All Ad Tech isn’t Evil

Ad tech is getting blamed for everything that is wrong with digital media today. And when the pundits speak of “ad tech,” they are lumping in everything from ad servers to RTB platforms to DMPs (Data Management Platforms) to SSPs (Supply Side Platforms) to retargeters to data trackers. But as usual, these generalizations throw out the baby with the bath water.

We also don’t like what consumers mean by “ad tech,” — programs that distribute malware, gather personal information and sell it, or slow down web sites with trackers.

But we think there’s a difference between tracking, which consumers think of as a violation of privacy, and giving useful information.

For example, we are an ad server. As an ad server, we don’t track anything, we simply receive information from advertisers and publishers and serve an ad. We’re a back end technology that isn’t sexy and doesn’t violate anyone’s privacy. That’s how we started.

We also have a private platform. A private platform, too, doesn’t track any personal information. It simply allows an advertiser to buy our high impact formats and be sure they’re going to our premium publisher network without any extraneous influence on the supply chain. If everyone did what we did, consumers wouldn’t be turning on ad blockers.

But they are, and that’s why we spend time with the Online Trust Association, listening to its members speak about what we have to do to preserve advertising as a way to keep content free. Ironically, even the people who make ad blocker software know that advertising won’t go away, and content should continue to be free.

How do we make this happen? Both advertisers and publishers need to learn more about their customers. That involves actually serving them once they are acquired, and talking to them to find out what they truly want to see.

For example, I’m looking for a new car. I no longer buy cars based on horsepower, or even gas mileage, and heaven forbid looks. I buy them for consumer safety technology, which involves movement in the direction of autonomous driving. I also buy them for their in-car media platforms: how much and what kind of software does this car have to help me be productive even in a traffic jam?

But most car salesmen can’t talk about those features in a new car, and most ads don’t feature them. Instead, the ads feature sleek bodies and voiceovers about speed.

When advertisers begin to make ads that actually make consumers familiar with the characteristics of a product that the consumer would actually use, advertising will be helpful again, and consumers won’t be tempted to block it. That’s why there’s such a movement toward native advertising.

But there are two kinds of native ads: one is native to the format of the digital publisher, and means the ad looks like whatever else the consumer is receiving in his or her stream. Promoted Tweets fall into this category. The other is native to the content of the publisher, and means the ad contains information that might be helpful to a consumer making a decision.

Both of these “native” concepts are most suited for brand advertising, and less for direct response. And isn’t that the way advertising was intended? As a way to offer consumers valuable information about products they might want, in a location where they already are?

Let’s go back to that future, and consumers will turn off the ad blockers.




Can Programmatic Give Us Better Targeting?

If you listen to companies on the forefront of programmatic advertising, they tout both its ubiquity (some say over 50% of the market inventory is now purchased programmatically) and its virtues for both publishers and brands. For publishers, programmatic tools have already provided an opportunity to monetize more content, although sometimes at lower CPMs than they’d wish. And for brands, programmatic promises better targeting. Even premium deals can now be done with the automated work flow tools programmatic has made possible.

But does programmatic really provide better targeting? The consumer’s jury is out on that one. Speaking anecdotally, I’ve heard many consumers simultaneously laugh and cry over poorly targeted ads. Millennials may have given up on advertising altogether, turning to ad blockers to rid themselves of “information” they don’t want in places they don’t want it. Mobile is more often than not the culprit in these instances, where unwanted advertising can eat into a user’s data plan.

But programmatic will get better, because there will be more and more data generated by each individual consumer. Wait until your watch, your thermostat, and your washing machine begin to generate data about your habits and wishes as a matter of course. Some of these objects have the capability to do that now, but most of us haven’t bought them yet. The Internet of Things, as it is called, is just beginning to take off for people who are not early adopters. That’s why ad tech companies were present in such force at the Cannes Lion Awards last month — an event that used to belong solely to the creative class.

