Web 25: Targeting and Personalization

Late October will mark the 25th anniversary of advertising on the Web. Having been part of the team that ushered in those first primitive digital ads in 1994, I’ll be using this space in the intervening weeks to explore the fulfillment, failure and future of the web’s marketing and social promise. This week, Targeting and Personalization.

As our small team of outlaws were selling the first ads on the web, it would be more than a year till the invention of the first ad server.

Think about that for a minute.

There was no practical way to serve an ad independent of the page it was selected to run on. User targeting was impossible. To us – then – it was enough that a marketer could talk to a customer based on whether she was viewing a page about home improvement or cooking. That you had an opportunity to advertise at just the exact moment when relevant attention was being spent was, at the time, revolutionary.  Of course, that moment couldn’t scale and wouldn’t hold. Change was inevitable… but what kind?

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The deal we struck with consumers (or at least told each other at conferences) was better and more personalized advertising and content experiences in exchange for data. We’ll be watching you, but we’ll make it worth your while.  By even the most charitable estimate, we haven’t lived up to that bargain. We went on a serious bender of infinite supply and cheap data…and the hangover is a bitch.  Seeing no value, consumers have revolted. Politicians of all stripes are engaged. GDPR has led to CCPA. And major marketers are demanding heretofore unseen levels of transparency and purity.

And as a result, just maybe we’re getting back to what made this all special in the first place.

No one is naïve enough to think we’ll go backwards to a world without ad servers. But look at what is happening. First party data is quickly becoming table stakes. Marketers are taking a fresh look at context: they are moving beyond brand safety and looking for brand building environments. There’s been a boom in content marketing and high-production-value video adjacencies. Publishers are rising to the challenge of delivering real personalization and reciprocal value to marketers and consumers.

We’re not going to start hard coding ads onto web pages again. But if we pay attention, we might realize that we’ve found the source code for a healthy web for marketers, publishers and consumers. A little bit of ’94 might still be good for us.

The Client Will See You Now…

The Client Will See You NowOne of the most anticipated and important conversations we’ll be having at the Seller Forum this week will feature marketers from three nationally prominent brands. (Since the Forum is a closed-door, no-press meeting, only those in attendance will hear from these marketers first-hand.) What I want to talk about in today’s post is why top marketers would come to meet with a roomful of sales leaders – because they are the same reasons why they might be likely to open to door to your company. But only if you’re truly ready.

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Let’s start with the reasons why clients have historically not been willing to meet with sellers. Truth be told, our view of client interaction has been fairly unsophisticated. After arguing our case with the agency media planning team – the lower court – we’d try and appeal to the client – the appellate court – to overturn the verdict, essentially asking the client to involve herself in a media planning decision that’s below her paygrade and beneath her agenda. A client – or even someone at a very senior level at an agency – doesn’t care whether one media or tech vendor ends up on a media plan or not. By trying to get them involved in this tussle, you bring them a brand new problem instead of solving an existing one.

So why would a client see you today? And why is today different than days past? Three words sum it up: Data…Creativity….Authenticity.

Data is so pervasive that it can seem like a commodity. But real, valuable, first-party data – and the ability to put it to work for the marketer – are in short supply. Marketers are viewing data through a very sophisticated lens: It’s bigger than advertising, bleeding over into CRM, retailer relationships, localization and more. The marketer will have a smart, future oriented conversation about data with you.

Creativity, also, is scarcer than you think. Sure there are modern day Don Drapers and Peggy Olsons toiling at work stations in agencies. But many of our companies are creating brand new palettes that agency creatives barely recognize. And ‘creativity’ in digital media today has as much to do with anthropology as it does with art. Media companies are simply closer to the behavior of the consumer than either the brand or its agency.

Authenticity is probably the one quality marketers crave above any other. Authenticity is what helps break through the veil of indifference and inattention and makes a brand or product genuinely matter to a consumer. The web is “an embarrassment of niches,” where consumers feel passionate and connected.   I don’t care if you call it content marketing, native, enhanced sponsorship or something else; the challenge is to bring their brand and your user experience together in a way to confers authenticity.

Digital has freed the captive genie from a bottle called “advertising.” Those willing to similarly free their imaginations and agendas from the same bottle will find a willing and open conversation with the marketer.  Just don’t try to fake it.


Karaoke Data Marketing

Karaoke Data MarketingI’ve been spending a lot of time lately with publishers, technology providers and others talking about the state of data-driven marketing these days.  And from what I can tell, the collective sentiment is… “meh!

Now don’t get me wrong:  most people in our business are impressed by the talent and technology that are pushing data-driven marketing forward.  But when measured against the incessant hype (Really?  The Holy Grail?  Really?) the whole thing feels a little less than whole.  It’s like we’ve paid top dollar to watch a concert but instead ended up at Karaoke night at the local watering hole:  all the lyrics are the same, but the pitch is off and the dude just doesn’t have the pipes to sing this song!

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While I love a good bubble as much as the next guy, I feel like there are a few things lacking in today’s data gold rush:

Overreliance on Retargeting:  Stalking the consumer with his unfinished purchase after he leaves a retail site is a neat trick that solves a big problem for merchants, but I’ve heard that an overwhelming percentage of ad tech and data dollars are aimed at doing only this one thing.

Quality and Recency of the Data:  When the data market is hot, we don’t ask how the sausage is made.  But when you squint and look hard at all the third party data that’s flying around, it doesn’t look so appetizing.  First party data is just better than warmed over assumptions and projection.  If it wasn’t, it wouldn’t command such a premium in dollars and attention.

