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First-party data will be indispensable in a world without third-party cookies.
But before publishers can monetize that data, they must respect it, said Karthic Bala, executive vice president of data, product and technology at CNET, a publisher owned by Red Ventures that covers technology and consumer electronics.
Bala joined CNET in August after more than six years as chief data officer at Condé Nast.
“The more consumers trust you, the more data you get and the more responsibility you have to take to protect that data,” Bala said. “You don’t want to create experiences that make the consumer question what you’re doing with their data.”
Protecting consumer data should be at the heart of everything a company does. “Anything else is secondary,” he said.
Bala spoke to AdExchanger.
AdExchanger: What made you interested in joining CNET and Red Ventures (RV)?
KARTHIC BALA: This portfolio of brands is very focused on performance, and they’ve created a great data asset. Unlocking the power of that data asset for our consumers and our partners to drive better performance seemed like the next big step.
RV’s approach is full funnel. We inspire, engage and transact. This creates a whole different set of data tools for me to play with. RV has probably the largest intent database I’ve seen. This is a large pool of audiences and data segments. The idea is to use it to generate different revenue streams and deeper, richer partnerships.
How important is affiliate marketing to RV?
Many of RV’s brands, such as Bankrate, or its brands in the home, education and travel divisions, attract purpose-driven audiences, which has led to a lot of affiliate sales and e-commerce. That data set can help us understand what drives affiliate transactions, who those consumers are, and how you can take them from the top of the funnel to the bottom using personalization and recommendations.
Building connections with these audiences will require more verified users, which is another big focus. Our subscription model is mostly focused on newsletter subscriptions, but we want to build better customer experiences to drive more subscriptions. This will allow us to drive our omnichannel approach, whether it’s via email or wherever the consumer is.
Are paid subscriptions in the future of CNET?
Unless it’s high-value exclusive content, I don’t see it for the CNET brand. But there may be utilities that provide value around the content that can be paid for.
How do you build on CNET and RV’s ad tech stack?
We have a CDP platform and homegrown analytics that allow us to be intentional about how we collect data and about our focus on privacy, security and governance as it happens within the walls of our ecosystem.
I would love to work with like-minded companies in terms of building a scalable and fluid infrastructure so we can experiment and deploy features quickly. I am also interested in building predictive models using machine learning and AI for personalization.
What are your plans for expanding RV’s data and technology backbone to support CNET’s performance goals?
Dollars are constantly shifting to new marketing approaches and new players are entering all the time, such as retail media networks. If you create a full-funnel, performance-oriented, consumer-focused offering, market volatility is less impactful because you allow for more stages of a marketer’s cycle.
But this will only work if you are in control of performance and you are constantly measuring what value you are driving. And we have the data to prove it.
What is your first-party data strategy?
Not every user is going to be logged in or a subscriber. But they’re still giving you first-party contextual data signals about what their intent is and what their outcome needs are, that they’re interested in the top 10 computers, for example. That data can be used to create audience segments, but when you do anything with data, it should be focused on benefiting the consumer.
If a user shares that they’re looking for a new wireless plan, and you share their data with wireless carriers, the experience should be clear about that. I recommend that we be transparent with data usage on CNET. We’re building technology to make this possible, because many of these capabilities don’t exist today.
How important will contextual targeting be to CNET’s future?
Part of our first-party data asset is our content. Providing context targeting is a big part of how we look to the future. Contextual targeting can mean ad targeting, but it can also include recommendations and personalization.
Do you use the IAB Tech Labs? Vendor-defined audiences?
We’ve taken in the IAB taxonomy, but my goal is to move to a more performance-driven strategy where IAB is part of it, but not all of it. We have our own proprietary ad units other than the standard IAB units, and we want to make them more performance driven.
Are you concerned that a recession could limit RV’s ability to invest in expanding its ad tech stack?
The reason I’m here is to build a whole new opportunity for RV. And I have dealt with situations like this in the past.
If there are challenges in the market, you prioritize the most important things and build whatever is best for the consumer.
This interview has been edited and condensed.