New York Ad Week Reveals Facebook’s Problems

New York Advertising Week was very revealing, both about the state of the industry in general (existential angst), and about Facebook’s problems in particular. I predict by next year there not only won’t be a duopoly–that’s well on the way because of Oath and Amazon–but will be a considerably more open marketplace.

Facebook has begun selling video ads through a program called In-Stream Reserve. Similar to YouTube’s Google Preferred program, In-Stream Reserve puts a velvet rope around Facebook’s most prized video inventory and sells it as a standalone package. However, what Facebook considers prized programming may not match with advertisers’ expectations, especially among TV ad buyers who are accustomed to buying individual programs on linear TV and may be unfamiliar with Facebook shows like “Fear Pong” and “Truth or Drink,” which along with MaxNoSleeves are also part of In-Stream Reserve.

When Facebook pitched the program as a test earlier this year, it asked advertisers to commit to spend $750,000 over three months. The price tag has since dropped to roughly $250,000 over three months, according to two agency execs with knowledge of the matter. A Facebook spokesperson declined to comment on pricing.

And from Casey Newton’s newsletter, another problem:

“One, my people are mad at Facebook for requesting that they register as political advertisers in order to promote their gay cabaret shows. Eli Rosenberg reports in the Washington Post:
The Washington Post found dozens of advertisements mentioning LGBT themes and words that the company blocked for supposedly being political, according to a public database Facebook keeps.
The rejections, the majority of which Facebook told The Post were in error, underscore the company’s challenges in regulating the massive amount of information flowing through its service, an issue that burst into the fore after the disclosure that Russian-state actors used advertisements on Facebook to sow discord during the 2016 U.S. election. But they also touch on a deeper tension as the company seeks to better regulate political uses of its platform. Though Facebook has taken pains to appear neutral, the censorship of LGBT ads, however inadvertent, points to the company’s difficulty in finding a middle ground in a tense national climate where policy increasingly hinges on fundamental questions about race and identity.
It’s too much to say that these ads were “censored.” Registering as a political advertiser is certainly a hassle; it involves the US Mail. But Facebook didn’t reject the ads so much as it requested more information about the advertiser — which, as the Post notes, the company later admitted that it did in error. Securing the platform means hassling lots of people, some of whom will be hassled unfairly. “
All this serves to convince me that next year will be a better year. And as Will Smith said, “nothing is more valuable than your gut. The metrics are there just to train your gut.” I trust my gut about the state of the ad business all the time, and we’re still here.

Are Techniques Like Microtargeting and Retargeting Worth it?

There was a very interesting article in the NYTimes last week about how Facebook has “weaponized” ad tech. Although the article was really meant to highlight the abuses of political advertising on Facebook as we move toward the 2018 elections, the impact of micro targeting in the political sphere carries over to all publishers.

Facebook has made a mint by enabling advertisers to identify and reach the very people most likely to react to their messages. Ad buyers can select audiences based on details like a user’s location, political leanings and interests as specific as the Museum of the Confederacy or online gambling. And they can aim their ads at as few as 20 of the 1.5 billion daily users of the social network.

Brands love it. So do political campaigns, like those for President Trump and former President Barack Obama, which tailored their messages to narrow subsets of voters.

But microtargeting, as the technique is called, is coming under increased scrutiny in the United States and Europe. Some government officials, researchers and advertising executives warn that it can be exploited to polarize and manipulate voters. And they are calling for restrictions on its use in politics, even after Facebook, in response to criticism, recently limited some of the targeting categories available to advertisers.

Commercially, the worst offenders of microtargeting are high frequency users of retargeting, often e-commerce sites. Retargeting has now grown so accurate and often so intrusive that it does things like target people off Facebook who have had a conversation about a product on Facebook or the converse: showing Facebook ads to someone who has had a conversation about a product over, say, Gmail. Retargeting is the activity folks who are sensitive to privacy violations refer to as web stalking.

Not only that, but according to some experts retargeting isn’t even a good way to measure whether ad spend works. Retailers tend to think it helps cure the problem of cart abandonment, but they never can tell whether retargeting brought the consumer back, or perhaps payday did. Or a competitor’s ad did. We’re measuring what’s easy to measure, rather than whether our ad spend really works. This is one writer’s cynical view:

Since there is no easy way to measure if ads drive incremental revenue, it is in the best interest of performance-marketing directors, retargeting companies, ad agencies and Google to aggressively target consumers who are highly likely to purchase anyway. It amounts to a retargeting conspiracy among willful participants, and it threatens to drag down digital people-based marketing’s potential long into the future.

