Publishers have an imperative to set their rivalries aside and work together

Putting our differences aside and banding together for the sake of the greater good is not, as it happens, the theme of the moment in the UK. In the wake of the explosive Brexit news, one thing is clear: the future could prove very different than the vision laid out by either the Leave or Remain camps before the vote was even cast. You’ll be pleased to hear that this is definitely not another opinion piece on Brexit. You’re welcome.

However, in this current state of uncertainty, one thing cannot be ignored – prospects for businesses based in and dealing with the UK will be altered in this shifting political climate. Publishers big and small will be weighing up their own particular economic outlook over the next few weeks and months, as decisions get made and Article 50 does or doesn’t get triggered.

In terms of the current climate, publishers have had an incredibly rough ride in the past few years. We’ve seen various high-profile print publishers fall into financial trouble. Most recently, a number of UK-based publishers have had to chop jobs after suffering revenue loss. In addition to print revenues falling, ad blocking is proving to be the publisher’s nemesis – given it halts the very revenue stream that keeps their online business afloat. Juniper Research has claimed that by 2020, digital publishers will lose $27bn due to ad blocking – money they can ill-afford to be without.

Thankfully, the tech industry is realising the value of saving publishers and shifting its attention to sort out this conundrum. The double hitter of ad blocking affecting publishers and advertisers simultaneously – plus the threat that advertisers will no longer have anywhere to advertise if digital publishers fold – means that the industry is galvanising itself for a fight.

That’s not to say that publishers aren’t putting up a fight of their own. City AM and Axel Springer have recently banned readers who use ad blockers from reading their online content. As an attention-grabbing move, this makes a great headline but I believe stemming the tide of dwindling revenues needs some deeper, more meaningful action. This is where the idea of publishers banding together in co-operatives to pool data and share revenues sounds like the stuff of myth – but is becoming a reality for some of the competitive giants who need to be able to level the playing field against the might of tech companies like Facebook and Google.

Although the revenue sharing element will be beneficial for many, the key value for all members of a co-operative – whether they are big or small publishers – is the evermore refined behavioural insights gained from the combined data pool. When you consider the kinds of understanding publishers gain from their users by looking at how they engage with content elsewhere on the web, the more the data the better. From our own network of publishers, we have found some really interesting – and some counterintuitive – purchase insights. For example, people who look at dating websites often buy cycling equipment, and people who look at luxury products are more likely to register for a credit card or personal loan.

In a move representing solidarity and good business sense, a number of publishers across the world have joined forces to provide a more holistic user-targeting offer to advertisers. This is specifically designed to appeal to those who are keen to engage users on a one-to-one level, across many different media owners’ platforms and devices. The phenomenon has swept the UK, US and now Germany, where publishers Axel Springer, Gruner + Jahr, Bertelsmann Group and Spiegel Verlag have joined forces to sell their combined data to advertisers in a bid to give brands a meaningful alternative to the walled gardens offered by the social networks. The upside from the publishers’ point of view, as ever, is to better understand their own audience by delving into analytics that reflect their behavior across the web and – in a virtuous cycle – be able to create better, more tailored content to that audience.

The next step for publishers is going to be understanding how to simultaneously monetise their readership in a way that is relevant and non-intrusive for readers, and provide measurable results for brand advertisers. Our answer is to bring together publishers to pool the rich data they have on their readers – which is all based on readers’ intent to purchase, pulled from the kinds of products and topics they engage with. This way, we can advise advertisers with certainty that a particular person is in the market for a product at a given moment.

The one-to-one personalisation of these kinds of transactions are what advertisers are clamouring for, and – having recently come back from Cannes – is all I hear about from ad and medialand too. The kind of transparency and accountability that the media industry is up in arms about following the ANA rebate scandal can only be achieved when the data you’re using is known and proven to be valuable. This is where publishers can genuinely provide tangible transparent results for advertisers and agencies, and make a real difference to their business models too.

Banding together is the imperative facing publishers now – otherwise the digital landscape could end up looking as fragmented as our political one.

Alicia Navarro is CEO and co-founder of Skimlinks

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