NYT axed behavioural ads in EU - a case of privacy UX paying off?

Sebastian Greger

This made the news in certain circles the other day - cutting back on privacy-invading ad tech, the New York Times actually managed to increase their ad revenue in Europe:

The publisher blocked all open-exchange ad buying on its European pages, followed swiftly by behavioral targeting. Instead, NYT International focused on contextual and geographical targeting for programmatic guaranteed and private marketplace deals and has not seen ad revenues drop as a result […] Currently, all the ads running on European pages are direct-sold. […] digital advertising revenue has increased significantly since last May and that has continued into early 2019.

This is a significant finding, and could be read as a proof for privacy-centred UX thinking to pay off. While, following the GDPR enforcement deadline last May, competitors simply locked out all EU-based users or created borderline-compliant consent systems laden with dark patterns or subscription models of often questionable legal effectiveness, the NYT decided to put user experience first:

The publisher’s reader-revenue business model means it fiercely guards its readers’ user experience. Rather than bombard readers with consent notices or risk a clunky consent user experience, it decided to drop behavioral advertising entirely.

Yet, looking at the NYT’s online practices, there is no reason to believe the New York Times has managed to free itself from the tight dependence on ethically questionable advertising practices. A Twitter thread by Austrian privacy activist Wolfie Christl illustrates this by putting things into perspective - despite the NYT’s move away from ad exchanges and behavioural advertising for EU users, their business as a whole stays deeply entangled with the abusive practices of the adtech industry:

This is what I meant with “they still use some parts of the marketing surveillance ecosystem”. Perhaps more than “some”. Also, details about contextual & geo targeting (at what level?) are missing. But it’s still significant when they say they don’t sell via behavioral exchanges

Why I find above news so remarkable is not the strategic decision-making of the NYT itself (if they truly cared about privacy and ethics, why would this change only be rolled out for EU users?), but the hidden message in that piece of business news: abusive tracking is not without alternatives, and putting privacy and user-centeredness first can lead to success by innovation.

As Wolfie Christl puts it,

This is a strong argument against the adtech lobbying/propaganda á la “without behavioral advertising the Internet will die”.

EU publishers should:

  • stop working on super-invasive “unified IDs” (=dead-end)

  • stop lobbying against #ePrivacy

  • stop annoying users and tricking them into “consent”

  • and instead work on joint infrastructure to directly sell high-profile inventory without extensive tracking

Garrett Johnson, a marketing professor researching internet advertising and privacy, also commented on the piece, putting the GDPR compliance of the NYT in doubt and contributing some research by which such privacy-friendly advertising strategy may benefit big publications more than small players.