One speaker at the awards said that marketers are going to have to learn “intent-based marketing,” which means they must shift away from trying to create demand to fulfilling the actual needs of customers. This is a huge shift, since advertising has been a big part in creating and sustaining the consumer economy. But once consumers have the power to communicate their intent so clearly in so many different places, ignoring that intent would be foolhardy on the part of the marketer. It’s better to get on the train in the direction it’s going in, rather than trying to reverse the train’s direction.

The plethora of data created and the ability to target it directly to someone who actually intends to buy a product will ensure the ubiquity of programmatic. Marketers must learn to embrace new patterns of conscious consumption and return to the idea of offering experiences rather than just products.

This shift has only just begun. Expect marketing and publishing to change rapidly over the next decade (again).


A Quick Way to Solve Your Fraud and Viewability Problems

 Switch to ZEDO. And we’re not kidding. Our platform has been tested and shown to contain less than 3% ad fraud, coupled with over 90% viewability. We’ve got the numbers to prove it.
 What does that mean? It means we’ve been working at this problem since we were founded, and every year we get better and better at serving viewable ad units and firing sites where we identify fraud. If we didn’t have to deal with third party networks, we’d probably have zero fraud, because we never include suboptimal sites in the campaigns we serve. Spotting those has been a major focus of our technologists, as has been viewability.
 Three years ago, we pledged to own the phrase “viewable impressions.” Our InView slider, released at the same time, was the first ad unit to test 99% viewable by comScore.
 We have just been waiting for the industry to figure out how much money was being wasted. And sure enough, 2015 has been the year in which ad fraud and its cousin viewability have become major concerns.
They existed before, but there was tacit agreement that not much could be done, and besides, no one knew what percentage of ads were either not viewable or fraudulent. But it was only a matter of time before our ability to mine and manipulate the data associated with advertising transactions began to surface the extent of the problem.
 According to Ad Age, 30% of all programmatic ad buys could be fraudulent, and 90% of the fraudulent traffic is coming from bots. This fraudulent traffic costs the industry as much as $1 million a day, says DoubleVerify. What doesn’t come from bots is due to video fraud, which is more difficult to spot and even harder to get rid of.
We don’t have that either. And on the viewability side of the fence, we’ve just completed a test with MOAT, one of the only certified vendors to track both display and video viewability.
While the Media Rating Council sanctioned buying on viewability last year, the IAB has recently set a standard of only 70% viewability for this year because many vendors couldn’t get much higher. Indeed, MOAT told us the industry benchmark was 62%.
Our ads? 90% in view, and that would be higher again if we didn’t deal with other networks.
 Sure, self-serving blog posts aren’t the best way to get the information out, but there are only a finite number of hours in the day for our sales teams to spend contacting people who don’t yet know how badly they need us and how much we can help them.

What is a Publisher in a Post-Digital Era?

It’s true: the internet changed everything. But one of the things it has changed the most is publishing. It seems like publishing changes just about every week.

When we founded ZEDO, it was easy to define “publisher.” A publisher was an entity that created and distributed content, usually monetizing that content through subscriptions and advertising. Most publishers produced newspapers, magazines, or books. Even in 1999, when publishing had already gone digital, it was still a simple task to find ZEDO’s customers, because we were an ad server to publishers. Now, we have all kinds of new customers that wouldn’t have been publishers in the past — like weather information and dating sites.We were born before the term SSP existed, but we evolved into an SSP, and later to an end to end solution for ATDs. We knew our mission well: to be a partner to publishers.

And we knew who the quality publishers were. Although the internet made it possible for everyone to be a publisher by making a web page, it wasn’t until 2000 when Blogger was founded that individuals began to become publishers in amazing numbers.  Some of those new publishers were actually quite good — their quality rivaled that of traditional journalists. This new development made the supply of content almost infinite and audiences began to fragment accordingly.

Except video audiences. They were still safely sitting in front of the TV, at least until this year. This year, cord-cutting has become  the TV analogue to the end of subscriptions to newspapers. If you can get anything online free, why subscribe to a magazine, or indeed a cable service? That’s why cable operators are unbundling. They have to.

