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Northern & Shell: building an audience solution that's data-led and platform-agnostic


By Awards Analyst, writer

September 13, 2017 | 6 min read

Northern & Shell's Audience Platform won the award for Best use of Data for Commercial Gain of the year at The Drum Online Media Awards 2017. It explains the achievements and challenges faced to execute this campaign.

Executive Summary

The newspaper market is in a period of huge transition. Print circulation decline is endemic, putting additional pressure on advertising revenues. But as the market moves rapidly towards digital, publishers have struggled for a model to replace both the lost circulation and print advertising revenues.

Parallel to this is a growing trend for advertisers to be less concerned with platforms and more focused on audiences. Publishers are being challenged not to come up with a print or digital solution, but an audience solution that's data-led and platform-agnostic.


Recognising the need to accelerate our digital offering, we recruited a head of data to lead the project. Technology partners, Lotame and Odin, helped ingest our on- & offline data sources - including website logins, competition entrants, social media followers and even people who'd made a purchase from an in-paper reader offer.

Additionally, we tagged every page in our portfolio with a Natural Language Programming algorithm so we could not only identify the user, but have a contextual understanding of their interests, purchase behaviours and even if they're in market for a particular product. This gave us a crucial USP, heightening the precision and relevance of our targeting capabilities.

With the data in place, we then had to provide the highest possible level of transparency. We secured comScore validation of the data within the platform - a GLOBAL first for a publisher – which demonstrated we were up to 5x more effective at reaching the designated target audience than other means of buying that inventory. We then went a step further by integrating the data into Touchpoints, the industry-standard media planning tool (another industry first), enabling an accurate view of de-duplicated reach across both print and digital platforms.

Finally, unlike other media brands with an audience offering, we didn't tie our inventory to the data; advertisers aren't locked into our ecosystem, they can take the knowledge we have and apply to their campaign wherever they choose. The Audience Platform is platform agnostic.

In the space of 18 months, N&S went from having a limited digital offering to having an audience solution that far exceeded the capability of our competitors.

Northern & Shell Logo


N&S had undergone recent developments to its digital portfolio and the associated commercial model. Print revenues are vital, so there was an understandable fear of cannibalising this crucial revenue stream. We really were building from scratch, which meant further investment in our ad-serving and digital measurement tools alongside development of the platform itself.

We also (and unexpectedly) found ourselves at the forefront of a major shift among the media agency community - many were exploring how to execute on an audience buy, but were traditionally structured based on platform: print teams, digital teams and so on. Since there was no existing blueprint for audience transactions, it meant we had to take a consultative approach, helping each agency find the best solution dependent on their existing structure, buying processes and client base. Waves of feedback came from each meeting, which was then incorporated into the final offering - a truly collaborative approach with our clients.

The scale of the task was enormous. Rigorous de-duplication of the data was crucial to ensure we gave potential advertisers the most accurate possible view of the audiences we accessed.

Finally, we had to ensure our sales team were geared up for the transition from a traditional medium-based approach to a sales strategy based on audience. This meant a full sales team restructure, extensive training, the creation of a new suite of sales collateral and the recruitment of new experts in audience insights, media planning and of course data. We then made sure every relevant conversation included detail of the Audience Platform and undertook a schedule of individual and team meetings and large-scale agency presentations, covering all relevant personnel that would benefit from and would need to know about this new N&S offering.

Developing and delivering the Audience Platform has driven the biggest transformation of commercial strategy and structure in the history of the company.

Northern & Shell Logo


This was a huge leap for N&S, and we have seen spectacular results both in commercial terms and on softer metrics such as industry perceptions of the business.

We are embargoed on specific details, but campaigns run through the platform see higher engagement levels (e.g. dwell time on video formats) and higher CTR's than on non-platform campaigns. Ultimately, we can show that the promise of audience trading - more accurate targeting leading to more effective campaigns - is now a reality.

Away from the 'hard measures' there’s also been significant impact on softer metrics.

Perceptions of N&S in the industry have changed radically. Previously viewed as a traditional newspaper business, the advancements we have made in data - allied to a changing commercial strategy and structure - have made our clients take notice and resulted in more briefs and greater market-wide positivity to our brands.

As we rolled out early iterations of the platform, we received feedback from key partners on the importance of issues such as data transparency and independent verification. We reacted accordingly, which led to our partnership with comScore (who validated the accuracy of the data in our platform against their own panel) and Telmar (who helped us knit together over 5,000 separate data points to combine our data with Touchpoints). We believe we have raised the bar for audience trading by taking on these challenges and effectively creating a 'best practise' model for the rest of the industry to follow.

Finally - we have a greater understanding of our audience than ever before, and we're applying these learnings to every area of our business. Increasingly, we are even able to share our findings with the editorial team, helping them understand relationships between content topics and how users travel between them. This, in turn, is helping them make editorial decisions, grow traffic and retain users for longer on each visit.

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Northern & Shell

Northern & Shell is a British publishing group, launched and founded in December 1974 and currently owned by Richard Desmond. Its publications include the Daily...

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