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By Thomas Baekdal - April 2021

Publishers need to shift entirely to first-party data. Good and bad reader experiences

This is an archived version of a Baekdal/Basic newsletter (it's free). It is sent out about once per week and features the latest articles as well as news and trends about the media industry. If you want to get the next one, don't hesitate to add your email to the list.

Welcome back to the Baekdal Plus newsletter. Today, we are going to focus on three things.

The future of advertising for publishers is first-party data

In a recent Plus article, I talked about the problems we have with Google's plans to drop the third-party cookies and instead build tracking directly into the browsers.

There are some good things about it, like not having your personal identifiers scattered all over the internet, but there are obviously also a lot of big problems with it.

However, my biggest concern with it isn't that publishers can't do third-party tracking, but that we shouldn't be focusing on this at all.

So, in my latest Plus article, I go into this in much more detail. What are the trends that we see, and why should publishers completely drop third-party tracking and focus on a first-party system?

Take a look at: The future of advertising for publishers is first-party data.

Tactics vs strategy: Good and bad reader experiences

One of these days, I need to write an article about what it is that I look for when I analyze a publisher. There are obviously a lot of factors to account for, the business model, the editorial focus, the formats, the market, and so forth.

But while all these things are important, there is one thing that really tells you a lot about a publisher, and that's how they see their readers. Are you actually trying to help your readers? ...Or do you instead act like the readers exist for you?

I want to give you a tool to help you better see this, and it's simply this:

As I said, this is a very simple tool, but let's put something into this.

The problem I come across is that most of the tactics that publishers use are in the 'less valuable' category. Let me give you some examples.

Here is a headline from a newspaper I read this morning:

Brand new car model fails in safety test

Okay... but which car model? And what do you mean by 'fails'. How many stars did it get? Was it a little failure or a big failure?

Of course, the only way to know is to click on the headline and go to the full article, and then they tell you (although, often you also have to read a big chunk of the text before you actually get to know).

Everyone in the industry knows why it is done this way. It's to get clicks, to boost the pageview metric, and the number of ad views. But think about what you are actually doing here.

You are telling your readers that they cannot see whether an article is relevant to spend time with until they click on it. And you force people to have a very inefficient experience with news.

In other words, if we add this to our tool above, we get this.

The user experience around this article is really annoying.

Now, of course, if this is just one article, people probably won't think too much about it, but if you do this every single day, with most of your articles, you end up creating 'micro-annoyances' ... and trust me, you don't want to do that.

There is nothing worse than being enticed to click on an article, only to realize that it had no value to you, and now you have ended up wasting your time. And if this is the feeling people get every day, you will have a serious problem building up loyalty.

But, as a media analyst, this also illustrates the mindset of this particular newspaper. If they are doing this, it tells me that they don't care about their readers. They don't see themselves as providing a service for their readers, instead the readers are just 'clicks' that can be exploited.

This is a very problematic mentality because it disconnects you from your audience and it leads you down the wrong path. And we see this all the time in the way many publishers talk about their audiences.

For instance, when you tell people that they should subscribe "because journalism is important", it's the exact same mentality. Instead of saying: "We are here for you, and this is what we can help you with", you are saying: "You are here for us, so pay us".

No brand would ever do this, but in the media industry, we see this all the time.

But let me give you another example.

Another problem that I often come across is that many newspapers focus so much on what they want to do as publishers that we kind of forget to really look at what we are actually doing.

I see this all the time, but I came across an example earlier this week. One of the largest newspapers in my country reported these two headlines within six hours of each other:

The first headline said:

British COVID variant B117 is no worse than normal COVID, study finds

And the second headline said:

Health authorities say that B117 is worse than normal COVID

Now, journalistically, you might not think this is that big a deal. This news site is just reporting the news as it happened. First a report came out, and they wrote about it, then they did some follow-up reporting.

But think about this from an audience perspective. Within just a six hour time span, you have told you readers two completely opposite things. Imagine if anyone else in the world did that.

Worse than this is what I call the audience reputation problem. News should not just inform people, but also be so reliable that, as a reader, you can use this to define your own actions and use it in a conversation with your friends.

So imagine you noticed the first story, and then you started telling your friends: "Hey, the B117 is not as bad".

But then six hours later, by reporting the opposite, you made the biggest mistake you can make. You caused your audience to lose face. Now this reader will have to tell their friends: "Oh, BTW, that thing I told you this morning ... well, it wasn't true."

No person in the world wants to be in that situation.

Again, think about this in relation to the tool I gave you. Where is this example? Well, it's here:

But it isn't just about the problems that this is causing. It's also about the day to day feelings that it creates. If a reader turns to the newspaper, and you see, on the same front page, headlines that completely contradict each other ... how valuable would you feel that is?

Of course, I could mention so many other things. So far we have looked only at the newsroom, but we see the same problems with pretty much all the tactics publishers use on a daily basis.

