Mark Zohar

Mark Zohar

News & Tech had a chat with Mark Zohar, president and COO at audience engagement platform ViaFoura, on publishers building that first-party data in the new landscape.

He sees opportunities in the need for publishers to claim back advertising from third-party programmatic and to claim back audience from social.

The Toronto-based company counts Tribune Publishing, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Reach (U.K.) and the Las Vegas Review-Journal as clients. The company announced a partnership with Local Media Consortium last year. 

Intercap Equity is ViaFoura’s main shareholder.

Among ViaFoura’s offerings are commenting (what the company calls conversations), live chat and AMAs (ask-me-anythings), live blogs for publishing content around live news, cultural or sports events, personalized content recommendations and a “ton of data” to understand audience interests and affinities. “Our main value points are to drive the conversion of unknown to known users,” says Zohar.

News & Tech: Google is eliminating third-party cookies. What’s next for publishers on that front in your view?

Zohar: Not only is Google eliminating third-party cookies as they stand today, but they've also come out very clearly that their alternative to third-party cookies beginning sometime in 2022 is going to be focused on what they call interest-based cohort advertising and not on individual identifiers, like email addresses or other types of personally identifiable information or PII. And that’s a really critical point for the industry, and what that means for publishers is actually in the mid- to long-term I think extremely positive. Google’s approach to this in their environment in Google Chrome, which obviously is the web’s dominant browser, is going to focus on advertising to cohorts of users online who share similar interests rather than being able to identify individual users within that cohort. For publishers what this means is twofold. One is that first-party data, the data you have around a known audience, becomes much more valuable, because if you know your audience, if you have a registered state for them, you have their information, you can understand what they want, what they buy and how they engage on your site, you can start developing as a publisher an interest graph around them.

As publishers have a more direct relationship with their audience and generate first-party data, and through that generate interest graphs around their users, that’s going to be very, very valuable for advertisers.

Advertisers are going to now look to work with publishers who have that first-party data set and interest-party data set. In many ways it swings the leverage back to publishers, which they haven’t had for decades. For decades, publishers have basically been a vehicle for programmatic advertising. They basically opened up their markets for third-party advertisers to programmatically deliver ads based on third-party cookies. It’s a very transactional model. Now they have the leverage in terms of their intellectual property.

News & Tech: What actions do you think publishers should take? We’re talking primarily newspapers, but also magazines and digital publishers.

Zohar: They need to take a number of actions if they’re not already doing so. We work with many who are just starting on this journey and some who are further along. First and foremost, we talk about having a direct relationship with your audience. You have to be able to provide value for the audience to spend time on your site if you’re a news publisher or magazine publisher, but more importantly, to be able to turn an unknown audience member to a known state, meaning increase the registration conversion rate on your site.

And that's easier said than done. A lot of news publishers have tried to do things like paywalls and newsletters to convert users into registered state. Those work moderately well, I would say. It's still very kind of transactional.

I think what they need to do is be much more strategic around how they generate and develop that first-party data set.

One of the things that we help publishers with is to create what we call value exchange moments. In order for me to give up my information to a publisher, my email address, my name, any other information, I need to get value from that exchange. That may be, for example, register for a live chat with an expert or a celebrity that’s hosted on the publisher site, register to leave my opinion or comments on an article or register to be able to follow specific topics for personalized content recommendations.

All of these things we help publishers do, but fundamentally they have to focus on building a first-party data strategy that creates these value exchange moments to learn more about their audience, turn them into a known, logged-in state and then through that develop as much information about them in terms of their interests, their behaviors, affinities and so on.

News & Tech: Have a lot of people have been contacting you and what have they been saying about all this?

Zohar: It’s interesting. This is maybe a once-in-a-generation defining moment for the industry at large. What we’ve seen is an interesting shift. While traditionally prospects would come to us really focusing on user engagement, audience engagement, building that community and they still do, we’re seeing more and more prospects and even existing customers come to us with “we need to build out a first-party data strategy and we think the only way to do it at scale is to add engagement and community building to our site.” What this has done is flipped the impetus for the industry of why they’re looking at us, primarily around building first-party data strategy. On our end, what we’ve done is really invested in our data science capabilities to be able to not only help our customers create first-party data, but feed back those insights to our customers through our dynamic user profiles.

To give you an example, someone registers on the Philly Inquirer, one of our customers. We over time start to understand who they are, what they do. We can look into the comments and conversations they leave behind to pull out key topics and interests they have. We’re building this user profile of that user. If the user leaves a comment on an article about the future of cars, saying “I love my Tesla. I believe electric vehicles are the best thing ever,” we assign the topic electric vehicles and the entity or the brand Tesla to their user profile. As that builds up, the publisher can use that information for marketing purposes, activation or presenting that user inside of a cohort, or assign that user to a cohort of electric vehicles, cars and Tesla for marketing purposes. We’re really investing in building these comprehensive dynamic, interest-based user profiles.