CMO interview: How Nine is tapping audience data for advertising, engagement and content innovation

Nine chief digital and marketing officer, Alex Parsons, discussed the media owner's digital and data strategy, rebranding efforts, and the commercial impetus driving modern marketing leadership
Alex Parsons

Alex Parsons

Nine’s chief digital and marketing officer, Alex Parsons, is a firm believer in first-party data ownership and insight. And if the media company’s list of data-driven technology investments is anything to go by, it’s been a core priority since he took up his post nearly three years ago.

Since buying Microsoft out of ninemsn and Mi9 in late 2013, the Nine Entertainment Company has been working to build up its internal audience data sets and capability. There are two threads to this data strategy: Lifting advertising effectiveness for clients across its media properties through better targeting and optimisation against audience segments; and improving end-user engagement with better content creation and personalisation from a marketing and publishing perspective.

Work to date has stretched from building an internal data lake and centralised access interface, to investing in the AppNexus Publisher Suite to power its programmatic advertising network, and rolling out Adobe’s Audience Manager DMP for execution and management, providing consumers with increasingly personalised content.

Every CMO and CEO wants to have a data repository where every single piece of information about a customer is aggregated, stored and seamlessly accessible in one interface not just for internal purposes, but also for marketing, Parsons says.

“That’s the big audacious goal,” he tells CMO. “We believe creating owned and operated data set is important for us now, and super important in the future.”

He agrees the raft of data available today has added a huge layer of complexity to the marketing mix. But it also offers up a huge amount of targeting capability.

“Data for us is about how we use what we know about consumers to create better experiences for them, and help them engage more. For people that aren’t already consuming our products, it’s also about creating products they may want to consume in the future,” he says.

“We were fortunate we didn’t have legacy systems to migrate from. We were able to create that from scratch with best practice in mind two-and-a-half years ago, and continually adjust as we go along.” Parsons added most of the data work fell under his jurisdiction, making it easy to “just get going on it”.

Following the customer data trail

One way Nine is tapping fresh insight is via its video on-demand offering, 9Now, which launched as a subscription-based model in 2016. The company also debuted automated advertising in TV in February, via its partnerships with Australian-based Landsberry and James and global tech platform, Landmark, creating another data stream that over time, will be of use to the entire business.

It’s not just internal data sets driving this approach, either. Nine has made a number of data sharing partnerships over the past year to augment own audience data. One is with data exchange provider, Data Republic, gained access to targeted grocery buying segments across Australia’s largest independent grocers’ loyalty program. The deal included five years of itemised basket data across 1600 stores nationally. Nine has also partnered with Qantas’ data business, Red Planet, to tap into the airline’s 11.5 million frequent flyer members.

“For us, it’s around what data do we have of our own, what data we can glean from third parties, and then how we apply that not just internally, but in our external sales and cycle as well,” Parsons explains. “We have some data of our own; the key territories important to the overall mix are financial services data, travel data, and FMCG.

“If you can access those three sets of insights, use a publisher like Nine to help light up those segments, and enable brands to use their own data to either connect with their universe, or the future possible customer on our sites, then that’s of great interest to us.”

Parsons expects more data sharing partnerships to be struck in the wider market as organisations get to grips with owned data sets.

“These will help companies better understand what their customers are doing today and what they want customers to do tomorrow, and align those two things together and use the data to target the right people with the right message on the right time, on the right device,” he says.

Beyond marketing

With a leadership remit encompassing digital, marketing and publishing, Parsons is not your typical marketing chief. But he suggest the days of CMOs just looking after ‘marketing’ are gone.

“Marketing is a much larger sphere of influence and control than it once was: It’s an aggregation of marketing, technology, information and data,” he says. “Ultimately, companies make stuff, market stuff and they sell stuff. If you aren’t making or selling the product, then almost everything else falls into the marketing remit of the future.”

Most brand marketers recognise this, Parsons says, noting leading Australian marketers such as Telstra’s Joe Pollard, have jobs that go well and truly beyond marketing. As a result, marketers are increasingly being judged on business performance and results.

“I’m judged as closely as my sales counterpart on how successful we are in terms of demand and revenue generation,” Parsons continues. “I’m also judged alongside everyone else on how that translates to EBITDA.

“Marketing isn’t an expense line item on a P&L, and how efficiently can you get an ROI on that and spend a tonne of time demonstrating your ROI. You’re responsible for revenue and cost, therefore you’re responsible for EBITDA and you should be looking at it.”

That doesn’t mean the traditional principles of marketing have gone away, however. “Smartphones didn’t exist seven years ago, and consumption was mainly on desktops. So there has been a lot of change, but it’s been around the edges,” Parson claims.

“The core principles of marketing have withstood the test of time and I think you’re seeing a return to them. Those are being able to connect an emotive message, with a mass audience, to increase awareness, trial and usage. We’re just using different techniques.”

Up next: How Parsons plans to disrupt digital engagement

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The changing nature of digital accountability

Early in his career, Parsons worked in the UK for Ernst & Young in Web services, before returning to Australia to head up product for eBay’s fledgling local subsidiary. After working for Telstra’s Sensis division for a year, Parsons joined ninemsn, where he headed up product and marketing. He then spent two years running subsidiary, RateCity, before taking up the chief digital and marketing officer role at Nine Entertainment Company in 2014.

