting back for it,” says Portrate.
“So I actually think 2022 can't come fast enough, given the opportunity that contextual advertising really does offer.”
In the meantime, with the market facing a jaundiced outlook, Portrate says it is key for advertisers that want to emerge stronger from recession to “remember that attention equals impact equals business income.
“We will be re-prosecuting that message and proving that we are the best mediums available to deliver that”.