Social media presents yet another challenge. It began to take care of the distribution end of things. If something good happened on the internet, sharing and recommendation sites like Facebook and Twitter could distribute that to an audience in the hundreds of millions, far larger than a publishers’ own site. While that didn’t hurt traditional publishers, it didn’t help them make more money, and Facebook recently launched partnerships with publishers that don’t even involve content appearing on the publishers’ original sites; the content will be published only on Facebook. Buzzfeed, in its own mind, has redefined publisher as “provider of sharable content.”

In the last few months, the video audience, already fragmented by cable and networks, over the top services and social media, had an opportunity to fragment further: Snapchat began its “Discover” streaming video service. While there are plans to monetize this service through advertising, no one is sure how that will work or who will make money. Only two months after Snapchat’s innovation, Meerkat and Pericope have launched, allowing everyone to press a button to produce and distribute live video content to their Twitter friends.

It has been difficult to watch the people formerly known as publishers reel from these changes. Editors who only recently launched Facebook campaigns have had to run to Snapchat, and tell their reporters to get on Periscope.It seems to us that the definition of a publisher has changed. No longer is a publisher a person or company who creates and distributes content; instead, it’s a person or company wildly trying to locate the audience, which is why we’ve evolved as well. We are now a platform that connects both publishers and brands.



Yahoo’s Mobile Growth Signals Marketers’ Shifting Priorities

We just finished reading Nicholas Carlson’s book on Marissa Mayer and Yahoo, and  we think it’s a must read for anyone in the media business.  Set aside the politics, the boardroom battles and the glamorous Vogue photo shoots and you have a picture of a tremendously talented and hardworking CEO who during the past two years has revolutionized the Yahoo product with a strong focus on mobile. If you haven’t visited Yahoo’s various media sites in a while — especially news, weather, and tech — you will find them totally transformed from the old Yahoo. They have the thoroughly modern, easily navigable look of a Flipboard or  Circa, and the mobile versions have even won design awards from Apple.  It’s easy to see that Mayer has taken seriously the need to design data-driven user experiences that can attract younger readers.

Tumblr, too, continues to do well.

And yet, Yahoo’s revenues did not grow in 2014.  Does this mean betting the farm on mobile was wrong? Here’s Mayer putting the best spin on things in the 2014 earnings release:

“I’m pleased to report that our performance in Q4 and in 2014 continues to show stability in our core business,” said Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo. “Our mobile strategy and focus has transformed Yahoo and yielded significant results. In Q4, we saw $254 millionin mobile revenue, up 23% quarter-over-quarter. Across all of 2014, we saw gross mobile revenue of $1.26 billion and GAAP mobile revenue of $768 million. Our investment businesses – mobile, video, native, and social – collectively delivered more than $1.1 billion in GAAP revenue, up 95% year-over-year. These growth drivers have really focused our investments and energy on the future of digital advertising.”

The future of digital advertising. Mobile. In those words lie the answer to why Yahoo isn’t doing so well presently, and why it will do better in the future. And also in those words is a lesson for all other media execs who have yet to make big strategic bets on mobile.

Because Mayer was a tech exec and not a media exec, she focused on mobile from almost the moment she arrived at Yahoo. She knew that was where consumers were headed, and she wanted to get there first to beat them there. But for the same reason — because her background is in tech and not in media — she underestimated how slowly the advertising community would move its budgets to mobile. As a result, she landed Yahoo squarely on mobile just in time to meet her users but a couple of years before marketers realized the need for a mobile strategy and the bigger need to shift budgets.

Mayer might have been too early to mobile, but if you look at the paragraph above you’ll see how quickly the mobile business is growing. Either this year or next it will overtake the traditional Yahoo display business. And then it’s our opinion she will be considered a success in her transformation of a company everyone thought was out of the major leagues.

How is your mobile user experience?




Publishers Re-Designing to Take Mobile Seriously

Publishers who have traditionally felt themselves to be the curators and packagers of news are now re-thinking their roles yet again as consumers switch to mobile. In the days of print, there were one or two deadlines a day, usually morning and evening, at which time a new “package” of news was edited, printed, and distributed. The first switch to digital took those two aggregation points in the day and moved them online. Later, the “home page” emerged, updated more often but still considered the first place a reader would land.  More recently, social media and recommendation engines killed that arrangement as readers came from Google, Facebook and Twitter. And now, mobile has changed things yet again.

