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Don’t Limit Audience Data to a Legal Concern

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Don’t Limit Audience Data to a Legal Concern

Sound the alarm a little.

Marketers at product and services companies fail with first-party data, yet it could be their biggest contributor to growth in the coming year.

Do you know who doesn’t fail at first-party data? Media companies. But I’ll come back to that.

It’s coming on five years since the EU’s GDPR privacy legislation put the proverbial content, marketing, and first-party data soup on the heated stove. Next month is the third anniversary of Google announcing, and subsequently punting many times, the death of the third-party cookie. (It’s currently set to die in 2024.)

First-party data could be the biggest contributor to growth in 2023 if marketers do it right, says @Robert_Rose via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

But let’s be honest – few know what either means.

Oh, you know these challenges have something to do with privacy, personally identifiable information (PII), and how businesses use that data to optimize their marketing.

But what is anyone doing about it? In 2018 and 2019, most marketing organizations – thinking they should do at least something about visitor data – leaned on their legal and technology teams to help deal with privacy compliance. The conversation went something like this:

Marketing: Help. We need to comply with first-party data acquisition and cookie notices.

Legal: OK, can you identify all the places where we store customer data?

Marketing: Are you kidding me? We don’t even have logins for most of those systems.

Legal: Uh, OK. What about all the cookies we set for tracking and analytics?

Marketing: Hey, tech team, what’s up with all that?

Tech: Theoretically, we could tell you. But that will take A LOT of time.

Legal: Great, here’s what we’ll do. We’ll create a big legal pop-up that says we track you. It also will say that by using any of our sites, the visitor agrees to be tracked, that we may or may not give this data to other people, and that if they want a copy of their data, they have to stuff a physical letter typed on pink notecards into some post office box or something.

Marketing: What happens if they don’t accept? Can we NOT track them?

Tech: Theoretically, we could do that … But that will take A LOT of time.

Legal: Don’t worry; we’ll word it so that it doesn’t matter what they do; we’re covered legally.

And that conclusion is where marketers still stand in 2023. Now, to be clear, I’m not smart enough to know what constitutes legal “consent” and whether you really need it. Nor can I advise whether that should be a pop-up window or a thin banner at the bottom, or even if you should have one (though I have strong opinions about all of them).

Most pop-ups are nonsense. They literally load the page and set (usually) multiple cookies on the user’s browser, and then present the visitor with their “consent form.” In other words, you probably ran afoul of your policy before asking for consent.

But that’s only a small piece of a first-party data approach.

Stuck in data status quo

Despite the volume of digital ink spilled in the name of data acquisition, marketers mostly operate as they have for the last decade. First-party data – the data given directly by audiences – sits siloed in different systems like marketing automation, CRM, and custom databases. Separate teams manage it.

Marketers still acquire second-party data – data obtained from partnerships, such as events and webinars. Sure, they signed the I-promise-we-won’t-add-this-to-our-database agreement, but they did it with a wink and a nod. Then, they added the data tagged as “leads” to their email marketing database (which often also has first-party data). And marketers still purchase data streams from third-party providers to “triangulate” or enhance the data they have.

Now, if all that sounds relatively complex, it’s because it is. It’s not that marketers don’t know how to improvise in a clever way. Quite the opposite. Because you have goals to meet, content to target, and leads to generate, you’ve literally become the professor from the 1960s sitcom Gilligan’s Island. You’ve built electric generators, sewing machines, and even lie detectors with coconuts and twine. But, somehow, you’ve not thought about building a boat.

You’re still stranded on the island.

Some perceive all the increases in privacy innovation, legislation, and policy make it harder for marketers to do their job. The narrative says these things are designed to protect the public’s safety because businesses can’t be trusted to do it.

But that’s not necessarily true. None of the fundamental activities I mentioned – storing and using first-party data, leveraging second-party data, and even triangulating third-party data – are inherently evil.

In fact, leaning into first-party data acquisition should be a defining, differentiating marketing approach in 2023. It isn’t a conflict. Just take a lesson, once again, from media companies. They have a different approach to data acquisition.

Media companies provide a path forward

The first-party data challenge placed existential pressure on digital media companies in the last few years. Many stepped up to the challenge. They invested in the people, processes, and technologies to get a better handle on audience-centric services built from the acquired data:

  • Vox Media developed a centralized view of its audiences across its publications, including New York Magazine, Vulture, The Strategist, and Grub Street. Reports say the company recently expanded its use of first-party data to drive personalized experiences and provide a unified experience across its newsletters, websites, and social media profiles.
  • The New York Times developed a first-party data analytics solution to serve better advertising without using third-party data or cookies. It helps them support audience targeting and inform the content and ads served across websites and mobile apps.
  • Trusted Media Brands, the publisher of Reader’s Digest and smaller publications, built first-party data tools for cohort analysis. The valuable insight into their audience led the media company to double its average ad deal size.

It’s time for you, as marketers, to step up. Strategic management of first-party data is a content, design, and marketing challenge. It is not a legal or technological challenge. Media companies see how they use first-party data as a business investment, not just a way to comply with a law or become more efficient.

