First-party data: It’s like Burning Man but for publishers!

The ins-and-outs of “first-party data.” What it is, how you can gather it, and why it can give you an advantage over the big tech platforms with your advertisers.

Phillip Smith
8 min readMay 4, 2021

(This post builds on episode II of the Journalism Growth Club podcast. Subscribe today and never miss a show!)

Remember that time you took the whole newsroom staff to Burning Man? Okay, maybe that didn’t happen, but I suspect you might have attended an event at some point in the past like IRE, NICAR, ONA, or something by LION Publishers, INN, Poynter, or what-have-you.

(Remember when we could attend events in person?)

When you registered for that event, you probably gave the organizers all kinds of information about yourself without even thinking about it: your email address, name, phone number, employer, and perhaps a whole bunch more. If the event organizer was really savvy, they may have even collected information on what sessions you were interested in, or what sessions you attended during the event itself.

There you have it in a nutshell: All of that information is called “first-party data” because the event organizer (the first party) collected the data from you directly.

The opposite of first-party data is third-party data, which typically refers to all of the information collected from you indirectly by third-parties as you registered for that event. For example, the event registration website probably sent data to Google (via Google Analytics), to Facebook (via a “Like” or “Share” button, or via a pixel the organizer put there to measure their marketing effectiveness), and a few other companies during your registration process. You didn’t give this data to Google directly, nor did the organizer, thus it’s collected by the third-party (Google in this example).

The promise of first-party data

Now, of course, what you expect the event organizer to do with your personal information is to send you an email blast before the event next year inviting you to purchase a ticket. But what you might not expect is all of the other ways that the organizer could reach out and engage you with this data.

For example, they could send a personalized email to you with an offer to purchase access to videos of sessions that you missed (because they know which you attended). Or they could invite you to register for various training programs throughout the year on topics that you’ve shown interest in. Maybe you exclusively attended sessions on data journalism, and they’ve got a boot camp coming up on that very topic that they could tell you about.

When I think about first-party data (and even third-party data in many situations), I tend to see the potential for positive impacts on people’s lives and experiences, like improved personalization and relevancy in a world that is full of noise and distractions. As I’ve written in the past, there is often a benefit to highly-relevant information that can fight its way to the surface of our limited attention horizon. And consumers seem to get that too — in fact, a recent national survey found that consumers are comfortable sharing their information to “help improve the [experience] overall.”

Unfortunately, that’s not the current reality in terms of how data about us is actually used. In the best case scenario, the first-party data is simply ignored and not used to increase relevancy, and in the worst case scenarios third-party is often used in ways that we find slightly creepy or intrusive (and let’s not even start down the path of gigantic data leaks!). It’s these worst-case scenarios that have prompted Apple, Google, and others to move toward a more privacy-centric view of the world in 2021 that will limit the collection of third-party data via mobile phones and web browsers.

So, with the recently released iOS 14.5 update that includes a prompt asking users if they’d like to be tracked, and the forthcoming “cookie apocalypse” that’s been predicted for later this year — both likely to make digital advertising a bit more challenging — you might find it surprising that I believe there’s a silver lining to this shift.

First-party data in service to your audience

2021 is the year for publishers to start their efforts to grow their own first-party data about their readers, listeners, viewers, and community.

It’s also the year for publishers to not only collect that data, but to use it in service of their readers, viewers, listeners, and community by delivering more personalized, relevant experiences.

Think Amazon’s “You might also be interested in…” or Netflix’s “People who watched this also enjoyed” recommendations. Then try to imagine how you could bring that to your newsroom or publication and provide similar experiences to the people who engage with your content.

For example:

  • It’s entirely possible in 2021 to personalize the email that each subscriber to your newsletter receives. Why not ask for subscribers preferences and then give them just the content they want?
  • The folks at Billy Penn created a tool called MemberKit to help them (and other newsrooms) personalize the house ads shown to visitors to their website. If you’re already a Billy Penn supporter, you won’t see the same messages as everyone else. Love this.
  • I read a story recently about a local newsroom that put up signs around town that invited locals to get answers to their local news questions via SMS. Brilliant. Clear value offered for a person’s contact information.

