What came first, the data or the publisher? How could a person publish without having at least some idea who was going to read or see it? Whatever the case, publishers published and the data started to roll in. In the last few years, the data drip has become a veritable tsunami, threatening to capsize publishers that can't ride the wave.
Big Data is all about a relatively simple idea--an idea with profound impacts for publishers: "Big Data is the ability to customize and personalize a user experience based on what you know about that user," says Gordon McLeod, president of Krux, producers of a data management platform that can help businesses collect, analyze, and make Big Data actionable. "So there are many other ways to use it beyond the core advertising technology. It's all the same data. It's what you know about your users and about people like them and taking action against it in real time."
While Big Data started with advertising technology, its use has spread to other areas of publishing such as a viral video of a cute kitten.
SELLING ADS IN (ALMOST) REAL TIME
Managing its online advertising inventory used to be a time-intensive headache for the Financial Times (FT). Time zone differences, disparate spreadsheets, and even handwritten notes caused an up to 2-business-day delay for the ad operations team to give the sales team accurate figures. Post-Big Data, the sales team can access that information in about 8 seconds. In addition to streamlining a cumbersome process, it allows almost real-time visibility into the site and advertising data while allowing the Financial Times to actually raise ad rates while its competitors are lowering theirs.
"The Financial Times can charge more because they have total visibility into all parts of their inventory to recognize where there's real value and price their inventory accordingly," says Jacob Ross, chief revenue officer of Metamarkets, the analytics company that crafted the inventory solution. "Send them real-time data, ingest it, and join it with all other sorts of data. That's the real key. Say, ‘OK, give us your ad service data, your audience data, and we'll show you at the click of a button how many financial professionals you have on your site today, how many have been sold already, and how many have yet to be sold.'"
And the ad space is selling well, according to Rob Grimshaw, managing director at FT.com. "We're not shy of putting an appropriate price tag on that," he says. "And you know what? Advertisers are happy to pay because they know that their campaign is getting right to the exact audience that they want it to reach."
The "total visibility" happened when Metamarkets installed its analytics platform, taking pricing information, inventory, demographics, and behavior data and placing it on one screen. Ads are now bought in real time; Metamarkets' solution enabled the FT to match the speed of the ad markets, where ads are sold in real time.
Metamarkets works with publishers, yet its sweet spot is the comScore Top 50 Properties (Desktop Only); Twitter is a client. There's hope for publishers who would like access to real-time data but can't afford it.
"This [real-time buying and selling] is the way of future, like the way publishers used DoubleClick 10 years ago," Ross says. "Smaller publishers really need to focus on building their niche audiences and communities and creating really compelling content, and [they] may find that it makes more sense to partner with someone who can help them monetize in the right way or package their inventory up with a collection of high quality sites."
He continues, "That might be a strategy for some folks. We all have to ask ourselves as the industry matures, ‘What business do we want to be in; what are we really trying to focus on versus spreading ourselves too thin?'"
BIG DATA SPURS INNOVATION
The successful application of Big Data is just another challenge at the Financial Times. The newspaper's tackling Big Data with the entrepreneurial zeal that it did when it eschewed the fees of placing an app in the Apple App Store and launched its own HTML5 app.
While Big Data has touched every aspect of the FT's operations, its effects are perhaps most felt in advertising. FT's innovative use of Big Data to develop an intimate knowledge of its website visitors allows the newspaper to present potential advertisers with a compelling value proposition.
"It's all about creating scarcity in a market where there famously is none," Grimshaw says. "I mean, the world is awash with potential advertising inventories with almost an unimaginable amount of space available to advertisers now online, but what we have been able to do with our model is actually to create targeting segments which you can't find anywhere else."
Content creation isn't immune to the effects of Big Data. It informs editorial decisions but is only one of the factors in the what-should-we-publish-today process. "You don't want to become an echo chamber, and we're very conscious of that," Grimshaw says. "If data is input into our editorial decision making, and if you've got the information, then you'd be crazy not to look at it. But our understanding of our editorial mission is the same as it ever was. Sometimes, we will put stories at the top of the homepage which are not drawing a lot of traffic, but we'll put them there because they are the most important stories, and if people aren't reading them, they really should be." The editorial staff is gradually becoming more comfortable with the idea that input from Big Data will play a role in their decision-making process, Grimshaw says.
Big Data's long tentacles also reach into the design of the FT's website. "We use data to help us optimize the experience for readers on the site, and that can be about buying a new subscription, but it also can be about the design of a page," Grimshaw says. "We have various tools which allow us to show new page designs to a segment of the audience to figure out how they interact with it, and then the data that streams back on these processes helps us to improve the design and get it right."
The Financial Times has more digital than print subscribers, a milestone the newspaper hit in 2012, and now has 150,000 more digital than print subscribers. FT has achieved this by knowing what website visitors are most likely to become subscribers and targeting them.
"We have, from the data, a very good idea of which people are more likely to subscribe and which people are less likely to subscribe," Grimshaw says. "The data helps us to target our campaigns at the right part for the audience, and that's the dynamic process which is going on every single day."
Big Data acted as the canary in the coal mine for the FT, as it showed that its audience, especially subscribers, was moving much more rapidly into mobile than the newspaper envisioned. This rapid move to mobile (almost 50% of traffic now comes from smartphones and tablets) has had profound effects on the organization.
"It's absolutely core to what we're doing, and we have to, in fact, be a mobile first organization from now on whenever we're thinking about designing a new feature or a section of the site, whatever, you start with the mobile, and you work back to desktop," Grimshaw says. "That's how it is now."