We think it would be much easier to measure attribution if more media buys were done with context in mind. Perhaps that’s what Amazon has in mind when analysts predict its ad revenues will surpass its AWS revenues by 2020.

 

 

How the Blockchain Might Help Advertising

The media industry is still a long way from realizing the dream of digital advertising: the ability to target customers and know whether the targeting or the messaging worked.  Although many metrics exist for measuring the effectiveness of digital ads, we still don’t now which ones are the best.
Wrap into that some industry specific problems like fraud and viewability, and you get a somewhat disturbing picture, one that makes brands reluctant to pour large dollars into digital. And yet, the largest demographic today is millennials, and they are digital natives. We’re just not going to reach them any other way than digital, and within digital, mobile, and within mobile, video.
So print is gone as a tool, as is desktop. Display is not far behind. The most promising forms of advertising today (and we say today because things change rapidly) are in-app ads, native ads, and incentivized ads.
At the same time these changes have been happening, the industry has been plagued with an epidemic of bots and click fraud. Because there isn’t much transparency during the online auction process through which ads are now bought and sold, advertisers have had problems finding out where  or even if their ads have appeared.
This has led to a new emphasis on contextual advertising: the ability to target ads based on where target customers might already be.
Blockchain might also help here, because blockchain transactions are both transparent and encrypted. Unfortunately, not enough is known about how blockchain could be used, so we’re just in the pilot stage. One problem with current blockchain implementations, such as those used in cryptocurrency, is the inability of today’s blockchains like Ethereum to handle transactions at the speed with which ads are currently served. We’re assuming this will be solved in the future, as it is a technology problem.
More important is the issue of customer experience. Taken by the ability to reach millions of people, advertisers decided they wanted to reach audiences “at scale” all the time, regardless of the wishes of those audiences. It has taken the better part of two decades for the industry to realize that — just like with print or TV–less is more. Loading up pages or streams with advertising has led to a boycott of advertising altogether by the 25% of consumers who run ad blockers.
In surveys of people who do run ad blockers, to them the most offensive part of digital advertising isn’t the actual ad, but the tracking of information and the sale of that information to third parties (data brokers). A common statement from about five years ago, “the value is in the data” overlooks how the provider of the data, the consumer, might feel about how her data is being used. This oversight has led to what Doc Searls calls the greatest consumer boycott in history — the boycott of digital advertising.
For consumers to trust advertising again, they have to be assured that their data will not be bought and sold against their will. This is the objective of the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation). While the GDPR nominally applies only to Europe, because of the global possibilities that come with digital advertising it has engendered compliance in companies that are not headquartered in Europe but may have European customers, like Facebook and Amazon.
Ideally, data privacy will one day be coded into a blockchain that guarantees each consumer the right and ability to control her own data and decide when to make it available. Companies like Digi.Me are already giving consumers the ability to control and share data at will, and when the blockchain matures, we will finally have a totally trustworthy advertising ecosystem again.

 

 

Can Ads Work Without Targeting?

We’ve grown fond of thinking that we need data, data, and more data to have ads that work. That data bias has driven the creativity right out of the industry, and with it the consumer’s tolerance for advertising in general. And yet, many ads used to succeed and even still do, without targeting customers through data mining. These are the ads consumers didn’t mind, and they’re the ones that will survive GDPR, Facebook, and all the other horror stories about digital advertising.

“Old school” ads worked by simply raising awareness. Many pharmaceutical ads still work this way. They are usually bought in mass media, which pretty much targets everyone. And the message is something like “if you suffer from X, ask your doctor about Y.” Some of them, like one prize-winning ad for Vytorin, a cholesterol-lowering drug, gave even more detailed information to tell viewers that high cholesterol was due partly to genetics and partly to what you eat. But it was still information.

Some travel ads also simply give information. “Vacation on the beach for only $599 a week.” An ad like this makes almost anyone aware that this advertiser is offering a sale or a good value on a beach vacation. Airlines and hotels often advertise this way during slow seasons.

Yet other ads try to persuade. Occasionally, the persuasion is pretty overt. But ads can also signal things about products and services without being overtly persuasive. For example, SuperBowl ads very seldom try to persuade game-watchers of anything. However, they signal that the company that buys an ad is financially able to afford it, and thus is more trustworthy than some upstart brand. Or, if the brand is buying an ad for the first time, the signal is that there’s a new disruptive company in town, taking over from the incumbents.

Another way ads can work without targeting is by making promises. “If you buy this product, you will look like/feel like/live like the person seen in the ad.” Some of the promises are explicit, like automobile ads that promise a 100,000 warranty, and some are implicit, like the promises made by anti-aging products or skin creams.

