In 2015, when data and analytics expert Karthic Bala first sat down with Condé Nast executives to discuss his approach to “models,” the two parties clearly came to the table with different definitions of the word; Condé’s was more aligned with Gigi Hadid than with statistics and regression analysis.
“I realized we were totally not connecting,” Bala tells Folio:.
Three years later, Bala has been promoted to become Condé’s first chief data officer—a testament not only to the new role the 109-year-old publisher sees for data, but to just how important Bala’s Spire project has become to the company’s future. In common digital parlance, Spire is a CDP—a customer data platform—that tries to build a unified profile of all of a customer’s activities, intent signals, and interactions across channels.
For Condé Nast, however, it represents a radical departure from its traditional portfolio of siloed magazine titles with their own personalities, audiences, and data. The Spire project seeks to focus on real-time optimization of user experiences across, in and out of the various Condé Nast properties.
This is a far cry from traditional segmentation of audiences around specific magazine brands or big categories against which brands launch major campaigns and just “hope for the best,” says Bala. Rather, it is a more people-based approach that builds highly detailed profiles of users online and mobile behaviors as well as their transactional behaviors.
Every Condé Nast visitor gets a unique “Infinity ID” upon entering one of its sites. To build up that profile, a number of additional data points are added. Spire works with partners like 1010data (acquired by Condé parent Advance Publications in 2015) to aggregate segments of credit card data, Jumpshot to track e-commerce activity, Condé Nast’s own acquisition, CitizenNet, to target people across social media, and TapAd and Drawbridge to knit desktop and mobile identities together.
Most important, though, may be “Sparrow”—Bala’s analytics suite that understands, in granular detail, what these ID’ed users are doing on Condé Nast’s sites.
“There are microtrends within a piece of content, like hovering over an image, or scrolling half a page,” Bala continues. Spire can see, for instance, how certain content types actually impact transactions among specific demographics within a certain level of income, or by gender. Using the platform, Bala can see how a certain combination of people viewing spa-related content correlates with buying a specific beauty product.
Similarly, Bala recounts, his team found a segment of women with a white-collar background from the middle of the country buying certain kinds of more expensive bottled water at a much higher rate than other segments.
Bala’s team is even using advanced computer vision technology to analyze the content of items like runway videos that users are consuming with an eye towards selling them other similar items.
“We can look at dresses on that video and categorize them. We can break it down into sub-parts into a database. Then we can match that up to people who are consuming content around that kind of dress and suggest more content or directly trigger an e-commerce opportunity.”
The technology is being applied as well to database food elements within videos produced by Bon Appétit and Epicurious, the two largest brands in Condé Nast’s Food Innovation Group. Ultimately, the capability will help Condé Nast better match ads against content and understand what content and ads are resonating best with users.
In serving advertisers, Spire also aims for higher levels of transparency. Each client on the agency or brand side receives access to a dashboard on their campaign. In it, they can see what content the targets are consuming: their location, gender, age, how the campaign is being optimized—all in near-real-time (next day). There is even a predictive component that uses AI/machine learning against transactional data to suggest how the campaign may impact actual sales.
While the magazines brands remain important to Spire, Bala believes this people-based and data-driven approach opens up unforeseen affinities for audiences. A major tech brand wanted to advertise computers, for instance, and the natural thing would have been to place ads on Wired and Ars Technica properties.
But the data showed Condé Nast actually could find some of the most interested in-market consumers in Bon Appétit or Epicurious—foodies who also happen to be interested in creativity and music. This enabled 23 Stories, Condé’s in-house branded content studio, to craft campaigns around creativity rather than tech. The end result was a 30-percent increase in sales, according to the company.
Following the data also allowed Condé Nast to explore new content categories and expand their notion of being contextually relevant.
“It isn’t about just endemic,” says Bala. Using the audience lens recognizes that your readers “aren’t looking for one thing.” GQ, Vogue, and Bon Appétit readers are also curious about health content if it can be addressed creatively and within the context of their favorite fashion or food brands
An entire Condé Nast Health division has been launched as a result, but the data team brings these areas of opportunity directly to all of the magazine brands to leverage on their own. Publishers now have their own dashboard, so they can better see how people are behaving on site and what they are looking for. Editors have the opportunity to build content to satisfy audience desire and perhaps even monetize it more effectively.
“That is what data can do for you,” says Bala. “It can tell you what you need to do.”
Century-old traditions do not turn on a dime, of course. Considerable digital advertising among the sites continues consist of big-brand messaging aligning with specific contexts. While Spire—which first launched two years ago this week—is now providing data and intelligence to all aspects of Condé Nast’s ad sales teams, only about 10 percent of digital campaigns run through the platform as of now, but Bala says he aims towards moving half of all digital programs into Spire over the next few years.