Amid the arms race to attract larger audiences and more unique visitors, publishers are fast amassing ever-increasing volumes of audience data.

Such data is also getting more and more detailed – in part due to analytics companies like Chartbeat working with an increasing number of publishers (across 11,000+ domains), but also due to a greater reliance on data and developers to run, maintain, and expand sites, and a greater importance now placed on the science of analytics.

But academics trying to access this data for research purposes can often find it difficult to do so.

Five community websites – Reddit, Imgur, Twitch, FARK, and StackExchange – are joining forces to form The Digital Ecologies Research Partnership, or “Derp”, to promote “open, publicly accessible, and ethical academic inquiry into the vibrant social dynamics of the web,” according to its site.

Derp seeks to solve two problems in academia:

  1. To reduce the friction between academic researchers easily obtaining data beyond the boundaries of the largest social media platforms: “Derp is a single point of contact for researchers to get in touch with relevant team members across a range of different community sites.”
  2. It’s currently difficult to conduct good-quality cross-platform analyses in academic research. By bringing together a community of websites under a single umbrella, Derp makes this easier.

A lot of the data the sites constituting Derp are offering to publishers is free data often easily obtainable through public APIs, but the developers working at each site will be faster at accessing it and will inevitably have a deeper understanding of it.

How publishers can use this to their advantage

The same rules apply for publishers, which have been building up data teams for several years so they can be better at both publishing, but crucially, advertising.

That data is often described as a publisher’s greatest asset since it can either be sold to advertisers to improve the relvancy of campaigns anywhere on the web, or used to segment a publisher’s own audience to deliver more relevant ads on its own site.

While the first option is often seen as counterproductive because it is designed to improve ads elsewhere, the second clearly limits the usefulness of that data to the properties a publisher owns.

But could offering that data (carefully anonymised of course) to organisations that aren’t involved in the ad businesss, provide a way to make more from audience activity on their sites? 

It’s nice that Derp is offering its data for free to academics, but most universities and research institutions are used to paying (often enormous) sums of money to access data and scientific literature.

At most that raises the possibility of publishers – which as we have established are sitting on a lot of social and audience data – selling insight to academics looking to understand more about the way people react to content online. It wouldn’t be a game changer, but if handled carefully, it could be another way to make money from audiences that doesn’t involve serving them ads or forcing them to pay.

Image via Casey Fleser used under a Creative Commons license.