In 2023, you can tackle this challenge head-on, and it may provide the leverage for growth in a year where uncertainty abounds.

It’s about trust

Taking a different and thoughtful approach to first-party data acquisition should top your data concerns. I’ll leave with these random ideas on how to do that:

Connect subscription experiences

If a visitor has to sign up for your blog, then sign up for your email newsletter, then register for your resource center, and then give their email address again to download a second white paper from your resource center, you have a data project to tackle.

Imagine the more powerful insight you could draw if a central dashboard lets you see your audiences tagged with relevant attributes, such as “subscriber,” “lead,” “webinar attendee,” and “customer.”

Ask what you really want to know

Too often, marketers default to “identity” when gating a blog, learning library, or some other content. You point every single audience member to the same registration page and ask for their name, email, address, etc.

What if you asked what you really wanted to know? In other words, you weren’t going to treat someone accessing that visionary white paper as a lead. So, why not ask, “Why do you want this white paper?” in the registration form. Their answers will provide more valuable insight than their email address ever could.

Reflect on why – not how – your audience gives their data

Some people claim “zero-party data” is the new gold standard – data shared intentionally by the consumer. But zero-party data isn’t a thing. It’s just first-party data given with a different motivation. Media companies continue to thrive because their business is built upon audiences providing data willingly and trustingly, with the expectation that, in return, they get a valuable experience.

If your continued expectation is to ask for data with the implied expectation that any data given will be used to “sell,” don’t be surprised when the data is inaccurate. Count the number of [email protected] in your database to get an idea of just how prevalent that is.

Only one thing is worse than getting no data – getting inaccurate data.

One thing worse than getting no data from your audience – is getting inaccurate data from them, says @Robert_Rose via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

Stop waiting on the data bench

Most marketers sit on the sidelines as media companies evolve and lament the difficulty of placing paid media bets that work. You continue to rent the markets of others and use third parties to measure yourselves by how successful you make them.

Media companies quickly figured out that content-as-product output can be an extraordinary marketing vehicle to help them become product companies. Some product-forward-leaning companies, like Amazon, Microsoft, Apple, Nike, and others, made this same discovery.

As my good friend and CMI founder Joe Pulizzi says: “Today, the media business model and the product business model are exactly the same.” I would change that only slightly. Neither media nor product companies are in the media business. We’re all in the audience business, and first-party data acts as the engine that powers it.

We are all in the audience business, and first-party data is an engine that enables it, says @Robert_Rose via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

It’s your story. Tell it well.

Get Robert’s take on content marketing industry news in just five minutes:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=videoseries

Watch previous episodes or read the lightly edited transcripts.

Subscribe to workday or weekly CMI emails to get Rose-Colored Glasses in your inbox each week. 

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute



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Marketing Team Reorgs: Why So Many and How To Survive

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Marketing Team Reorgs: Why So Many and How To Survive

How long has it been since your marketing team got restructured? 

Wearing our magic mind-reading hat, we’d guess it was within the last two years. 

Impressed by the guess? Don’t be.  

Research from Marketing Week’s 2024 Career and Salary Survey finds that almost half of marketing teams restructured in the last 12 months. (And the other half probably did it the previous year.) 

Why do marketing teams restructure so often? Is this a new thing? Is it just something that comes with marketing? What does it all mean for now and the future? 

CMI chief strategy advisor Robert Rose offers his take in this video and the summary below. 

Marketing means frequent change 

Marketing Week’s 2024 Career and Salary Survey finds 46.5% of marketing teams restructured in the last year — a 5-percentage point increase over 2023 when 41.4% of teams changed their structure. 

But that’s markedly less than the 56.5% of marketing teams that restructured in 2022, which most likely reflected the impact of remote work, the fallout of the pandemic, and other digital marketing trends. 

Maybe the real story isn’t, “Holy smokes, 46% of businesses restructured their marketing last year.” The real story may be, “Holy smokes, only 46% of businesses restructured their marketing.” 

Put simply, marketing teams are now in the business of changing frequently. 

It raises two questions.  

First, why does marketing experience this change? You don’t see this happening in other parts of the business. Accounting teams rarely get restructured (usually only if something dramatic happens in the organization). The same goes for legal or operations. Does marketing change too frequently? Or do other functions in business not change enough? 

Second, you may ask, “Wait a minute, we haven’t reorganized our marketing teams in some time. Are we behind? Are we missing out? What are they organizing into? Or you may fall at the other end of the spectrum and ask, “Are we changing too fast? Do companies that don’t change so often do better? 

OK, that’s more than one question, but the second question boils down to this: Should you restructure your marketing organization? 

Reorganizing marketing 

Centralization emerged as the theme coming out of the pandemic. Gartner reports (registration required) a distinct move to a fully centralized model for marketing over the last few years: “(R)esponsibilities across the marketing organization have shifted. Marketing’s sole responsibilities for marketing operations, marketing strategy, and marketing-led innovation have increased.”  