Think about advertising. Every single thing publishers have done over the past 20 years with advertising has very firmly placed them in the 'less valuable' category.

From ads that take over your screen, slow down your page because it's constantly reloading, slideshow pages designed to create more ad views, placing ads in between paragraphs in an article, not to mention the recent annoyances around doing all this in such a way that you have to annoy people with GDPR dialogs that nobody wants to see.

One of the big newspapers I often look at has a system that reloads the entire page on every visit. I don't know why it is doing it, I suspect it has something to do with ad tracking, but if you visit a page, and you start to read it, after about a second, the entire screen blinks as it reloads the entire thing.

It's so annoying, and as a media analyst, I don't understand why such a thing was ever coded this way in the first place.

In the gaming industry, there is actually a word for this. It's called 'immersion'. And great games are those which make you feel immersed in the game, where you feel part of the action, and you even forget that it is a game at all. Bad games are those which 'break the immersion'.

On YouTube, and in the gaming press, you will see people talk about this all the time. And for gaming studios, it's one of the most important things to get right if they hope to sell a lot of games.

It's the same thing for publishing as a whole. We don't use the word immersion when we talk about news. Instead, we talk about value, trust, reliability, facts, etc. But the concept is the same.

Good publishers generally don't use tactics that erode the value we bring. Good publishers don't feel like the news was written for the journalists, they feel like a community. Good publishers value their readers' time, optimize for efficiency and depth rather than clicks.

So remember the tool I gave you above. Try to look at everything you do, map that on the tool, and see where you could improve things.

Your readers will love you for it.

Opting out of Google FLoC

Finally, I want to encourage every single publisher to opt-out of Google Chrome's new ad tracking system. The Guardian and The Markup have already done this, and I have also blocked Google from tracking people when they visit my site.

Again, I wrote an article about the problem with Google's system, but the more you look at it, the worse it is.

Google has basically decided to track every single person, at all times, across all sites by default. This includes sites that have chosen not to include any Google services at all.

For instance, if you have a health company that, for privacy reasons, has decided to create a site with no tracking of any kind, then Chrome will just do this anyway ... by default.

Sure, they don't share your personal information and they block third-party profiling (which is very good), but if you have a health problem, you will now start to see ads based on that (which is very bad).

This is not acceptable behavior. Google doesn't get to just add a layer of tracking to the entire internet. As publishers, we should very firmly say no to this.

There is an article over at that explains this problem well, and another article here that explains what FLoC is, and also explains the code needed to opt-out of this.

What annoys me even more is that Google knows this is a problem. In their documentation, they write this (emphasis mine):

Sensitive Categories: A cohort might reveal sensitive information. As a first mitigation, the browser should remove sensitive categories from its data collection. But this does not mean sensitive information can't be leaked. Some people are sensitive to categories that others are not, and there is no globally accepted notion of sensitive categories.
Cohorts could be evaluated for fairness by measuring and limiting their deviation from population-level demographics with respect to the prevalence of sensitive categories, to prevent their use as proxies for a sensitive category. However, this evaluation would require knowing how many individual people in each cohort were in the sensitive categories, information which could be difficult or intrusive to obtain.
It should be clear that FLoC will never be able to prevent all misuse. There will be categories that are sensitive in contexts that weren't predicted. Beyond FLoC's technical means of preventing abuse, sites that use cohorts will need to ensure that people are treated fairly, just as they must with algorithmic decisions made based on any other data today.

This is the typical Silicon Valley mentality of just "doing it anyway". But remember, they have created this problem by making this an opt-out system. This problem did not exist until Google decided to do this.

So, as publishers, it's now our job to stop this. We need to actively tell Google that this mentality, this approach, and this system is not acceptable. Google doesn't get to play God and impose an advertising tracking system for the entire internet.

As a publisher myself, who has taken steps to respect my readers' privacy, I'm pissed off that Google just decided to overrule that, without first asking me, and asking the readers.

So, I have now taken the step to block this from happening on my site, just like The Markup and the Guardian has done. I made a promise to my readers. I'm not going to allow Google to just overrule that to boost their advertising business.

As one person tweeted:

I was surprised to find that navigating to websites that are devoid of any Google resources (Google Analytics, Publisher Tag, no ads whatsoever) still results in the FLoC cohort ID being updated. For example, visiting the @EFF or @DPCIreland's websites caused my FLoC ID to change

No Google. Just no!

This is an archived version of a Baekdal/Basic newsletter (it's free). It is sent out about once per week and features the latest articles as well as news and trends about the media industry. If you want to get the next one, don't hesitate to add your email to the list.


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Thomas Baekdal

Founder, media analyst, author, and publisher. Follow on Twitter

"Thomas Baekdal is one of Scandinavia's most sought-after experts in the digitization of media companies. He has made ​​himself known for his analysis of how digitization has changed the way we consume media."
Swedish business magazine, Resumé


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