Northern & Shell is one of the UK’s biggest publishers, owning titles including the Daily Express, Daily Star, OK!, New! and Star.

Until May this year it also operated three TV stations: Channel 5, 5* and 5USA.

So at a time when publishers are struggling to adapt to the new digital world, it’s worth taking note of the way in which N&S is attempting to monetise the massive amount of user data it collects.

At the Festival of Marketing the company’s head of insight and CRM, Deni Boncheva, described the main challenges facing the business and gave an outline of its data strategy.

Here’s a summary of Boncheva’s talk, but for more on this topic read our posts on native advertising considerations for publishers and an interview with The Sun on life behind a paywall.

The challenges

It’s no secret that publishers are struggling to adapt to the realities of the digital age. Print revenues are plummeting and as yet digital ads are nowhere near making up the shortfall.

Some publishers have opted for a paywall, however this often seems like a last resort and one that isn’t proven to work in the long term.

Boncheva said the company faced three specific challenges:

  • How to capture advertising revenue away from print.
  • Drive increase in ad relevancy.
  • Combine digital and offline data.

All of these issues could be addressed to some extent by improving the way the company captured and used customer data.

Data sources and the SCV

User data was already being captured and analysed by various teams across N&S, including:

  • Editorial
  • CRM
  • IT
  • Insight
  • Commercial

However all of these had different opinions of what data actually is and how it should be used.

This is thanks in a large part to the huge variety of data that the company collects, which includes comments, shares, registration information, email newsletter options, in-app data, survey data, offline subscriber data etc.

N&S also suffered the age-old problem of having data stored in different places and formats, so there was little chance of forming a single customer view.

 Data is a strategic asset for publishers, but the big challenge is working out how to make money from it.

To convince her colleagues to alter the way in which data was being used Boncheva came up with a business case that required greater investment in first-party data.

It would allow N&S to increase revenue through increasing its audience, better ad targeting, and longer customer relationships.

The new data program would be built around new user profiles based on website data and both on- and offline registrations.

There would also be an emphasis on the use of real-time data to drive personalised communications.

To monetise the site and our users, we have to consolidate understanding of the user in one pot and drive segmentation of site users.

Once all the data sources had been unified N&S could build a single customer view using browsing data, registration data, web activities and personal information from promotions.

Personalised communications could then be delivered based on historical and current behaviour. 

Boncheva said it was hugely important to have the commercial team bought into the project as it could only succeed if they were convinced of its value.

It took around five months to prove the case for a centralised database.

Registration

Forcing users to register or login online is generally seen as a bad idea as it’s a common cause of site abandonment.

But for publishers like N&S where user data is all-important, the pros of registration far outweigh the cons.

Offering a social login option is also extremely valuable as it gives instant access to a broad range of demographic data.

According to Boncheva:

Getting users to login or register is the most valuable thing you can do to understand your audience. It enhances the product and increases data quality.

N&S supplements its registration data using a sophisticated competition engine. User profiles are updated based on the types of promotions they engage with.

In addition, email newsletter preferences give a strong indication of a person’s interests.

How it works

Boncheva gave a brief step-by-step walkthrough to help the audience understand how the ad targeting and segmentation works in practice.

  1. Unknown user ‘X’ goes to the OK! site and reads a post where the content is tagged as relevant to ‘mums’.
  2. They then read an article tagged ‘fashion’ and another tagged ‘mums’.
  3. The user is then identified as a mum and a fashionista. This process of tagging extends to all articles that are read or shared.
  4. They then register and use Facebook login, so N&S gets their email address, their ‘likes’, gender, location, and any other public profile information.
  5. As part of the registration process the user has to opt-in to newsletters, so N&S can track these interests. 
  6. Competition and promotion data is also used to build out their user profile.
  7. All this data puts the user into segments that can be used for ad targeting, which is a powerful sales tool for the commercial team.