According to a Gartner study, marketing assuming sole responsibility for marketing operations, marketing innovation, brand management, and digital rose by double-digit percentage points in 2022 compared to the previous year.  

What does all that mean for today in plainer language? 

Because teams are siloed, it’s increasingly tougher to create a collaborative environment. And marketing and content creation processes are complex (there are lots of people doing more small parts to creative, content, channel management, and measurement). So it’s a lot harder these days to get stuff done if you’re not working as one big, joined-up team. 

Honestly, it comes down to this question: How do you better communicate and coordinate your content? That’s innovation in modern marketing — an idea and content factory operating in a coordinated, consistent, and collaborative way. 

Let me give you an example. All 25 companies we worked with last year experienced restructuring fatigue. They were not eager creative, operations, analytics, media, and digital tech teams champing at the bit for more new roles, responsibilities, and operational changes. They were still trying to settle into the last restructuring.  

What worked was fine-tuning a mostly centralized model into a fully centralized operational model. It wasn’t a full restructuring, just a nudge to keep going. 

In most of those situations, the Gartner data rang true. Marketing has shifted to get a tighter and closer set of disparate teams working together to collaborate, produce, and measure more efficiently and effectively.  

As Gartner said in true Gartner-speak fashion: “Marginal losses of sole responsibility (in favor of shared and collaborative) were also reported across capabilities essential for digitally oriented growth, including digital media, digital commerce, and CX.” 

Companies gave up the idea of marketing owning one part of the customer experience, content type, or channel. Instead, they moved into more collaborative sharing of the customer experience, content type, or channel.  

Rethinking the marketing reorg 

This evolution can be productive. 

Almost 10 years ago, Carla Johnson and I wrote about this in our book Experiences: The 7th Era of Marketing. We talked about the idea of building to change: 

“Tomorrow’s marketing and communications teams succeed by learning to adapt — and by deploying systems of engagement that facilitate adaptation. By constantly building to change, the marketing department builds to succeed.” 

We surmised the marketing team of the future wouldn’t be asking what it was changing into but why it was changing. Marketing today is at the tipping point of that. 

The fact that half of all marketing teams restructure and change every two years might not be a reaction to shifting markets. It may just be how you should think of marketingas something fluid that you build and change into whatever it needs to be tomorrow, not something you must tear down and restructure every few years.  

The strength in that view comes not in knowing you need to change or what you will change into. The strength comes from the ability and capacity to do whatever marketing should. 

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute 

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Boost Your Traffic in Google Discover

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Boost Your Traffic in Google Discover

2. Understand topical authority: Keywords vs. entities

Google has been talking about topical authority for a long time, and in Discover, it is completely relevant. Traditional SEO includes the use of keywords to position your web pages for a specific search, but the content strategy in Discover should be based on entities, i.e., concepts, characters, places, topics… everything that a Knowledge Panel can have. It is necessary to know in which topics Google considers we have more authority and relevance in order to talk about them.

3. Avoid clickbait in titles

“Use page titles that capture the essence of the content, but in a non-clickbait fashion.” This is the opening sentence that describes how headlines should be in Google’s documentation. I always say that it is not about using clickbait but a bit of creativity from the journalist. Generating a good H1 is also part of the job of content creation.

Google also adds:

“Avoid tactics to artificially inflate engagement by using misleading or exaggerated details in preview content (title, snippets, or images) to increase appeal, or by withholding crucial information required to understand what the content is about.”

“Avoid tactics that manipulate appeal by catering to morbid curiosity, titillation, or outrage.

Provide content that’s timely for current interests, tells a story well, or provides unique insights.”

Do you think this information fits with what you see every day on Google Discover? I would reckon there were many sites that did not comply with this and received a lot of traffic from Discover.

With the last core updates in 2023, Google was extremely hard on news sites and some niches with content focused on Discover, directly affecting E-E-A-T. The impact was so severe that many publishers shared drastic drops in Search Console with expert Lily Ray, who wrote an article with data from more than 150 publishers.

4. Images are important

They say that a picture is worth a thousand words. If you look at your Discover feed, you’ll see most of the images catch your attention. They are detailed shots of delicious food, close-ups of a person’s face showing emotions, or even images where the character in question does not appear, such as “the new manicure that will be a trend in 2024,” persuading you to click.

Google’s documentation recommends adding “high-quality images in your content, especially large images that are more likely to generate visits from Discover” and notes important technical requirements such as images needing to be “at least 1200 px wide and enabled by the max-image-preview:large setting.” You may also have found that media outlets create their own collages in order to have images that stand out from competitors.

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Everything You Need to Know About Google Search Essentials (formerly Google Webmaster Guidelines)

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Everything You Need to Know About Google Search Essentials (formerly Google Webmaster Guidelines)

One of the most important parts of having a website is making sure your audience can find your site (and find what they’re looking for).

The good news is that Google Search Essentials, formerly called Google Webmaster Guidelines, simplifies the process of optimizing your site for search performance.

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