Premium publishers are redesigning their sites with less emphasis on the traditional home page and more on the way consumers on mobile “pull” news to themselves — on demand and in context. “Publishers have learned that the smaller smartphone screen has to be treated much differently than the screen of a personal computer. They also are grasping that allowing the consumer to select his or her news preferences has to be a priority,”  writes Michael Barris of Mobile Marketer.  “The big lesson here is that people try to access content where they want to, not where publishers want them to. Utilizing approaches like responsive design—sites that flex to the form factor of the device accessing it—allows organizations to create content once and distribute in as many places as possible.”

For traditional publishers, this has been difficult, as they also have to deal with legacy audiences. The New York Times, for example, has redesigned its site to a long scroll containing all the former sections of the print newspaper on one page to be available to mobile viewers. It has also placed video on the front page,  although not typically “above the fold.”  There are four ad spaces on the home page, all small. The Guardian home page has only a single ad, proving that the publisher feels the editorial experience of a clean home page will be more conducive to getting a reader to click on an internal page., also optimized for mobile, has but a single ad on the landing page.

Why has this changed? Because the “front page” is not how the audience on mobile comes to the publisher. More likely, a visitor will come through an app like Nuzzel, which aggregates all the news your friends are sharing into a simple package of headlines. You, as the visitor, pay very little attention to where the news came from as you click on the headline from the Nuzzel app. That headline leads you to the NYTimes, but not to the site as a whole — only to the article you want to read. On that page are the best advertising opportunities.

This represents a sea change in the way advertising is valued, and also in what advertising will likely work. Ad formats and placements are being swiftly revalued for mobile advertisers, and this along with the growth of native advertising is making for yet another bumpy year in the publishing business.


For Publishers, Sharing Data with Users Promotes Engagement

Consumers are beginning to believe they’re being stalked by marketers. That good news is that targeting has become good enough for people to notice it. The bad news is that it isn’t yet good enough for them to enjoy it. Really good targeting would only deliver ads when and where they are useful. This is the Holy Grail of marketing. Until we get there, more data transparency would fill the gap, because it would explain to consumers why they have been chosen to receive a certain specific campaign. This is a valuable lesson for publishers to learn: giving customers back their data will help them become more engaged with your site.

In a recent Venture Beat article,  the Brent Dykes of Adobe points out that when the music site Pandora shared with him what his behavior was in the past month, it encouraged him to listen to the service again:

I recently caught a small glimpse of the data loop’s potential when I received an interesting email from Pandora Radio. I’m an avid user of their online music service, and they regularly send me various promotional emails. Often these emails feature different artists or upgrade offers, but the one that caught my attention was a monthly email that shared three simple data points:

  1. How many songs I had listened to the previous month (214)
  2. How many songs I had given a thumbs-up rating (6)
  3. What my favorite music channel was (Thievery Corporation)

Besides these three insights, there were no fancy charts, just a question — “What will you do this month?” — and a prominent “Listen Now” button.

LinkedIn offers a similar services that tells people how many users have looked at their profiles. Knowing someone looks at your profile motivates you to keep it up-to-date, and to return to LinkedIn. Facebook offers similar information about the organic reach of its pages — a stat that angers people who now realize they have to pay for advertising, but allows Facebook to monetize more effectively.

Because, you see, businesses have been getting analytics for a long time. It doesn’t seem fair that consumers should not get equal treatment. The only time we, as individuals, customarily receive analytics is when we’ve read the last of the ten free monthly articles on the New York Times, for example. And those serve the publisher, not the consumer. Why wouldn’t I rather know that I’ve read fifteen articles on business and nothing on world events, or vice versa?  If I had that information, perhaps I’d double down, or alter my habits? Either way, I deserve to know, and if I change my pattern when it is called to my attention, that just gives the publisher a more rounded vision of who I am and how I use the site. Ultimately, it makes the targeting more precise, and strengthens my relationship with the company.

