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What Brands Can Learn From Journalism in the Age of Data Privacy

Post-cookies, serviceable content is more critical than paid advertising

Manisha Mirchandani is a research director at Bloomberg Cities. She formerly advised clients at the Economist Intelligence Unit and is a Long Dash alum.

The publishing industry was upended by the advent of digital advertising in the 2000s.  But as we enter a new era of data privacy and another reconfiguration of the advertising landscape, the tables are turning. It is now advertisers who can learn from resilient media brands to maintain their relevance by fostering deeper relationships with their audience.

Privacy first is coming  

Consumer data privacy, or lack of it, is part of the broader conversation about the unintended consequences of technology in our lives. As historian Yuval Noah Harari put it, people have been willing to give away their most valuable asset—personal data—in exchange for free email services and funny cat videos. In large part, this has been enabled by the proliferation of third-party cookies on the internet, from which brands have been able to target and retarget consumers based on their online behaviors.  

But this is changing, as consumers are realising the extent to which their data is monetised —some 41 percent of Americans reportedly used an ad blocker in 2020. Google’s pledge to disable third-party cookies by 2023 signals a seachange to the business model for digital advertising and publishing. 

Reimagining a cookie-free world 

What will a world without cookies actually look like? As this all shakes out, brands will need to reevaluate the way they collect and use personal information about their audiences.  

This comes at a time when there are growing signs of consumers being willing to enter into a new type of relationship with brands. Recent research says that 46 percent of U.S. consumers would share personal data directly to a brand in return for some form of value. This suggests that providing value to consumers through marketing efforts will not only prepare brands to be privacy forward, but allow them to forge more meaningful and enduring connections with their audiences too.  

Journalism offers three lessons as audiences seek to exchange value 

Brands have something to learn from the world’s major publishing companies. Those that have weathered the disruption brought about by digitization have done so by building up loyal core audiences. 

Public trust in the media may be declining, but a rise in paying subscribers during the COVID-19 pandemic shows that people’s trust in their media outlets of choice is still strong. Long-time readers of esteemed publications behave in ways that other brands can only dream of. Readers return to the website or other touchpoints regularly, sometimes multiple times a day. They are willing to exchange their contact information, complete reader surveys, and allow for the tracking of their behavior through engagement metrics. Loyal readers are also the most vociferous advocates, sharing and promoting content from the brand to encourage traffic and drive broader uptake. 

As brands feel new urgency to build direct relationships and consumer trust, what can they learn from these media organizations? By thinking deeply about what matters to audiences and serving value at every touch point, the world’s iconic publishing brands have built audiences that are willing to share their data and return to experience the brand time and time again in exchange for value.

1. Talk about what matters 

The reality is that most audiences—especially those unfamiliar with your brand— are unlikely to care much about what your organization is doing. To engage these audiences, brands must challenge themselves to understand what really matters to their target base—something that journalists are experts in. Top publishers do many things to keep loyal readers engaged. They illuminate important issues, challenge ideas, and give voice to important perspectives. The Atlantic’s strategy during the COVID-19 crisis is instructive here. The magazine put its coronavirus coverage in front of their paywall, and made sure to consistently serve value to audiences in one of three ways— offering original perspectives or guidance, bringing credible expertise to audiences, and acknowledging their hopes and fears. They were rewarded by a record boost in web traffic and earned 300,000 new paying subscribers in 2020.

Even without a team of journalists, there are strategic and measurable approaches for brands to engage audiences in similar ways. It is not about competing with the content from leading journalism brands, but about finding editorial opportunities and platforms that your audiences actively seek out. Companies are exploring this already— one example is Robinhood’s “Snacks” podcast, which offers retail investors daily financial news in digestible bites. Bumble has launched a magazine for its 42 million users, hoping to position itself not just as a dating app, but as a lifestyle brand that supports women across their dating, business, and social lives. As a complement to brand marketing, editorial opportunities help brands give audiences something to think and talk about, and creates sticky touch points to which they return consistently for valuable content.  

2. Go deeper to shape the conversation 

Too often, brands are reactive to conversations in the zeitgeist. This results in a sea of sameness, as companies quickly start to sound alike around the issues of the day. For example, while the notion that workplace diversity contributes to innovation is important, this has become a trope in Silicon Valley when you examine the corporate brand and recruiting pages of many of the major tech players. 

But like the journalism leaders of the day, brands can consider shaping the conversation instead. This is not necessarily about breaking news, or diving deep into a societal issue, but applying investigative rigor to an issue or topic that is connected to the brand. Then coming up with a new take on the issue that challenges conventional wisdom or may not have surfaced before. 

The most successful thought leaders in industry have deployed this to great effect in service of their brands. Mastercard has taken the issue of financial inclusion, and driven the conversation on it through their thought leadership and philanthropic hub. Their editorial content on inclusive growth has allowed the brand to position itself at the forefront of an issue that ultimately ties back to business goals of facilitating global payments among consumers, business, financial institutions, and the public sector. By delivering new value—in the form of original data, research, and insights on financial inclusion—the company keeps important stakeholders coming back to the brand again and again. 

This doesn’t have to be a big lift, but by applying a strategic editorial lens to content marketing there may be moments where shaping, rather than reacting, to the conversation will ultimately pay off for the brand story.  

3. Solve problems to secure loyalty 

The top journalism brands realize the importance of fitting into their audience’s lives, helping them to solve their problems, and achieving an intimate and habitual connection. Media companies today think hard about how and where to insert themselves into the day-to-day lives of readers and how to meet their needs. A prime example is the New York Times, which has successfully expanded its lifestyle offering to answer the daily problems that readers have (such as what to cook for dinner) through its subscriber-only NYT Cooking App and content. 

Companies can help audiences solve problems through the content they provide in a similar way. One example is Microsoft, which has developed a storytelling operation that generates content with the purpose of solving problems for prospects and customers. It provides practical resources for business managers and leaders, such as its Autism @ Work playbook.  

With these three imperatives in mind, marketers can learn from publishers to think about audience engagement in a cookie-free age—not just in terms of promoting a product, service, or agenda—but to facilitate the exchange of value between the brand and consumer with every interaction.  

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