He might have ‘digital’ in his title, but Parson says digital is fast becoming a capability every role and business unit needs to have.

“When I came back [to Nine], we had just exited the joint venture, and Nine needed to build out its digital presence in an owned and operated fashion. It was important at the time to have a digital leader to drive that transition, integration and strategy,” he says.

“But I do think over time that the term ‘digital’ almost becomes a misnomer. Over the last year, we’ve honed in on our company strategy, which is create great content, distribute it broadly, and engage audience and advertisers. That’s about being agnostic in our distribution.

“Clearly, the most minutes of audio visual content consumed are via the TV set today, and it will be for a long time. But we want to offer people choice.”

Parsons points to the latest series of Married at First Sight as an example of how content consumption is crossing over channels. In its shareholder results, Nine highlighted the program as one of its best-performing in the first half of 2017, underpinning 13 per cent growth in 24-54 year-old audiences for the group over the same period last year.

“We have been pleased with the consumption of that piece of content across all devices, not only TV,” he says. “So will the role of digital exist into the long term? I don’t know. Perhaps part of my role is to make that word in my title redundant over time, so everyone, by virtue of what we do, has digital as part of what they do every day.

“I don’t think businesses can afford in the future to think of digital separately and differently.”

Rebranding strategy

It’s this need to offer an integrated content proposition that ultimately drove the decision to rebrand all digital under the Nine masthead last year.

“Nine has such a great brand awareness, and it resonates really strongly with broader Australia,” Parsons comments. “The trust, positive sentiment and attitude towards the brand is quite strong.

“We could have called it [the online offering] something completely new. However, when you think about our strategy, there really only was one answer, and it had to be leveraging that Nine brand Australians have grown up with. Over time, a brand that’s synonymous with TV will be synonymous with great audio visual content, and that should be delivered anywhere.”

Nine’s wider ambition is to redefine TV, which Parsons says is about great audio visual content, distributed broadly. He admits this makes the competitive landscape both broad and convoluted.

“With our 9Honey [lifestyle] business for instance, our competitors are traditional print publications, predominantly magazines, as well as new online competitors, plus TV content and lifestyle shows on TV,” he says. “When I think about our 6pm bulletin news, we see competitors as 7, 10, ABC and SBS. But for online news, it’s just as likely to be the Sydney Morning Herald, and the Daily Telegraph. Then I think about the entire piece and entire proposition is not only Fairfax, News, Seven Ten and ABC, it’s also increasingly the global technology platforms of YouTube and Facebook.

“You really need to consider the context of that entire operating environment, and that adds complexity. But in this day and age, that comes with the territory. You have to be able to think of different competitors at different times and in different terms in order to execute a strategy that’s successful.”

What’s helping is clarity in Nine’s content strategy, Parsons says, which revolves around building a leadership position in four areas: News, sports, lifestyle and video on-demand.

“The Nine news brand, as a news brand, is the most consumed news brand in Australia. We want to further develop and fuel that to increase that position,” he says. “Sport is also incredibly important to us, and that’s different from an audio visual broadcast compared to what we do digitally. In broadcast, we’re strong in Cricket, NRL, Netball and the AFL, whereas Wide World of Sports online has to be strong across all sports.”

Then there’s lifestyle. Nine launched the 9Honey umbrella brand in 2015 originally as a fashion pillar, then extended the brand proposition last year across all lifestyle properties. Underneath this, individual category brands cover different topics, such as 9Elsewhere for travel, and 9Kitchen for food.

“That’s an area where we believe we can develop a strong online proposition but also extend that up through the TV medium. You will have seen recent things around Married Around First Sight and 9Honey, and increased integration across mediums,” he says. “That’s us teasing around the edging and starting to push that stuff through. We’re excited about what we can do there.”

Having 9Honey as an umbrella term provides a central hub for all that content, while creating an opportunity for more lifestyle news, Parsons adds.

“Thirdly, from a commercial point of view, it gives us an ability to talk about lifestyle in one aggregated brand. You have seen some of our competitors moving in that direction as well,” he says.

Increasing personalisation

Moving forward, Parsons is looking at how Nine further personalises engagement. He expressed an interest in attitudinal segmentation – or “the why” – and how this can be married up with the rising reams of data being collected digitally.

“The question is how to align attitudinal segmentation back into the data mix and the why back into the what clearly and clinically,” he says. “We do need to go deeper than life stages, and that’s why I think attitudinal stuff will come back into the mix.

“The benefit of life stages and demos is they’re easily targetable. We just need to work a way to match and marry attitudes with demo and other segmentation in order to target attitudes.”

With up to 14 million users per month across Nine and Microsoft's network, getting personalisation down to a segment of one is impractical, Parsons says. “But we do want to get to a position of smaller segments and delivering the right message to the right people at the right time and on the right device,” he says.

“For instance, for someone coming to our business and consuming lifestyle content regularly, I’d like to surface more of the right lifestyle content.”

Parsons is also keen to better target the 9Now on-demand experience, noting consumer expectations are exceptionally high in this space thanks to Netflix and Stan services. “It’s how we actually do things people want to consume in a different way and put things in front of them that they want to consume based on their former interactions with our business,” he says.

Throughout all of this change, what keeps Parsons awake is the need to keep things simple and effective in the face of complexity.

“I can see businesses becoming so technically complex that they’re unable to operate. We have to adopt the right technologies but also remain simple,” he concludes.

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