June 13, 2024 | 4 min read

Retail Media Networks Must Evolve Their Operations to Thrive

RMN winners will pursue better automation and scale to take full advantage of their first-party customer data assets.

Three digital windows showing ad space ready to be used. The multiple windows point to the multiple ad networks and environments where brands can advertise.

We’ve reached a critical turning point for Retail Media Networks (RMN). 

The first decade of RMNs ran on infrastructure that’s no longer viable, in particular onboarders that rely on third-party data to power identity graphs. As these continue to become less effective, RMN managers and customer data monetization teams have both an existential need to find new solutions and an opportunity to establish themselves as a key player in their business.

RMN managers need to develop durable methods and approaches that are powered by first-party data. These need to involve both performance improvements and the ability to measure and prove impact. By doing that, they’ll be able to demonstrate sustained growth to executives and investors.

Let’s take a closer look at the limitations of the old paradigm and the opportunities of the new one. 

Onboarders are failing Retail Media Networks

A critical step in the maturation of RMNs will be developing approaches that don’t rely on onboarders. Data brokers like LiveRamp, Acxiom, Neustar, Transunion, and Epsilon have been the link between advertisers and RMNs, but the service they provide has several key failings. 

  • Long timelines - It typically takes one to two weeks or more to get an audience through an onboarder and live into the advertising environment. This is all the more frustrating because there’s no visibility into the process and why it takes so long. 

  • Low measurability - The anonymization of audiences through an onboarder means that RMN managers can’t aim for person-level measurement without a lot of time, effort, and assumptions.

  • Regulatory restrictions  - Onboarders maintain lists based on third-party data, which is more and more subject to regulatory action that limits how it can be applied. Trying to target and measure based on this data means results are less reliable. 

  • Difficulty scaling - Maximizing value from onboarders requires hiring more people to manage processes, rather than using automation to free up the time and productive capacity of the people you already have.  

It’s not an exaggeration to say that onboarders represent an obsolete approach to customer data. They were built for an advertising ecosystem based on third-party data, which is no longer viable. RMN managers need to move on from onboarders and find new ways to operate. 

The shift to first-party audience operations

In the next paradigm of RMNs, first-party data will go beyond forming audiences in the ad environment. It will also power automated workflows to drive transparent, measurable value to brand partners. Instead of working with third-party-based onboarders, RMN teams can collaborate with partners focused on first-party data for media activation to bring these improvements to life. 

Operational evolutions based on first-party data include:

  • Identity interoperability: The RMN uses its own identity to interface with privacy-safe identifiers from a media network (UID 2.0 is an example). This lets them achieve consistent identity across platforms, which will improve cross-channel targeting, personalization, and measurement.

  • Improved measurement: Advancements like identity interoperability for consistency across platforms and Conversion APIs for daily measurement of both online and in-store performance allow for measurement at the level of individuals rather than devices. 

  • Direct activation: Automated connections send first-party audiences to ad environments, including cross-channel transactions informed by daily buyer suppressions.

  • Comprehensive dashboarding: Visibility across ad destinations provides an actual understanding of key business metrics

Developing these operational practices powered by first-party data will produce better business results with visible impact. It also makes the RMN more stable in the longer term by continuing to move away from outdated methods relying on third-party data. These in turn will win monetization teams further buy-in from stakeholders and ownership of their data asset. 

Looking toward the next generation of Retail Media Networks 

The current setup for most RMNs is a patchwork that has accumulated over the years. Third-party-based infrastructure is a road to nowhere. Data clean room projects, initially seen as an antidote to flagging effectiveness in third-party data, have only worked for a select few brands. It’s time for a shift to an intentional infrastructure designed for expanding scale and consumer privacy.

Picture this: The RMN uses a conversion API to provide the advertiser with first-party customer targeting coupled with retailer online & offline transaction data, which is used to optimize the next round of targeting on Demand-side Platforms, which in turn leads to more sales. The flywheel spins and the RMN business grows. 

And while this writeup has focused on teams that manage RMNs, a first-party-based infrastructure will also benefit advertisers — they’ll save time and cost by using direct activation to skip onboarders as well as getting better results with more accurate targeting and measurement. In an RMN ecosystem with more advanced capabilities and scale powered by first-party data, everyone wins.

Check out the session from our 2024 summit Amplify where we discussed monetizing media assets with brands and industry partners.