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Targeted ads offer little extra value for online publishers, study suggests

Posted by on May 31, 2019 in Adtech, Advertising Tech, Alphabet, behavioral advertising, digital advertising, digital marketing, display advertising, Europe, Facebook, General Data Protection Regulation, IAB, Marketing, Media, Online Advertising, Privacy, programmatic advertising, Randall Rothenberg, Richard blumenthal, targeted advertising, United States | 0 comments

How much value do online publishers derive from behaviorally targeted advertising that uses privacy-hostile tracking technologies to determine which advert to show a website user?

A new piece of research suggests publishers make just 4% more vs if they were to serve a non-targeted ad.

It’s a finding that sheds suggestive light on why so many newsroom budgets are shrinking and journalists finding themselves out of work — even as adtech giants continue stuffing their coffers with massive profits.

Visit the average news website lousy with third party cookies (yes, we know, it’s true of TC too) and you’d be forgiven for thinking the publisher is also getting fat profits from the data creamed off their users as they plug into programmatic ad systems that trade info on Internet users’ browsing habits to determine the ad which gets displayed.

Yet while the online ad market is massive and growing — $88BN in revenues in the US in 2017, per IAB data, a 21% year-on-year increase — publishers are not the entities getting filthy rich off of their own content.

On the contrary, research in recent years has suggested that a large proportion of publishers are being squeezed by digital display advertising economics, with some 40% reporting either stagnant or shrinking ad revenue, per a 2015 Econsultancy study. (Hence, we can posit, the rise in publishers branching into subscriptions — TC’s own offering can be found here: Extra Crunch).

The lion’s share of value being created by digital advertising ends up in the coffers of adtech giants, Google and Facebook . Aka the adtech duopoly. In the US, the pair account for around 60% of digital ad market spending, per eMarketer — or circa $76.57BN.

Their annual revenues have mirrored overall growth in digital ad spend — rising from $74.9BN to $136.8BN, between 2015 and 2018, in the case of Google’s parent Alphabet; and $17.9BN to $55.8BN for Facebook. (While US online ad spend stepped up from $59.6BN to $107.5BN+ between 2015 and 2018.)

eMarketer projects 2019 will mark the first decline in the duopoly’s collective share. But not because publishers’ fortunes are suddenly set for a bonanza turnaround. Rather another tech giant — Amazon — has been growing its share of the digital ad market, and is expected to make what eMarketer dubs the start of “a small dent in the duopoly”.

Behavioral advertising — aka targeted ads — has come to dominate the online ad market, fuelled by platform dynamics encouraging a proliferation of tracking technologies and techniques in the unregulated background. And by, it seems, greater effectiveness from the perspective of online advertisers, as the paper notes. (“Despite measurement and attribution challenges… many studies seem to concur that targeted advertising is beneficial and effective for advertising firms.”

This has had the effect of squeezing out non-targeted display ads, such as those that rely on contextual factors to select the ad — e.g. the content being viewed, device type or location.

The latter are now the exception; a fall-back such as for when cookies have been blocked. (Albeit, one that veteran pro-privacy search engine, DuckDuckGo, has nonetheless turned into a profitable contextual ad business).

One 2017 study by IHS Markit, suggested that 86% of programmatic advertising in Europe was using behavioural data. While even a quarter (24%) of non-programmatic advertising was found to be using behavioural data, per its model. 

“In 2016, 90% of the digital display advertising market growth came from formats and processes that use behavioural data,” it observed, projecting growth of 106% for behaviourally targeted advertising between 2016 and 2020, and a decline of 63.6% for forms of digital advertising that don’t use such data.

The economic incentives to push behavioral advertising vs non-targeted ads look clear for dominant platforms that rely on amassing scale — across advertisers, other people’s eyeballs, content and behavioral data — to extract value from the Internet’s dispersed and diverse audience.

But the incentives for content producers to subject themselves — and their engaged communities of users — to these privacy-hostile economies of scale look a whole lot more fuzzy.

Concern about potential imbalances in the online ad market is also leading policymakers and regulators on both sides of the Atlantic to question the opacity of the market — and call for greater transparency.

A price on people tracking’s head

The new research, which will be presented at the Workshop on the Economics of Information Security conference in Boston next week, aims to contribute a new piece to this digital ad revenue puzzle by trying to quantify the value to a single publisher of choosing ads that are behaviorally targeted vs those that aren’t.

We’ve flagged the research before — when the findings were cited by one of the academics involved in the study at an FTC hearing — but the full paper has now been published.

It’s called Online Tracking and Publishers’ Revenues: An Empirical Analysis, and is co-authored by three academics: Veronica Marotta, an assistant professor in information and decision sciences at the Carlson School of Management, University of Minnesota; Vibhanshu Abhishek, associate professor of information systems at the Paul Merage School of Business, University California Irvine; and Alessandro Acquisti, professor of IT and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University.

