Jessica Goodfellow
May 22, 2020

Time is ripe for publisher consortium in Asia, says SCMP

The publisher's VP of digital believes a joint online currency would be "compelling" alternative to walled gardens, and would address key issues facing the media industry.

Time is ripe for publisher consortium in Asia, says SCMP

As existing audience profiling and tracking techniques are overturned by the looming end of the third-party cookie and tightening privacy regulations in Asia-Pacific, one of the region's biggest media outlets believes now more than ever publishers need to collaborate on an audience data solution.

Publishers typically use third-party cookies to measure loyalty and reading behaviours, build profiles on their readers, and target users. Advertisers use third-party cookies for cross-domain tracking, and they are important in measuring frequency capping and multi-touch attribution. 

The South China Morning Post is already well-advanced in considering how it can continue to gather insights on its readers—for its own use and for its advertising partners—without requiring third-party cookies or data. The publisher has been developing its approach to identity management for the last 12 months, and currently, 75% of its monthly active users (MAU) have an ID with data that it can use across its business. But it is natural to expect a publisher owned by Asia's biggest company, Alibaba Group, to have the digital skills and financial backing required to facilitate this.

Not all publishers are so far along. In fact, many are faced with unstructured data managed by different departments and gathered in different formats. The marketing department might have the name and email of one prospect, and sales might have a different email and a phone number of the same person. Without a centralised data repository that cleans and pulls all this data together, a digital ID is not an option.

"Publishers know they need to do something about this, but don't necessarily know how to start and what success looks like," explained Ian Hocking, the vice president of digital at South China Morning Post. "One of the key things that we always think about is what we want to achieve, because there's so many things that you can do with structured data—whether it's insight activation, optimisation, or user funnel science. And that changes depending on whether you are using it on-platform or for audience growth or marketing usage off-platform."

Then there's the challenge of a digital ID on one platform not being comparable to another. If every publisher and brand develops its own ID solution, the industry is back to square one: trying to figure out how to compare data from one page to the next and track how users are moving around.

Unified digital ID initiatives which bring together various partners—such as the IAB Tech Lab's DigiTrust ID, the Advertising ID Consortium and The Trade Desk’s Unified Open ID—address this challenge. But these are limited to specific geographies, and are yet to gain widespread adoption.

"At this time there seems to be no legitimate option in Asia," Hocking said. Without a scaled data offering for marketers in APAC, marketers may be more likely to turn to Facebook and Google for ad targeting. 

Which is why Hocking believes this is a prime opportunity for publishers in the region to come together and create a scaled ID solution, through either a single sign-on partnership or a full consortium like those seen in Europe and the US.

"I think that a single sign-on with premium content producers leveraging their first-party data at scale would be extremely compelling," he said.

He believes SCMP is "uniquely placed to drive this in Asia" since it has regional scale, strong relationships with other publishers, and takes a leading role with industry bodies like WAN-IFRA and the IAB. The joint solution would only need the top two or three publishers in any country to match the scale of a walled garden, he believes.

Bringing rival publishers together is not without its challenges, Hocking admits. There have been several failed attempts at launching joint sales houses in the past, for example, as rivarly overshadowed the need to come together.

But the media industry is facing unprecedented challenges, which Hocking believes will "galvanise" collaboration.

"There's a lot happening in the industry right now: we have much tighter privacy regulation, we have more trade bodies and browsers getting involved with how we can transact data, and obviously, COVID-19 is hitting publishers really hard," he said. "In moments of adversity you galvanise together, and you can do things that might have otherwise seem difficult to accomplish because there's overwhelming requirements to find a solution."

Beyond data, he said SCMP has been "accelerating" its plans for revenue diversification during this period, "because we've found that being overly reliant on one or two forms of revenue can make you vulnerable".

What publishers need to do to get their data ready

Publishers are in a strong position to prosper in the post-cookie world since they hold a direct relationship with the user. They can build data profiles on readers through mandatory sign-ins, or tools like comments, polls, surveys and quizzes. But, as previously noted, they need to invest in centralising and managing their data in order to extract value from it.

Hocking, who was formerly the head of programmatic at News UK, said structuring and managing internal data is a "big time commitment", and it is therefore important for publishers to get widespread buy-in for projects of this scale "from the CEO down".

"The biggest thing is getting the time and dedication from the business to meet frequently and develop the offering, because it is a challenging pursuit," he said. "We now have two weekly cross-departmental meetings (one internal and one external) with about 14 people attending, plus all the additional workstreams for the applicational side of our projects. It's a huge time commitment, and if you don't have the business with you then you're in a difficult position to start off with."

Once the business commitment is secured, publishers then need to choose a platform to pull the data together and make sense of it. SCMP opted for CDP 1PlusX, a hybrid of a data management platform (DMP) and customer data platform (CDP). This allows it to ingest data from many different data sources, match multiple IDs (including first-party cookies) to create a unified user profile, and apply machine learning to build scale.

"Whoever you choose, you need a partner that understands what you want to achieve and that you get on with, because you’ll be speaking…a lot," Hocking advised.

He also advised publishers to stop using third-party data because "it’s often a crutch that hides many sins".

"When you get away [from third-party data] you realise how vulnerable you are and how much you need to build," he said.


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