A good brand knows that when it makes a promise, it has to keep that promise, or the brand will lose its good reputation. When an airline says its flights are 99% on time, it had better be able to support that promise, or we will soon see the end of the brand’s primacy in the consumer’s mind.

The last way ads can work without data-driven targeting is through context: in other words, by being placed around content that aligns with the brand’s philosophy, the consumer’s interest, or the type of publication. The best example of this is New Yorker ads, which contain a preponderance of luxury items and items that appeal to intelligent, educated people. These are audience-based ads, and they are not designed for a specific customer, but rather for a specific audience.

We have long attempted to persuade the industry that all this data can cloud, rather than clarify, the goals of an advertising campaign, and we are happy to see the industry coming around to this. We can have a very healthy advertising industry without over-using consumer data and violating consumer privacy rights.

 

IAB’s TAG Program Works, but Too Expensive

Just in time for all the changes in the global market that GDPR will bring next year comes the welcome news that Trustworthy Accountability Group (TAG) certified companies experienced 83% less fraud this year than the market as a whole. TAG, as you may remember, was an initiative we worked with two years ago when it was getting under way. This year, the group introduced Certified Against Fraud, a self-attested certification for companies that were willing to have  compliance officer who will inspect the company’s policies and priorities and tell internal people how to comply.

This year, 170 companies joined the program to combat ad fraud. Certain large advertisers have already said they will not do business with companies that have not been certified. IAB has also made the program mandatory for all its members in 2018.

A study conducted by The 614 Group assessed the rate of invalid traffic in 6.5 billion digital ad impressions executed by three large media companies — GroupM, IPG, and Horizon Media on behalf of their clients between July and October. Every impression was delivered through a TAG certified channel. So how did 614 Group know what the rate of invalid digital traffic is overall? They benchmarked it at 8.83% for display and 12.03% when video was included. On TAG channels the rate fell to 1.48%.

We’re thinking the one thing wrong with this TAG certification process is that it is only available to large industry players. Currently, it costs $15,000 annually to join TAG and another $10,000 to get certified. If IAB is going to require this next year,  they need to add a program for smaller players and startups, which I bet is where some of the remainder of their invalid traffic comes from.

And for smaller players and startups that are legitimate, the cost is prohibitive. Yet many startups have promising new ideas and technologies that marketers need to be able to try to get new ideas. On behalf of all those small but important and innovative players, who will help move digital advertising forward in the coming years, we intend to say something at the IAB Leadership summit in Palm Springs in February.

 

 

 

 

Agencies Merging in the Face of GDPR

One of the ways agencies grow is by buying smaller agencies. In theory, that gives them access to more clients, a fresh creative staff, and a way to create scale to ward off competitors. However, mergers and acquisitions are only as good as their integrations into the mother ship.  According to an article in AdExchanger,

There were 398 acquisitions in 2016 with a total investment of $14 billion.  The Big Six – WPP, Dentsu, Havas, Publicis, IPG and Omnicom – were responsible for 89 acquisitions, at a value of more than $3.3 billion.

Figures through September showed 291 acquisitions this year. And in this game of agency supermarket sweep, many of the targets come from the data, digital and programmatic aisle.

This could prove tragic in the long run. The good news is that at long last agencies seem to understand that digital, data and programmatic are capabilities they need to have. But they are one step behind in the race to the future. As a result of coming new data privacy regulations, such as the European GDPR (Global Data Privacy Regulations), many marketers have data at the forefront of their minds, but for the wrong reasons. They know they are going have difficulty using it the way they did in the past, because now the consumer will be in control of her data.

What the big agencies really should be doing is studying up on those regulations and coming to grips with the limits that will be placed on the use of data in the future. Agencies are usually headed by people who may know the creative side of the house but don’t keep very good tabs on data. There will be an amazing culture clash when the data-driven geeks arrive in the house. There will be equally big problems because programmatic itself is coming under scrutiny for brand safety issues and ad fraud. So far, the geeks and the creatives have been kept separate, in separate companies. If they come together under one roof, that holding company will have to tighten its controls to make sure that the data flowing through its acquisitions is in compliance with the new regulations, or the fines will be significant.

So what the agencies will need now is a new cadre of management familiar with aspects of the business that have been lumped into a separate bucket called “martech.” And they will probably have to beef up their compliance departments as well.

In the rush to integrate acquisitions and learn more about how to manage data, guess what will get short shrift again? True creative, the kind that makes advertising users want to see.

