October 7, 2022

Anthony Vargas By Anthony Vargas
The Sell Sider” is a column written by the sell side of the digital media community.
First-party data will be indispensable in a world without third-party-cookies.
But before publishers can monetize that data, they need to respect it, said Karthic Bala, executive vice president of data, product and technology at CNET, a Red Ventures-owned publisher that covers tech and consumer electronics.
Bala joined CNET in August after more than six years as chief data officer at Condé Nast.
“The more consumers trust you, the more data you get and the more responsibility you need to take in protecting that data,” Bala said. “You don’t want to create experiences that make the consumer question what you’re doing with their data.”

Protecting consumer data should be at the core of everything a company does. “Anything else is secondary,” he said.
Bala spoke with AdExchanger.
AdExchanger: What got you interested in joining CNET and Red Ventures (RV)?
KARTHIC BALA: This portfolio of brands is very focused on performance, and they’ve created an amazing data asset. Unlocking the power of that data asset for our consumers and our partners to drive better performance seemed like the next big move.
RV’s approach is full-funnel. We’re inspiring, engaging and transacting. That creates a whole different set of data tools for me to play with. RV probably has the biggest intent database I’ve seen. It’s a huge pool of audiences and data segments. The idea is to use that to generate different revenue streams and deeper, richer partnerships.
How important is affiliate marketing to RV?
A lot of RV’s brands, like Bankrate, or its brands in the home, education and travel divisions, attract intent-driven audiences, which has led to a lot of affiliate sales and ecommerce. That data set can help us understand what is driving affiliate transactions, who those consumers are and how you can take them from the top of the funnel to the bottom using personalization and recommendations.
Building connections with these audiences will require more authenticated users, which is another big focus. Our subscription model is mostly focused on newsletter subscriptions, but we want to build better customer experiences to incentivize more subscriptions. That will enable us to drive our omnichannel approach, whether it’s via email or wherever the consumer is.
Are paid subscriptions in CNET’s future?
Unless it’s exclusive, high-value content, I don’t see that for the CNET brand. But there could be utilities that provide value around the content that might be paid for.
How are you building on CNET and RV’s ad tech stack?
We have a CDP platform and homegrown analytics that let us be deliberate about how we gather data and about our focus on privacy, security and governance, because it’s happening within the walls of our ecosystem.
I would love to partner with companies that are like-minded in terms of building a scalable and fluid infrastructure so we can experiment and deploy features rapidly. I’m also interested in building predictive models using machine learning and AI for personalization.
What are your plans for expanding RV’s data and tech backbone to support CNET’s performance goals?
Dollars are constantly shifting to new marketing approaches and there are new players coming in all the time, like retail media networks. If you create a full-funnel, performance-oriented, consumer-focused offering, market volatility is less impactful because you’re catering to more stages of a marketer’s cycle.
But that will only work if you’re in control of performance and you’re constantly measuring what value you drive. And we have the data to prove that.
What’s your first-party data strategy?
Not every user is going to be logged in or a subscriber. But they’re still giving you first-party contextual data signals about what their intention is and what their outcome needs are, that they’re interested in the top 10 computers, for example. That data can be used to create audience segments, but anytime you do anything with data it should be focused on benefiting the consumer.
If a user shares that they’re looking for a new wireless plan, and you’re sharing their data with wireless carriers, the experience should be clear about that. I recommend that we be transparent with data usage across CNET. We’re building tech to enable this, because a lot of these capabilities don’t exist today.
How important will contextual targeting be to CNET’s future?
Part of our first-party data asset is our content. Providing contextual targeting is a big part of how we look at the future. Contextual targeting could mean ad targeting, but it could also include recommendations and personalization.
Are you using the IAB Tech Lab’s Seller-Defined Audiences?
We’ve ingested the IAB taxonomy, but my goal is to move to a more performance-driven strategy where IAB is a part of it, but not all of it. We have our own proprietary ad units other than the standard IAB units, and we want to make those more performance-driven.
Are you worried that a recession might limit RV’s ability to invest in expanding its ad tech stack?
The reason I’m here is to build a whole new opportunity for RV. And I have handled situations like this in the past.
If there are challenges in the marketplace, you prioritize the most important things and build whatever is best for the consumer.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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