Publishers: it’s on us

It’s time for us to lead the narrative around the future of the open web.

The future of the $64 billion open internet is uncertain. 

That’s scary to say out loud, especially considering the hundreds of thousands of people that web publishers employ and the billions of people that consume their (mostly free) content.  

So it’s time for us at media companies to stop talking about the fact that we’re losing access to cookies and mobile identifiers and take responsibility for our own future success.  

We know that publishers rely on consumer data to operate their businesses. Data helps us create relevant content while attracting advertisers to underwrite that content so consumers can access it for free.  

It’s hard to justify why we aren’t having this conversation with people directly. Consumers are only hearing about how their data is being used from large companies, and that’s on us. We have failed to explain what people gain by sharing data with us — and what they have to lose by letting a device or browser control the relationship. 

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that when people wake up, glance at their phones and see a message asking them whether they want to be “tracked,” they will opt out at an astonishing rate. But based on our own research, that reaction isn’t rooted in an understanding of what’s at stake. Nearly two-thirds of people say they either “don’t know anything about” ad tracking or “know it exists, but don’t really understand what it does.”  

The message we’re putting out is creepy and scary instead of explanatory and empowering. And we've largely sat on the sidelines watching it happen. But as we lose insights, the user experience won’t just be impacted — our revenue will suffer. 

So it’s time to grab the reins.  

We need to be proactive and honest about why we collect data. We need to explain how it impacts them if we cannot use that data. A less compelling and relevant experience is the best-case scenario. Paywalls for everyone and less choice, as independent publishers go out of business, is the more likely one.  

This is not about crossing a privacy line or even getting close to it.  

It’s about consumer education. I applaud calls for the industry to coalesce around a solution that arms people with honest and transparent options. 

The digital experiences that are most valuable to consumers are mostly made possible by the responsible sharing of their data. Exercise apps that help keep you healthy. Localized weather apps that deliver potentially lifesaving information. News delivered free-of-charge, 24/7. The alternatives are less valuable content, or expensive and unmanageable subscriptions.  

People, for the most part, want a free internet and appreciate when content matches their interests. There are ways for publishers to provide this for free without crossing privacy boundaries. Brands understand this better than anyone: more than 90% are seeing an increase in “consumer expectations for personalized and engaging advertising,” according to  Forrester.

So why don't we give people the full story, so they decide whether they want to participate in the longstanding value of exchange of ad supported content, or underwrite their digital experiences via subscriptions.  

It’s time for publishers to lead the dialogue for consumers, brands and ourselves. The power is in the collective.  We have an opportunity — a responsibility — to tell a cohesive story, and to speak directly to the people we have spent years developing trusted relationships with. 

It’s time to suit up and participate.  

Sheri Bachstein is CEO of The Weather Company and GM of IBM Watson Advertising.

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