The list goes on.

In service to your advertisers

The simple truth of the matter is: when it comes to first-party data, the big publishers have all picked up the ball and started running down the field with it. Their objective is to create a digital advertising offering that competes with the big ad platforms.

The New York Times, for example, launched its own first-party data advertising platform in 2020. The platform provides advertisers with much of the same ability to reach specific kinds of readers that advertisers are used to getting with platforms like Facebook and Google. They do this by collecting their own first-party data from “6 million subscribers and millions more registered users.”

A year before The New York Times, the Washington Post and Vox Media announced their own efforts at building first-party data advertising platforms and networks.

But the important thing to remember here is that smaller publishers can do this too. And 2021 is the year to start thinking about how to get cracking on this.

And, as you get underway, you’ll want to be thinking in two directions:

  1. Per the examples above, you’ll want to consider how you can surface more of the first-party data that you collect for your advertisers. You can do this as a better demographic view into who the advertiser would be reaching when they advertise with you, or you can do this in a way that helps the advertiser reach just the right people in your audience with their message.
  2. More aspirationally, you’ll want to leverage your first-party data to better promote your own products to your own readers or listeners more effectively. You can do this by better understanding their demographics, and thus their likely needs, interests, and so on. For example, you might know that you’ve got a large segment of your audience that is parents, and you might then surface more of your education reporting to that segment.

Last but not least, you want to grow your first-party data so that you can use direct communication with your readers and listeners — think email, text messages, phone calls, etc. — instead of having to pay the platforms to reach them. Again, thinking of the parents segment, instead of trying to promote your new series on education via “boosts” and “promoted posts,” with first-party data you’d be able to simply email, text, and call that segment to let them know about the content (or a relevant course, or an event, or a talk, or what-have-you).

Provide value before asking for something in return

The most important concept when growing your first party data, however, is simply this: Provide extra value to your readers, only then ask those readers for a bit of their personal information.

Try to focus on how you can give that value upfront, instead of making the interaction entirely transactional. For example, perhaps give away your PDF guide to local schools, but then ask for an email or phone number so that you can let the person know in the future when it’s updated. Think of the interaction as both a chance to provide value and build trust. And then ask for a bit of information in the spirit of continuing to improve that person’s experience with your newsroom.

Here’s a concrete example of this theory in action from a publisher that I’m working with currently…

The publisher was working to promote a topical series that they’d recently published. They got commitments from several of the authors involved in the series to join a virtual panel discussion. Then they started doing what you’d expect: promoting the virtual event through the typical channels.

But here’s the unexpected tactic they used that really illustrates the “give value first” concept: they made the event free to attend.

However, after a person RSVP’d to attend the free event they were immediately presented with a compelling message about the need to support the publisher’s works, and given the option to either subscribe or donate right there and then.

As the event registrations reached up toward 10,000, the revenue per RSVP stayed consistent and strong, and each registration meant one more small piece of first-party data for a new supporter or potential future supporter.

That’s how it’s done.

This is your year

I’ll conclude this by circling back to the proposal that 2021 is the year that publishers need to expand their first-party data efforts.

There are fun and creative ways to do it. Just pay attention in your own daily Internet life — you’ll see examples everywhere.

And remember to use that data in positive ways. Use it first to improve the experience for your readers, listeners, watchers, subscribers, memers, supporters, donors, and so on. Then use it to enhance your own efforts to speak to potential new supporters of your work. Finally, use it to help connect the advertisers you might choose to work with to a segment of your audience that would find the advertiser’s offer highly relevant.

If you approach it like this, you’ll be in a good place.


Journalism Growth Lab

P.S. If you’ve read this far, you should really subscribe to the Journalism Growth Club podcast. It’s free and fun!)

P.P.S Learned something? Click the 👏 to say “thanks!” and help others find this article.



Phillip Smith

👉 My passion is helping: 💰 Newsrooms make more money; 📈 News startups grow their audience; 🔥 Journalists succeed as entrepreneurs. Let’s talk 📩