Ad Tech & Programmatic

Publishers are labeling their audiences to make it easier for advertisers to target them

The labels, which are as granular as “potatoes/onions,” are part of a test the IAB Tech Lab is running to prep for the cookieless future.
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Francis Scialabba

6 min read

Attractive, intelligent, and with a propensity to purchase…Vineyard Vines?

That’s at least how we’d describe some of Morning Brew’s readers, and according to a new—brace yourself—“technical specification” introduced by the IAB Tech Lab, that info could be worth something.

Called “seller-defined audiences” (SDA), the IAB Tech Lab finalized a new standard in February that promises to give publishers greater control over how their audiences—and more crucially, their first-party data—are bought and sold. Yesterday, it was pitched to the industry during the IAB Tech Lab’s Addressability System Designs event.

“It’s a very positive indication that publishers are gaining more control in the open web. We were only seen as supply. Now, we’re seen as supply, identity partners, as well as data providers, and that’s an exciting shift,” said Michael Nuzzo, VP, head of Hearst data solutions at Hearst Magazines, speaking at the event.

Though publishers and industry folks say it could take time before it’s widely adopted, SDA could give advertisers another way to target audiences when tracking tools, like third-party cookies, die off.

How it’ll work

Publishers know a lot about their audiences—what they read or watch, and what they’re interested in. They can get this data in multiple ways, like by dropping first-party cookies or by asking them to log in.

Using this data, SDAs would, theoretically, let publishers place their audiences into groups—whether by behavior or interest—which would then be shared with advertisers to help them run targeted programmatic ads. So far, there are roughly 1,600 available labels for publishers to choose from.

  • They range from an interest in children’s music to water polo, and our favorite, “potatoes/onions.”
  • Publishers can also make and submit labels for the IAB to approve.
  • These groups, or cohorts, are intended to be large enough so that individuals can’t be identified, though the IAB isn’t prescribing specific sizes.
  • Unlike Google’s Topics, which is based on browsing history, SDA data will come from the publishers themselves.

An example: If USA Today knows Ryan likes to read about football, and he’s explicitly told USA Today he likes football (maybe he signed up for a newsletter about football, maybe he answered a survey about his favorite columns or articles), USA Today can lump Ryan into an audience of football fans, which could then be bought and sold programmatically.

Publishers are in a “privileged position with regard to what’s happening on their properties and their relationship with consumers,” Benjamin Dick, senior director of product at IAB Tech Lab, told Marketing Brew. “They should be in a position to make a determination as to who those audiences are.”

Context clues

To prevent concerns over publishers’ grading their own homework, it’ll help if they show their work. The IAB said it hopes publishers will incorporate the IAB’s own Data Transparency Label, sort of like a nutrition label for data, in which publishers detail how and why they labeled Ryan a football fan.

If widely adopted by the industry, SDA would provide media buyers with scale and provide publishers with a new way to monetize their readers. So, if multiple publishers are using this standard, buys can be made across different outlets.

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“It is the way in which publishers are going to be able to extract the most value from their first-party data,” said Jeff Burkett, VP of product at Gannett. “Today, you can buy data attributes from third parties, but you don’t really know how that came about.”

But, publishers won’t need to sell their audience data. Crucially, SDA will also allow publishers (and their data partners) the ability to label their own content for contextual advertising purposes, meaning first-party data won’t be needed for ad targeting at all. So, USA Today could label a story about football as “football.” Or, a story about the high cost of gas would be labeled as “gasoline prices,” and ad inventory for that story could be sold to an EV manufacturer.

“There are other proposals in the space that relegate publishers to a single topic, pun intended,” Nuzzo said. “As a publisher, as a whole, I think it gives us the opportunity to have a very level playing field.”

Because it’s the publishers making this declaration—and not contextual advertising vendors like Integral Ad Science, DoubleVerify, and GumGum—that could potentially translate into higher returns for publishers, said Dick.

“Instead of DoubleVerify saying, ‘Here’s what the content’s about,’ it’s the publisher saying what the content is about. That feels pretty good to me,” said Paul Bannister, chief strategy officer at CafeMedia, which is participating in the IAB’s closed testing of SDA.


Though it’s “too early” to say how those tests are going, Bannister told Marketing Brew that the most important part is DSP adoption. Philosophically, SDA makes sense, but “lots of technical and commercial things need to be solved,” he said.

Though simple on paper, adoption within the ad tech ecosystem is no easy task, explained Thomas Morningstar, VP director of programmatic at Mediahub. “It needs adoption from SSPs. It needs adoption from DSPs. It needs adoption from data providers,” he said, adding that “we need the pipes to be set up, or this product doesn’t work.”

Dick declined to provide Marketing Brew with a proposed timeline for widespread adoption.

And while targeting—reaching the right audiences with the right advertising—often gets the limelight, SDA doesn’t help advertisers with measurement, which Morningstar said is “what keeps me up at night.”

The IAB “makes no claims” about solving that specific piece of the equation, Dick said, but said that SDA could provide a foundation that measurement tools could be built upon.

Buyers will be testing Google’s Topics, SDA, and potentially hundreds of other identity and measurement solutions (clean rooms, anyone?) to replace the giant hole left by the impending death of third-party cookies.

“We’re still trying to solve for life after the third-party cookie…We need to, as an industry, start to leverage things like this in advance of that. So marketers can test for it, so we can know what we’re doing when that scenario comes to life,” Burkett said.

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