…data is an unlimited resource that will only expand with the emergence of the Internet of Things (IoT). As data becomes more pervasive, a healthy data loop with brands will be expected and rewarded by increasingly data-savvy consumers. It’s no longer just about how your company can extract valuable insights from your customer data, but how the data can create value for your customers. It’s time to start planning how your firm can embrace the bi-directional sharing of information and master the emerging data loop.

In an effort to deliver better data to our publisher partners that they can share with their visitors, we have strengthened our reporting tools recently, and we’ve updated our internal dashboard interface.



IAB Leadership Summit Reveals Industry Challenges

Digital advertising has come of age. Online advertising is now the second highest segment of advertising (at least in the US) and we in the industry no longer have to convince media buyers to send budgets online.
However, now we have to prove that those online budgets bring benefits. In a significant move, the IAB announced at its annual leadership meeting that it will now allow ad tech companies as full voting members, acknowledging the importance of data as well as inventory to the industry.
Despite the growth and wholesale acceptance of online advertising, the industry still faces some challenges: consumer consumption habits are changing faster than the industry can figure them out, brands are challenged to keep up, and marketers, agencies and publishers all find their costs increasing because of audience fragmentation and growing demands for customization. The “mass” has gone out of mass media, and with it the economies of scale. In this new environment, publishers have a hard time affording to produce the kind of journalism a free society needs.
Several critical questions remain to be answered by the industry.
1) Should viewable impressions be the new currency?
The viewable impression has technical and measurement challenges that prevent 100% viewability from being a standard in 2015. We’re in a transition period on the path for 100% viewability, but until measurement technology improves to the point where different measuring companies can come within 10% of one another, we don’t have a good metric. The industry is working toward a digital GRP, but I’m not sure GRPs are all they’re cracked up to be.
2) Will native advertising stick?
On every new platform, ads begin as an awkward accompaniment and only later begin to fit better into the new content and context. That’s where native advertising is now. Native ads represent a fundamental turning point in advertising, but they are an addition to, not a replacement for, traditional ads. If you think of ads as falling into three categories, from pure branding to the presentation of information, to the bare performance ad, native ads should come in the middle of the funnel. We sorely need some standards as to how to present native ads without alienating consumers.
3)What kind of advertising works on mobile? The simple answer is “no one knows.” Yet. Right now, mobile ia the frontier, and most brands can’t create, plan, buy, and measure mobile ads. As a result, most mobile ads tend to be performance ads, which is how all digital advertising started.  After we get our arms around the bottom of the funnel, we’ll start to move up toward the top with brand ads and informative ads. One thing we can already see; digital video will be one of the fastest growing segments of advertising and most of it will be consumed on devices.
4) Is programmatic good for everybody? Programmatic is just the automation of the selling and buying process, and right now too many different ad stacks are being used, which makes the process  seem muddled and  slower. But this year there will be an industrywide push for open RTB standards, and for a common, non technical vocabulary that we can all understand and agree on. Then programmatic will be good for everybody.
5) Who will finally address the issues of fraud?
Last year was the year in which ad fraud came to the attention of everyone, whether inside or outside our industry. The viewability issues raised the initial question of fraud, but now the prevalence of data reveals the percentage of clicks and views that come from bots as well as the incidences of malware served to unsuspecting site visitors. Neither publishers nor advertisers can afford to ignore fraud anymore. IAB has thus formed the Trustworthy Accountability Group, a monitoring body to get the bad, immature and incompetent actors out of the supply chain. All marketers who place tags on a page are under warning.
6)And finally, how can we close the skills gap in the industry as well as increase diversity?
Ad sales, operations, and media content creation are all knowledge-based and require continuously learning employees.  IAB is pushing for some sort of certification for ad industry employees, and of course for an education program to go with it.

Real Time Bidding at Scale: the Promise of 2015

2014 was the year Real Time Bidding truly took off. A subset of programmatic, RTB was met with suspicion on both sides of the ecosystem. Although at first advertisers were afraid of it, and publishers thought it would drive eCPMs through the floor, it turns out this hasn’t happened. In fact, the opposite may be happening as targeting gets better and online ROI grows along with it. Publishers who know their audiences and use their audience data can offer it to eager advertisers at higher CPMs.