Viewability and Fraud:  I once dismissed the viewability issue, but later had my own personal “road to Tarsus” moment of clarity.  There’s just too much bad stuff still going on in the big open exchanges.  Reputable publishers may fix their page designs and agree to standards, but they were never the problem in the first place.  We can try to sanitize the public markets, but at some point there has to be a conversation about what inventory should even be in play.

Cross Platform Anyone?  The dirty little secret behind this whole frothy business is the cookie, and the cookie doesn’t travel well.  I may be writing this on a computer and posting it on the web, but you’re more than likely seeing it on a mobile device.  Nuff said.

There are lots of white hats out there, and under those white hats are busy brains. These are the individuals and companies who are figuring out how to harness first party data and high-quality inventory into the automated ad buying and placement business.  These are the settlers who come in after the gold rush and build thriving, vital cities.  Because nobody needs another post bubble ghost town.  Or another Karaoke bar.

The Shot Over the Bow.

Listening to the insider discussions and industry reporting about online marketing provides a numbing sense of false comfort.  But every so often, we go outside the bubble and hear civilians talking about what we do.  I’m sure most of us have had someone at a party or family gathering share their ‘creeped out’ moment;  that instance where they finally saw clearly that somehow they were being ‘followed’ online.   Other times, they offer us largely unformed general concerns about online privacy: they don’t really have a sense of what’s going on but they instinctively know they don’t like it.  And once in a great while you’ll hear from someone who’s really done their homework and brings crystal clarity to the issue from the consumer point of view.

That moment came for me when I stumbled on an NPR radio interview with Joseph Turow, author of “The Daily You: How the New Advertising Industry is Defining Your Identity and Your Worth.”  After using up my ten minute commute, I found myself sitting my car in the parking lot of my office for another 30 minutes just listening to this guy.  It was kind of like hearing someone talk about you in a bathroom when they don’t know you’re in one of the stalls.  Except they’re totally getting it right.

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Turow, an associate dean at the Annenberg Communication school at Penn, has done a lot of homework.  The book is detailed and rigorous, but also extremely accessible to the curious consumer.  While it’s probably not going to sell millions of copies, I believe it’s going to be a hugely influential and important book for several reasons.

  • To my knowledge, it’s the first crossover book that’s attempted to explain in great detail our industry’s use of data to the consumer.  And while explaining it all to the consumer, Turow also explains it all to the business and consumer press.  Perhaps for the first time, they will really understand the digital marketing ecosystem.  And that understanding is almost certain to drive a lot more reporting.  Expect a lot more stories like the Wall Street Journal’s 2010 “What They Know” series, only better informed.
  • “The Daily You” is also clear eyed and inclusive.  Turow is not a wild eyed privacy crusader tilting at windmills.  A walk through his index and end notes is like thumbing through a digital marketing “who’s who” — you’ll recognize a lot of names, companies and concepts right off the bat.
  • And finally, the book builds an intellectual bridge that’s the link to a very powerful idea:  that on some level this is not just a privacy issue, but a human rights issue.  For Turow, the real issue is the digital caste system that’s being imposed on consumers without their knowledge or consent.  Over time, one consumer will enjoy better discounts and better access to quality brands and offers than his less fortunate counterpart.  Perhaps more important are the ways in which these two consumers content experiences will diverge as a result of all the profiling that’s been done.  Like it or not, each of us is getting an online data version of an invisible credit score.  Turow gets this and his readers will too.

For my money, “The Daily You” should be a mandatory read for anyone in our industry.  It’s the beginning of an important new conversation about sustainable and inclusive data practices, a conversation that will form much quicker than many of us might imagine.

The Rain Forest and the Mountain.

We often hear the online advertising and marketing world described as an ecosystem.  For digital sellers, it’s far more instructive to visualize it as two very distinct ecosystems:  The Rain Forest and the Mountain.  While they sit in close proximity, they could not be more different from one another.

The Rain Forest is the world of media plans and RFPs, of DSPs and RTB and Data; a labyrinthine world of darkness punctuated by occasional shafts of light.   It’s the habitat of strange creatures circling one another, not sure which is predator and which is mate.  There is little visibility in the Rain Forest, one blind passage leads to another.  The seller who chooses to hunt and gather in the Rain Forest lives a life of uncertainty; a day of feast can be followed by weeks of famine.  This week’s food source quickly becomes next week’s memory.  Because the Rain Forest, as it turns out, is  disappearing.  It’s becoming developed, mechanized, clear cut.   Its unquestionable abundance has drawn the speculators, the miners, the builders.  For the seller, it’s getting smaller every day.

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Then there’s the Mountain.  It’s the land of marketing, of business.  The Mountain is the ecosystem where bigger issues are considered, where more profound questions are answered.  Looking up through the branches of the Rain Forest, the Mountain can look daunting, a long and precipitous climb.  But once you make that climb, the air is clear and you can see for miles.  Clarity around business issues and marketing challenges can feel as brisk and invigorating as a cool north wind.  The Mountain is not as crowded as the Rain Forest, and those who live there are able to live quite well….given the proper tools, preparation and provisions.  While those in the Rain Forest busy themselves managing commodity, those on the Mountain work to create new value through ideas, connections, synthesis and vision.  And they are well rewarded for doing so.

Think my purple prose is a little over the top?  Maybe so.  But if you’re a seller – especially one in the early years of your career – these metaphors represent the very real choice you’ll make about your future.  And if you’re a sales leader, they represent the choices you make about how you would have your team spending its time, energy and resources in the critical months and years ahead.

Life – and business – are all about choices.

Want to discuss this Drift with your team members?  At your next weekly sales meeting, ask them to keep track of the blocks of time and activity within the following work week.  Which meetings, phone calls and actions felt like the Rain Forest?  Which seemed more like being on the Mountain?  Which were more satisfying and more productive?  Why?