Should publishers invest in audience data? Depends on the publisher

Many publishers feel buffeted by data tools that let advertisers bid for online ads in real time. The tools have led to a decline in ad prices but, now, publishers have more opportunities to level the playing field by tapping into data sets of their own.

This, anyways, is the promise of BlueKai, a company that helps publishers and brands collect information and marketing insights about their audiences. BlueKai’s primary customers have always been advertisers but now it’s turning more attention to publishers, offering tools that help them create reader profiles and develop data-driven ad sale strategies.

“The world before for publishers was ‘I have these great audiences, I have these places’ please buy them’,” said BlueKai CEO Omar Tawakol in a recent phone interview. Now, though, ad buyers want publishers to supply information that lets them reach very specific groups of people — soccer dads, not soccer moms for instance. Publishers can offer this information by mining their audience data (including registration info and log-in location) and combining it with data BlueKai has about those users’ web-surfing activities. Such tools can also help publishers track when the same customer is coming to the site through a desktop, tablet or cell phone device.

The data tools are fine in theory but are they a practical investment for publishers who could spend the money on writers or developers instead? According to one executive, some publishers might not have a choice.

Vikram Somaya, a former VP of Operations and Audience at Reuters(s tri), says that audience data has become “table stakes” for premium publishers if they want to be considered for major ad purchases by national brands. In practice, this means that a company like Ford(s f) might only consider buying online ads for a given campaign if the publisher can provide a target audience of car buyers.

“Anyone who hasn’t picked an [audience data] product, is behind… it’s not an option to ignore anymore,” said Somaya in a phone interview. He acknowledged though that, for now, BlueKai-type tools may only be practical for big publishers that are in Comscore’s list of top 500 web sites. (Somaya, who is now a VP at the Weather Company, used to work at BlueKai but said his opinion is impartial).

A publisher’s size, however, may not be the only consideration about whether it should invest in audience data. The nature of its readers is a consideration too. The more general a publisher’s audience, the greater its need for data. As the FT reported last week (reg. req’d), Time Inc(s twx) has just launched a major new ad strategy based on mining customer information so as to offer better-placed ads.

On the other hand, audience data is less critical for more specialized publications. As an executive for a major New York based publication, who did not want to be named, explained by email:

While we are a BlueKai customer, our experience is that most advertisers do not require audience segmentation data as part of their buy. It certainly sometimes comes up, but it’s the relatively rare exception, not the rule. My guess is that it’s probably more important for publishers with a more mass audience. Our audience is relatively targeted (and valuable) already and so segmentation isn’t needed to get the audience advertisers are seeking.

What this means in practice is that niche publishers can likely forgo fancy data tools for now.

(Image by Dusit via Shutterstock)