RTB is probably the biggest advance in online advertising in years, because it puts power in the hands of advertisers, the people who are paying the bills. However, it also helps publishers. Handled by people who know how to buy media, RTB can finally provide brands the answer to the question John Wanamaker first asked: “which of my advertising dollars is wasted?”

That’s because, for the first time, advertisers can buy individuals rather than buying audiences in bunches like grapes, according the Mike Smith, author of the new book “Targeted,”  a primer of online advertising.

Smith points out that RTB radically changes the old audience aggregation paradigm. Advertisers can now decide which individuals suit them, and despite the fact that RTB means everything happens within split seconds, an advertiser still has the opportunity to choose individuals. In real time bidding, the advertisers make their own decisions, instead of relying on agencies or even networks. They can also choose how much to pay for each impression separately. In theory, this makes for a more transparent process.

Smith compares RTB to the music industry, in which it is no longer necessary to buy entire albums after iTunes made it possible to buy just a single cut out of an album. The aggregated audience is analogous to the advertiser’s play list. However, to create that play list takes time, and it takes the cooperation of both publishers and advertisers, who may have different data about the same customer. Most advertisers  have lots of customer data, but they don’t often mine it properly. They began by outsourcing their data management, but increasingly they are taking  data management in house and building their own DMPs, because with RTB they can use the viewing and shopping behavior of their own customers to determine their optimal audience.

Buying individual impressions rather than aggregated audiences is a massive shift.

The only remaining problem is how to buy them at scale, and that’s where a network like the ZEDO premium publisher network comes in. We can take an ad buy that comes in through our ZINCbyZEDO high impact formats division and produce scale for the advertiser through our network.  We can offer advertisers news, sports, travel, and other custom segments as we continue to grow our publisher network. And we can do this through a private exchange, which is an even more desirable way to buy.

We’re predicting a profitable year for our premium publishers as our ZINC team hits the ground running on the advertiser side.


Publishers Can Use Their Own Data to Target Content

In just one short year, mobile has propelled itself from second screen to first. The plethora of large screen smartphone models, even in China and India has brought millions of consumers off the couch or into the connected world. Many of those mobile users check their phones 150 times a day. What an amazing opportunity for marketers to deliver messages, as savvy advertisers already know.  But what does this mean for publishers?

For publishers, it means yet another year of change, but this year is more likely to be a year of opportunity. Like advertisers, publishers now have more and better data about their visitors. And in this environment, publishers should act like advertisers; they should market for visitors in much the same way advertisers do, by targeting content.  And by offering their data to advertisers seeking their audiences. But don’t worry; this won’t create more work for publishers, because as with advertising, this kind of targeting can be done programmatically, through automated workflows. Publishers have already begun to develop their own data management resources for targeting in house rather than using outside suppliers, and MediaPost thinks

…there will  be a focus on programmatic targeting of content, not just ads.  Although programmatic targeting of advertising is now very common for brands and advertisers, in 2015, we’ll see a critical mass of publishers begin to leverage behavioral data to programmatically targeted content to optimize experiences for users on publishers’ sites. Content will be personalized and specifically aimed at individual consumers on websites and blog pages, similar to the way ads have been targeted until now. Medium-to-large sized publishers will also invest in data management platforms and in-house programmatic resources.

For publishers this also means less focus on the home page, because that might not be where the traffic comes from. Some publishers, such as news, weather, and sports  are quite successful with apps, and can target contextually through location awareness; others, like Buzzfeed, target through declared interests. Still others are investing in content based on already-available data.

Better use of data for targeting by publishers will draw advertisers and publishers closer again, after years of being forced apart by ad tech startups who stood in the middle and performed the function of interpreting the publishers’ and the advertisers’ data to each other. Only if that closeness leads to more accurate contextual, rather than just demographic or psychographic, targeting will advertisers be able to measure the ROI of their ads and their content marketing with a specific publisher.