Instream, Outstream We All Like Video Stream

A little more than four years ago, ZEDO had a global product development meeting to come up with ideas for mobile video. At the time, things were just shifting to mobile, and the ad dollars weren’t quite there yet. The customers, however, were spending more and more time on mobile devices, and the future could be clearly predicted by publishers, who were seeing more and more or their traffic come from smart phones and tablets. Our partner, The Economist, had asked us for a way to run video ads on text pages.

The conversation in the room at that meeting quickly moved around to the differences between phones and tablets, and what consumers would “tolerate” on a device they wore on their person all day. Somehow, the phone seemed a radical departure from any other online device because of this intimate connection with its user.

Our product team showed some of us in marketing an ad unit they were calling “In Article video” because it was a large video ad format that could be shown on a text-based site, and it was a complete departure from the only available video ad format at the time, which was pre-roll. There was a shortage of available pre-roll, and marketers were searching for other places to use their existing TV creative.We thought the format was very effective, and would drive user engagement, because at the time users were just beginning their love affair with video on the phone.Mobile video was still something of a novelty.

We decided at that meeting to call our offering “In Article Video,” because it ran in the article, appearing only when the user scrolled down to see it. When we tested it, the viewability of the unit was over 70%.  We knew we had found the answer to filling advertisers’ need for something beyond pre-roll.

In the first year, we sold this format as In Article, but then the industry began to call it outstream, and soon we had at least one copycat who popularized the name “Outstream.” While this made no sense to us as a name, we had no choice but to adopt it.

One of the claims we have always made about Instream/Outstream video formats is that they are a form of “native,” meaning they don’t take the viewer away from the mobile stream of news or articles she is already reading. However, the industry decided to make it difficult for us with that definition as well: native can now also mean branded or sponsored content. Native has come to mean advertorial, and nothing to do with format or feed.

I’ll take a minute to argue here that every time the industry chooses a confusing term for an ad format, it makes that format more difficult to gain adoption. We have had to deal with the confusion around Outstream and then the confusion around the meaning of native, and we believe that has held back the adoption of both ideas.

The good news is that 77% of marketers have not hear of either Outstream or Instream video, so we’ve got a large addressable market to go after next year with our publisher partners.

 

 

Facebook’s Problems Illuminate Dangers of Scale

As if all the new blockchain companies trying to fix digital ad transactions weren’t enough, we will certainly face more scrutiny in the buying and selling of ads since it was revealed that a Russian troll bank connected to the Kremlin propaganda machine bought $100,000 worth of ads on Facebook during the last election. This was admitted by Facebook, which probably means it’s the tip of the iceberg. Underneath is an iceberg that could harm Facebook if the election revelations are looked at as part of  a pattern that includes Facebook’s recent gaffe with data reporting.

That gaffe, reported by CNBC,  was discovered by a Pivotal analyst,

Facebook’s Ads Manager claims a potential reach of 41 million 18- to 24-year olds and 60 million 25- to 34-year olds in the United States, whereas U.S. census data shows that last year there were a total of 31 million people between the ages of 18 and 24, and 45 million in the 25-34 age group, the analyst said.

“While Facebook’s measurement issues won’t necessarily deter advertisers from spending money with Facebook, they will help traditional TV sellers justify existing budget shares and could restrain Facebook’s growth in video ad sales on the margins,” said research analyst Brian Wieser, who maintains a “sell” rating on the stock with a price target of $140 for year-end 2017.

While the incorrect reporting of data is something Facebook itself has to fix, the propaganda problem is more difficult to address.

There is a lot of hand-wringing going on in our government and in our newspapers wondering how the Russian ad buy could have happened. But we in the industry know exactly how it could happen: Facebook Ads Manager. Anyone with a credit card  and a Facebook account can use Ads Manager, and several people making relatively unnoticeable buys of about $10,000 each could easily have the benefit of Facebook’s super-targeting abilities to hit very specific people with very appropriate messages that would resonate enough to cause them to change their behavior patterns or — we wonder — their votes.

Thus, the same specificity that brands love can be perverted by political organizations to manipulate minds.

How should we think about this?

In Europe, the GDPR addresses some, but not all of this by giving consumers more control over their data. However, we haven’t yet seen any expert analysis of how this would apply to Facebook, which is not a conventional publisher. In fact, Facebook has been reluctant to think of itself as a media company at all. In the face of these recent discoveries, that’s one thing we think will have to change. We may see the return of the ugly word “platisher” as we in the industry try to address these concerns.

