Anyone who’s worked in digital publishing, advertising or retail over the last 20 years knows that consumer behavior is always in a constant state of flux. It seems that every year, there’s a “new normal” to deal with. 

But 2020 has certainly upped the ante. Never before has our society seen such a monumental shift in the way we live and work in such a blindingly short period of time. From remote work and remote learning to the surge in ecommerce and digital at-home services—from streaming media to food delivery—it seems much of the change we’ve seen over the last year is very likely here to stay. 

All of this, set against a backdrop of distrust in the media (especially social), has publishers struggling with how to connect with what McKinsey has dubbed the “Next-Normal Consumer.” It’s no small task, especially as so much in the media landscape is also changing, from the rise of point-of-view journalism to the demise of third-party cookies. 

So how can publishers keep pace to deliver on the new consumer expectations? Here are four key strategies to help navigate the post-consumer (r)evolution.

A data strategy is critical.

Because the traffic from social and search is referral traffic, publishers have been giving up audience data to third parties for years, making them unable to understand their audiences—they’re interests and behaviors. In fact, many of them are anonymous, unknown or “drive-by” users, leaving publishers with no way to re-engage them. 

“Historically, publishers have not built strong data products and ceded much of that ground to ad tech and platforms,” says Pete Spande, publisher and CRO at Insider, Inc. “The changing landscape (both technical and regulatory) provides an opportunity for publishers to regain ground ceded in the past 15 years.” 

Indeed, establishing their own data strategies is critical for publishers to be able to understand their audiences and connect with them in an authentic and relevant, yet automated manner. In fact, a recent report found that establishing first-party data is a top priority for 88% of marketers, so that they “don’t have to infer customer preferences or behavior through secondary behavior but are instead explicitly told, straight from the source. The best zero-party data is when the customers trust the brand and are willing to volunteer their data with the understanding that it will improve their experience,” according to the report. 

And the same is 100% true for publishers: having your own data, gathered through subscribers voluntarily offering their information because they trust you is the holy grail for engagement.


Personalization is essential.

What makes a data strategy so important is that, thanks to the likes of Netflix, Amazon and others, consumers have come to expect a highly tailored experience in every digital interaction. They want customized content and don’t have time or patience for things that don’t fit their interests. 

The same is true for publisher content and advertising. In order to engage audiences, Debra Fleenor, founder and CEO of Adapex says, “Publishers are having to be more cognizant of: where are [audiences] coming from and what am I showing them? … And how do we target the message and match it with what they’re going to see on the site?” 

In truth, audiences don’t have the time or patience for one-size-fits-all content. They want tailored experiences targeted specifically to their needs and interests. “You can’t just have a homepage or a landing page anymore. You’ve got to really personalize the content based on where they’re coming from, including personalizing the ad experience,” Fleenor says.

Emphasize contextual advertising.

With the demise of third-party cookies, publishers and their advertisers are looking for new ways to deliver the personalized experience audiences expect. That’s why developing known audiences is crucial for publishers: they need to establish a logged-in relationship with subscribers in order to understand the unique user identity and therefore meet those expectations. 

“Now it’s about deeper, richer partnerships with advertisers and how we can work together to support the power of their audience, said Karen Eccles, senior director of commercial innovation at The Telegraph. “It’s about moving from third-party to first-party and from anonymous to known audiences,” so publishers and brands can give audiences the content and offers they really want. In order to do so, publishers can use their first-party data to focus on contextual advertising and end their reliance on third-party cookies.

Use email.

Yes, the old standby that everyone thought was dead is having a Renaissance moment. Even before the pandemic struck, email usage was already on the rise, and email engagement is way up as people look to this trusted channel to get the information they need. 

“Our email open rates are climbing, click-throughs are growing,” said Eric Svenson, VP of marketing at Newsy, who admits, “that might be because of this homebody world we’re living in, where people are maybe more likely to be at home in the morning when our newsletter comes out.” But by many accounts, that won’t be changing anytime soon as remote work becomes the new norm.

It’s also a product of trust: as trust in social media continues to decline, consumers are turning to outlets and channels they know and can trust, especially ones that deliver news directly, without passing through the trust minefield of social media.  

Email can also be a critical component in building that all-important first-person data strategy because it allows publishers to definitively identify a specific user and learn their preferences. Unlike cookies and mobile behavior tracking that can be jumbled by device sharing and only provide a generalized “persona,” a logged-in email address is exclusive to that specific user, and with the right technology in place, allows publishers to track that user’s behavior (with their opt-in permission built in) to learn exactly what they like and ultimately deliver more of it. 

Keeping up with audience trends can certainly be an ongoing challenge for publishers, especially as the world we live in seems to change faster every day. But, investing in technology that puts you closer to your audience—like email-based data and relevant, contextual targeting based on known behavior—enables publishers to keep a finger on the pulse of their audiences’ interests in real-time. This way, publishers can dynamically adjust their content and advertising strategy no matter what new trends are on the horizon.

About the Author: Jeff Kupietzky is CEO of Jeeng, a technology company bringing the power of AI and data intelligence to digital publishers in order to driving audience engagement and revenue. Kupietzky has also served in leadership positions with, X1 Technologies, Digital Insight, Siebel Systems and Loudcloud/Opsware.