The duopoly is forcing some unlikely partners into bed with each other.
Large publishers are hatching new alliances to counter Google and Facebook, the so-called duopoly that's expected to capture 85% of new digital advertising this year in the U.S. and 60% of digital spending, according to various estimates.
The duopoly's biggest advantage is immense reach among consumers who sign in and reveal all kinds of details about themselves.
To begin to catch up, half of the comScore 250 -- which include publishers like The New York Daily News, Penske Media and The Weather Co. -- have enlisted with ad-tech company Sonobi to pool their own signed-in users and data. Sonobi says its offering can deliver 150 million logged-in U.S. consumers on any given day, at a time when tracking people with cookies is only getting harder.
"Publishers are under tremendous pressure from marketers to deliver scale so they can compete with Google and Facebook," said Susan Bidel, a senior analyst at Forrester. "They have historically competed against each other so to try and get them to cooperate with one another is difficult."
"It requires them to have their backs against the wall," she added.
We seem to be at that point. Many of the publishers working with Sonobi are also working with Digital Content Next and its TrustX platform, which officially debuted late last week with 33 publishers including Condé Nast, The Guardian, CBS Interactive, Viacom and NBC Universal. It gets 200 million monthly unique users in the U.S. and sold 100 million impressions daily since a "quiet" introduction four weeks earlier, according to Digital Content Next.
This phenomenon of strange alliances has become a familiar one across the pond. In 2015, the Guardian spearheaded a programmatic ad sales network, called Pangea, that pulled together CNN International and Reuters in an explicit pushback against the duopoly. On the data front, last year eight of the biggest German publishing groups — including Business Insider-owner Axel Springer, Bertelsman and others — pooled audience data to compete with Facebook and Google on the ad targeting front.
Nobody's betting everything on teamwork, of course. News Corp. and Gannett's USA Today Network are also each consolidating their publications' audiences in different ways to appeal better to marketers.
But Sonobi's product in particular stands apart by uniting signed-in desktop, mobile, video and app audiences to offer targeting without cookies, marketers' usual tool for tracking people around digital media. Cookies are facing compounding challenges, from Apple's plans for a "no tracking" option in Safari to consumers' increasing preference for apps, where cookies basically don't exist.
Agencies like Omnicom Media Group have already started buying ads through Sonobi's product, called JetStream. Brands including Bank of America are interested as well, according to Sonobi.
The cookieless play could appeal to marketers that otherwise gravitate to Facebook and Google.
"If you're targeting in a cookie-free environment based on first-party data you are actually getting individuals rather than cookies," Bidel said. "If you can identify people and deliver those people to an advertiser, cookie-free, with an actual identity attached, that is a much more certain connection with a live, living, breathing human being."
JetStream gathers its logged-in data from publishers that use a cookieless solution called persistent publisher ID, or PPID. Marketers can use their own data to find the consumers they want on JetStream publishers' properties, according to Sonobi.
Sonobi CEO Michael Connolly said other large ad networks suffer from relying on cookies. "Jetstream is a cookieless addressable solution similar to Facebook and Google," he said. Its reach is "on par with Snapchat globally and about two-times the amount of Twitter's U.S. monthly active users," he said.
Even if Sonobi recruits the 250 largest publishers according to comScore, it will still be dwarfed by giants: Facebook counts 1.9 billion monthly users around the globe.
By unifying the audiences for properties from Dow Jones to Realtor.com, News Corp. hopes its new NewsIQ platform gives it the size marketers are known to demand. Its reach comes out to about 130 monthly million unique visitors, according to the company.
"We are bringing some very unique first-party data to marketers," Angelo said. "Realtor has an enormous amount of wealth on users and utilities like mortgage calculators."
NewsIQ is also layering on marketers' data.
"The goal is to drive incremental revenue to business units so they can capture budgets that they would have otherwise missed out on because they didn't have a data capability as deep as this," said Jesse Angelo, chief of digital advertising solutions at News Corp. "This is the beginning of News Corp. and all of its business units acting in a much more joined up way."
The publisher intends to go cookieless and reach users in-app and on video in the future.
USA Today Network
Gannett's USA Today Network is making a monster bet on context and sentiment, using machine learning and natural language processing to determine what its articles are really about so marketers can put ads in the right ones. Its system will also analyze tone, sentiment and geography.
"Keywords are often processed without context," said Kelly Andresen, senior VP at USA Today Network. "Just because 'golf' shows up doesn't mean the story is about golf. Our technology takes the context of what the overall article is about and it is very accurate."
The publisher has also recruited more than 30,000 subscribers to share their views on issues like how they feel about the president, the economy or major events. They then take that information and build audiences for marketers to buy on. "Advertisers can speak to Americans in a trusted environment at scale and with authenticity," Andresen said.
USA Today Network, which, relies on cookies, can serve ads on the mobile and desktop web as well as in apps.
Although publishers would certainly prefer to capture more ad dollars than Google and Facebook, they're completely aware it's a longshot. Besides, both contribute much good to the ad ecosystem.
"Facebook and Google are core, unavoidable pieces of the digital landscape, and they feature a user-curated, social element," Steve Katelman, exec VP of global strategic partnerships at Omnicom, said. "We use tools to limit the brand safety risks of UGC content, in the way that we use tools to limit the risk of delivering ads against news content, for example."
He doesn't buy into the notion that marketers need an alternative to Google and Facebook because it's "as if we're trying to avoid using their identity data as some sort of counterweight to Google and Facebook's influence."
Still, an alternative like Sonobi's JetStream, or News Corp., DNC or USA Today's offering do have its benefits, mainly, premium content.
"Facebook hasn't provided a buying platform to access independent publishers with transparency or control over price," Katelman said.