Credit: Image by Convert GDPR on Flickr 

Online privacy has long been a topic of fierce debate. The usual push and pull between the interests of users, publishers, brands, and advertisers has been disrupted by the increasing wariness from the public about how its data is collected, stored and used.

This in turn has led to a raft of new legislation like the recent California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) ruling in the US, which gave Californians the right to know what personal information is being collected about them, where it is being sold, and the ability to access the personal information a company holds on them. Though creating some hurdles for publishers, the push towards greater transparency should be embraced by the industry.

However, as we have seen before when GDPR regulations required customers to opt into cookies, not all publishers make opting out clear or easy for audiences. Playing fast and loose with the rules not only risks fines from regulators, but can also lead publishers to miss out on the elationship with their audiences that helps them carve out their own unique position in the market.

To achieve a positive relationship and gain insights from audiences, newsrooms need meaningful consent. But what is it, how is it gained, and what are the benefits?

Crumbling cookies

The launch of GDPR in 2018 impressed on publishers and advertisers the need for better data-handling structures and pushed them to make data collection practices as transparent as possible for site visitors.

Needless to say, though many have tried their best to inform their visitors and be as transparent as possible, many have not. In a recent Princeton University study of 11,000 websites, over 10 per cent were using dark patterns – confusing or manipulative web page layouts – designed to gain cookie consent from unsuspecting users.

But if cookies are disappearing, surely that means that these kinds of bad practices are disappearing with them? Possibly, but it is just as likely that these bad practices will bleed over into bad practice in other areas – like user login or email sign-up pop-ups for example – if left unchecked.

Not all asks are the same

To strip it right back to basics, we should first discuss what meaningful consent is.

According to the GDPR legislation “silence or inactivity does not constitute consent”. In other words, for users to give consent that it is meaningful, publishers have to present them with enough information to make an informed decision.

Users have to be told what data is being collected from them, who it is being shared with, and why their data is needed in the first place. Users should not feel pressured into agreeing, and the process to opt out must not be unnecessarily complex.

If we take the example of cookie consent pop-ups, publishers may feel tempted to add logos, push users subtly (or even not so subtly) towards certain choices and include obscure fine print. This is only going to frustrate users, leading to a loss in trust, which is bad for news and bad for business.

Instead, publishers need to ask for user data – whether it be cookies, their email or login information – in a way that is welcoming; clean, not overly branded, with clear awareness of how the data will be used.

On-page design should leave audiences feeling comfortable about where their data is going, helping them to feel secure in sharing more with publishers.

What’s in it for publishers?

Gaining meaningful consent from audiences is not just about staying on the right side of new legislation. It can help publishers to build a clearer idea of who their audience is and what content they want to see.

Information that has been given willingly is likely to be richer and more precise, giving a better impression of who they are – especially, for example, a return visitor who logs in. From here publishers can build a granular and personalised database that reveals exactly how users interact with their sites and content.

This insight can help with the implementation of new experiences onto sites, giving publishers clear data on how users are interacting with new supplemental experiences such as podcasts and interactive graphics.

The interests and behaviours of their unique community can be better understood, and publishers can know if their content is in fact speaking to their audience – and tweak it if not.

As the digital publishing space continues to evolve – adapting to tightening privacy restrictions, assessing the challenges and opportunities thrown up by the big walled gardens – the one constant will be the importance of audience relationships.

Gaining the meaningful consent of audiences opens up a mutually beneficial relationship for both parties, allowing publishers to gain a deeper understanding of their visitors, and letting users more directly impact the type of content they consume.

Ben Erdos is the chief services officer at Total Media Solutions, an AdTech solutions provider for advertisers and publishers. Ben specializes in digital ad serving and RTB systems and has in-depth experience in Google Ad Manager, AppNexus, Atlas (Facebook), Helios IQ and more.

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