Can Big Data Make You a Better Publisher?

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Hearst doesn't seem to need any help with The site garners more than 18 million unique visitors a month and is one of the driving reasons that Hearst ranks in the comScore Top 50 Properties (Desktop Only). But until recently, the company didn't know if a Cosmopolitan magazine subscriber visited; now it does, thanks to Big Data.

Creating a "continuous and consistent customer experience across our channels" is a priority for Hearst, says Charlie Swift, VP of strategy and marketing operations at Hearst Magazines. And it wouldn't have been possible without the strategic use of Big Data, which led to the creation of an internal program called Match360. The program allows Hearst to identify a website visitor (via cookies, among other things) even if he hasn't identified himself, as does not require user registration.

"It's not enough to know a lot of information; it's now about how I connect that information and understand your identities, who you are on your mobile devices versus desktop computers versus the direct mail that I send you because customers have the expectation of consistency," Swift says.

"Ten years ago this would have been hard to do. There's a big difference between the 25- and 30-year-old and the one that makes $20,000 and the one that makes $50,000; they still have an interest in Cosmo but their ability to buy a fashion product or a beauty product or whatever still varies significantly, and we need to understand that."

The ability to identify, learn, and track a customer's behavior over time should open up some new opportunities. "Now, it's a question of finding advertising and marketing demand to again find ways to make decisions to help drive business using this capability," Swift says.

Swift was hired 5 years ago to build a centralized database, and that's what jump-started the use of Big Data to "drive all decisions." Previously, Hearst had more of a decentralized, off-the-cuff view of a customer. Now, Hearst can "proactively understand the customer and make decisions in close to real time if [it wants]," Swift says.

This approach has led to a 30% increase in direct mail effectiveness. "We now know that you're not just a man between 25 and 35, but we also know whether you responded to an email," Swift says.


Experts agree that the profusion of data will continue, and they foresee that publishers, even small- to mid-sized ones, will become more adept at acquiring and using Big Data in all aspects of the business. Publishers and readers should benefit.

"For publishers, that's the Holy Grail-your site and your marketing analytics may start to converge and you may be able to personalize your content in the same way that you personalize your advertising," Ross of Metamarkets says. "Those two things are connected, but the systems haven't talked to each other historically."

Ross also sees the role of data analyst becoming even more crucial to a publisher's success. "It's a highly skilled role where you're the priest essentially tasked with translating, interpreting, [and] storytelling massive amounts of data," he says. "We're moving from a model where you have to ask your team a question and wait a day, an hour to get the answer. We believe the paradigms will shift entirely where you will be living in your data all the time and you'll be able to at will explore any part of your business you want to."

McLeod of Krux says smart publishers will soon be taking advantage of the promise of Big Data, even though only a few are doing so today. "It's extending your ability to maximize the content and revenue opportunities on your own site, and, of course, the next extension of that is since you now have that data, you can also follow those people as they go to other sites," he says. "You can extend and add to your inventory or your ability to reach them, both in advertising and brand perspective."

Publishers of all sizes must take advantage of Big Data's capabilities or risk irrelevance. "It's an intensely competitive space, you know?" FT's Grimshaw says. "The decision to go to a different site takes a millisecond to do. Just put another URL in the address bar, and you're gone." Content providers need to reach out and take control of whatever competitive advantage is available to them. 

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