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How Publishers Can Take Back Control of Their Consumer Data

Third-Party Scripts Are Like Thieves in the Night

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You've built and furnished a home. You regularly tweak and maintain the property so your equity grows. But when you're away, strangers gain access. They sell your appliances, plumbing fixtures and furniture and when you return, it's clear the value you've worked so hard to attain has evaporated.

Digital publishers are similarly compromised by third parties (Google, Facebook, advertising vendors, social media widget providers and others) that take, use and monetize the customer data the publishers generate. And it's precisely that behind-the-scenes access to customer data that causes its value to diminish and threatens publisher profitability.

Many publishers remain in the dark about whether third parties obtain their data, and whether they monetize it. A "Publishing Profitability Survey" of nearly 400 U.S. publishing executives showed 78% of them don't know if third parties access their data and whether or how they are monetizing it. But whether they understand or not, it's happening virtually everywhere.

Here's an easy way publishers can tell whether someone else is making money from their data: Look at the "Terms and Conditions" for popular third-party scripts deployed on your website. What most people find is a remarkable and rather frightening picture of data leakage and misunderstanding.

For instance, reading the small print for one popular widget that reaches more than 97% of the online population in the U.S. alone is a real eye-opener. This particular widget is deployed on 14 million sites worldwide and reaches 1.6 billion unique browsers monthly. The widget owner notes it will use the publisher's customer information to its own advantage -- including sharing data for targeted advertising.

Specifically, the terms of service for this seemingly innocuous widget read as follows:

"We may deploy a cookie on our own behalf or on behalf of our data partners, to record information about how an end user uses the web, such as the web search that landed the end user on a particular page or categories of the end user's interests. We may use the data to target advertising toward the end user or authorize others to do the sameā€¦ If you do not cause us to discontinue the placement of our cookies, you grant us a non-exclusive, perpetual, worldwide and irrevocable right and license to collect, use and disclose the data as provided in our privacy policy and to allow our third-party data partners to do the same."

Many publishers are unaware that they have agreed to such terms, but it likely happened years ago when they were all racing to create a digital presence, without understanding the value of their own user data. But over time, what's become more and more obvious are the detrimental side effects that data leakage can cause to publishers' advertising revenue. The truth is, this broad grab of publishers' unique data completely commoditizes it.

So how do we fix it? Simple: Publishers that want to improve their cash flow need to take back control over their own data. For their part, publishers responding to the survey said they expect their digital ad revenues will grow over the next year. The way to make that optimism a reality is by putting the thieves in the night out of business.

Here's what publishers can do to make that happen:

  • Do a complete audit of their sites to see who is accessing their data (there are software programs that help expedite the process)
  • Determine whether there are contractual obligations around the third-party relationships (if so, note end dates and revisit at the appropriate time)
  • Determine which scripts can be removed without hurting the visitor experience or buy/ build similar tools or scripts to eliminate the third parties grabbing the data
  • Learn how to use big data to their own advantage, to target advertising or content

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