This is the prologue to a longer piece originally published on AdWeek. Read it here.

For most of their history, media companies have controlled the two great pillars of publishing success: production and delivery. They owned the content we wanted and the means of delivering it — and therefore monetizing it.

But that’s changing rapidly, due to 4 main reasons:

#1: In online publishing, distribution is no longer a competitive advantage.
The means of access are too democratized and too widely dispersed. People are no longer bound to a local paper, radio station or TV provider; content isn’t constrained to any one time or place, but rather parceled out to inboxes, apps and social feeds. There are literally millions of media outlets — for everything from breaking news to Breaking Bad — and the switching costs are approaching zero.

#2: It is no longer effective to address consumers as homogenous segments — they’re not (and they never were in the first place).
The massive proliferation of online media outlets has radically fractured our model of the audience. The audience is fast becoming the “me-conomy”: billions of segments of one, where every individual expects personalized, unique experiences.

Traditional audience classification is an aggregate targeting mechanism that attempts to reach people who are “generally-kind-of-like” the target. It’s simply not good enough anymore. People have too many choices at their fingertips.

#3: Relevance has replaced distribution as the second pillar of publishing success.
Producing great content is still only half of the equation. But now, the second half has become more complicated: the ability to match users to the content that is uniquely able to satisfy their needs at the moment of consumption is vital to publishers’ success. In today’s online, on-demand world, greater relevance drives sustained consumer preference for your content, which marketing analysts label “engagement.”

Strong engagement, whether measured in magazine subscriptions or time on site, is still the only thing that enables media companies to sell more ads or more subscriptions at a higher price point than Joe Blogger.

#4: Publishers are giving up control of their distribution — control of their relevance — at a high cost.
Publishers face increasing pressure to “outsource” their relevance — e.g., to simply produce content and rely on platforms like Facebook and Twitter, with their deep understanding of user preferences and behavior, to show it to the right people.

The problem is, when you cede control of your distribution, the biggest causality is the user-rich behavioral data associated with it. If you don’t own that data, gaining brand recognition and monetizing your content becomes an uphill battle.

Behavioral Data’s Role in Relevance

Let’s imagine that the aforementioned Joe Blogger is a real guy. You could get to know him by hearing about his interests — writing, basketball, making pizza from scratch — but you’d understand him much better if you could understand how he went about his day.

Behavioral data in the digital world isn’t all that different: it’s information about the actions people take online.

Facebook and LinkedIn have built businesses on behavioral data: they use it to surface relevant content for each person and make their products that much more addictive. They don’t rely on third-party data, and they certainly don’t bother to ask about many preferences, because people aren’t great at predicting what they actually want (for a great read on the gap between reported and actual behavior, check out this post). Behavioral data also has the benefit of providing real-time views of each reader.

A few publishers — like The New York Times — are developing the capacity to capture data and make predictions about readers’ behavior in-house. Still, for most publishers, it’s a pretty daunting endeavor… which is why we’re on a mission to bring that capacity to anyone who wants it.

What Can You Do With Behavioral Data?

Behavioral data, how do we use thee? Let me count the ways:

Create a stellar on-site experience for all those non-followers
Many of your hardcore fans probably follow you on Facebook and share your posts, but how do you turn the ones that don’t into loyal fans? You make your website a true destination, a place that gives them just as much value as a feed with a bunch of other publishers’ content. Behavioral data can show you what resonates with readers and guide your editorial strategy; you can also use it to automatically generate personalized content recommendations for each of your readers.

Increase the value of lightboxes and live chat
Those personalized content recommendations? You can also put them in lightboxes that encourage visitors to become subscribers. That way, even if they decide not to subscribe, you’ve at least surfaced content that encourages them to keep engaging. You can also turn live chat into a concierge-like service that, based on a reader’s behavior, provides them with friendly suggestions for what to read next.

Get creative with triggered messages
Using behavioral data to trigger emails (or even texts!) is awesome. Compared with run-of-the-mill emails, triggered emails have an almost 60% higher open rate and an almost 130% higher click-through rate. Did someone start creating an account without finishing? Send them a friendly email asking what went wrong and if there’s anything you can do to help. Did somebody who used to be active stop coming by? Time for a re-engagement email. Did someone share a bunch of posts on social media? Why not thank them and suggest a few more? The possibilities are endless.

Ultimately, maintaining control of your data and using it to be relevant is about keeping your brand strong. Mashable CMO Stacy Martinet recently made a great point about why branding is so important for publishers:

First and foremost, we think a lot about brand. As a team at Mashable, I’ve always treated the company as a brand first and as a media property second.

I think the brand is the most important thing we have, as it is with any company, but especially in the media industry, because it is a crowded space with new entrants every day, and because we’re competing with old media, new media, startups.

After all, if you’re not a brand, you’re a commodity — and your content’s just fodder for someone else’s platform.

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