 

IOS11 Forces Ad Industry Innovation

Last week Apple announced IOS11 and with it the new version of its Safari browser. Now Safari is not at all the most popular browser, because most of the world uses Android, but it is a browser used by almost half of all web traffic in North America and a quarter of all the traffic in Europe. And that traffic is highly desirable to advertisers.

Apple, however, does not care about advertisers. Advertising isn’t its business model, because it sells hardware and software.  And to illuminate the cause of its unconcern:  Apple’s differentiator is security and privacy.

Remember when the F.B. I. asked the company to break into the iPhone of Syed Rizwan Farook, who perpetrated the mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif a year ago and the company refused? 

Bureau officials [said] that encrypted data in Mr. Farook’s phone and its GPS system may hold vital clues about where he and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, traveled in the 18 minutes after the shootings, and about whom they might have contacted beforehand.

Apple went to court and fought the government rather than write new software to compromise the iPhone’s security.

It only stands to reason that Apple would try to protect its users further by incorporating anti-tracking software into Safari; that’s right in line with its brand strategy.

Safari 11… intelligent tracking-prevention technology makes it harder for ads to follow you around from one site to another and for advertisers to keep track of your browsing habits over the longer term. One part of the approach is deleting even first-party cookies if it’s been more than 30 days since you interacted with the website that set the cookie.

This drove the advertising industry wild, with a coalition of industry groups publishing a letter last week telling Apple that Safari’s new settings would endanger internet economics.

Apple’s Safari move breaks [cookie-setting] standards and replaces them with an amorphous set of shifting rules that will hurt the user experience and sabotage the economic model for the internet.”

But the ad industry shouldn’t worry. We remember when pop-up ads were blocked, and the industry squirmed. We also remember when third party cookies began to be blocked in browsers, and the industry wrung its hands again. Now the blocking of first party cookies will be used as an incentive to innovate, because consumers have already sent the message that they hate retargeting and don’t want to be followed around the web by a pair of shoes they just bought.

And besides, not all first party cookies are blocked, and that’s because some of them are actually desirable for users. Those are the ones that make it possible for you to log into a site without re-registering each time. Safari uses a machine learning model, so if a user visits a site and logs in with Facebook or Twitter, a cookie will still be set to allow that user to log in again.

We are gradually moving toward an era of brand advertising, in which users will be shown content and incentivized to interact with ads for a reward. This gives users a choice,  and does not put all the power in the hands of advertisers and their ad tech to force an ad in front of an unwilling user, where it has rested for the past two decades.

 

 

ZEDO: A Safer Way to Buy and Sell Digital Ads

I was talking to a woman on our sales team in the midwest last week, and she said “you know, in the midwest many agencies haven’t even heard of ZEDO and ZINC.” In some ways, that’s not a surprise. We’ve been around since 1999, when we were founded as an ad server for publishers, and our headquarters then was in San Francisco. We later expanded to deliver out-sourced ad operations services, yield optimization services, and pretty much anything a publisher would need to increase revenue. But we’re a solutions development company, not a marketing company.

About three years ago, we started a division called ZINC and brought to market innovative high impact ad formats as the industry changed. We were, if I remember correctly, first to market with an ad called the “Inview Slider,” an ad that only appeared when a visitor was there to see it. we followed that with an equally innovative video format designed to be displayed by publishers with sites that didn’t publish video. The “InArticle” Video was quickly picked up by the industry and re-named “outstream.”

We went on to focus on mobile, developing an entire suite of ad formats that do not anger mobile users and get better results than any of our competitors. Along the way, we moved the company to New York to signal our entry into the advertising side of the digital media ecosystem.

Once in New York, we realized we had access to a new customer: brands and agencies.

Along the way we participated in a range of industry-wide initiatives, and realized that ad fraud and brand safety were becoming paramount in the minds of industry thought leaders, so we jumped ahead once again, developing a completely private, secure, end-to-end solution  — a platform on which our customers can buy innovative formats that are served directly to our premium publisher network without the danger of supply chain corruption.

At the same time, we eliminated several former partners with whom we worked until we realized they weren’t playing the game on the up and up and their networks were fraught with bots and malware. We also severed connections with some non-quality publishers.  And last, we partnered with a company that checks all the URLs to which we serve to make sure we serve ads in a brand safe environment.

All the while, we were heads down continuing to develop new technologies, and ignoring the elaborate marketing plans other companies user to generate transactional sales. We much prefer relationship sales. We’ve just developed our first slide deck in years. We’re coming out to build additional relationships.

You will see more of us now in the media world, because we have begun reaching out in the midwest, New York, and the west coast, doing somewhat more aggressive storytelling about what we have to offer.