“While the impact of targeted advertising on advertisers’ campaign effectiveness has been vastly documented, much less is known about the value generated by online tracking and targeting technologies for publishers – the websites that sell ad spaces,” the researchers write. “In fact, the conventional wisdom that publishers benefit too from behaviorally targeted advertising has rarely been scrutinized in academic studies.”

“As we briefly mention in the paper, notwithstanding claims about the shared benefits of online tracking and behaviorally targeting for multiple stakeholders (merchants, publishers, consumers, intermediaries…), there is a surprising paucity of empirical estimates of economic outcomes from independent researchers,”  Acquisti also tells us.

In fact, most of the estimates focus on the advertisers’ side of the market (for instance, there have been quite a few studies estimating the increase in click-through or conversion rates associated with targeted ads); much less is known about the publishers’ side of the market. So, going into the study, we were genuinely curious about what we may find, as there was little in terms of data that could anchor our predictions.

“We did have theoretical bases to make possible predictions, but those predictions could be quite antithetical. Under one story, targeting increases the value of the audience, which increases advertisers’ bids, which increases publishers’ revenues; under a different story, targeting decreases the ‘pool’ of audience interested in an ad, which decreases competition to display ads, which reduces advertisers’ bids, eventually reducing publishers’ revenues.”

For the study the researchers were provided with a data-set comprising “millions” of display ad transactions completed in a week across multiple online outlets owned by a single (unidentified) large publisher which operates websites in a range of verticals such as news, entertainment and fashion.

The data-set also included whether or not the site visitor’s cookie ID is available — enabling analysis of the price difference between behaviorally targeted and non-targeted ads. (The researchers used a statistical mechanism to control for systematic differences between users who impede cookies.)

As noted above, the top-line finding is only a very small gain for the publisher whose data they were analyzing — of around 4%. Or an average increase of $0.00008 per advertisement. 

It’s a finding that contrasts wildly with some of the loud yet unsubstantiated opinions which can be found being promulgated online — claiming the ‘vital necessity’ of behavorial ads to support publishers/journalism.

For example, this article, published earlier this month by a freelance journalist writing for The American Prospect, includes the claim that: “An online advertisement without a third-party cookie sells for just 2 percent of the cost of the same ad with the cookie.” Yet does not specify a source for the statistic it cites.

(The author told us the reference is to a 2018 speech made by Index Exchange’s Andrew Casale, when he suggested ad requests without a buyer ID receive 99% lower bids vs the same ad request with the identifier. She added that her conversations with people in the adtech industry had suggested a spread between a 99% and 97% decline in the value of an ad without a cookie, hence choosing a middle point.)

At the same time policymakers in the US now appear painfully aware how far behind Europe they are lagging where privacy regulation is concerned — and are fast dialling up their scrutiny of and verbal horror over how Internet users are tracked and profiled by adtech giants.

At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing earlier this month — convened with the aim of “understanding the digital ad ecosystem and the impact of data privacy and competition policy” — the talk was not if to regulate big tech but how hard they must crack down on monopolistic ad giants.

“That’s what brings us here today. The lack of choice [for consumers to preserve their privacy online],” said senator Richard Blumenthal. “The excessive and extraordinary power of Google and Facebook and others who dominate the market is a fact of life. And so privacy protection is absolutely vital in the short run.”

The kind of “invasive surveillance” that the adtech industry systematically deploys is “something we would never tolerate from a government but Facebook and Google have the power of government never envisaged by our founders,” Blumenthal went on, before a few of the types of personal data that are sucked up and exploited by the adtech industrial surveillance complex: “Health, dating, location, finance, extremely personal details — offered to anyone with almost no restraint.”

Bearing that “invasive surveillance” in mind, a 4% publisher ‘premium’ for privacy-hostile ads vs adverts that are merely contextually served (and so don’t require pervasive tracking of web users) starts to look like a massive rip off — of both publisher brand and audience value, as well as Internet users’ rights and privacy.

Yes, targeted ads do appear to generate a small revenue increase, per the study. But as the researchers also point out that needs to be offset against the cost to publishers of complying with privacy regulations.

“If setting tracking cookies on visitors was cost free, the website would definitely be losing money. However, the widespread use of tracking cookies – and, more broadly, the practice of tracking users online – has been raising privacy concerns that have led to the adoption of stringent regulations, in particular in the European Union,” they write — going on to cite an estimate by the International Association of Privacy Professionals that Fortune’s Global 500 companies will spend around $7.8BN on compliant costs to meet the requirements of Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). 

Wider costs to systematically eroding online privacy are harder to put a value on for publishers. But should also be considered — whether it’s the costs to a brand reputation and user loyalty as a result of a publisher larding their sites with unwanted trackers; to wider societal costs — linked to the risks of data-fuelled manipulation and exploitation of vulnerable groups. Simply put, it’s not a good look.

Publishers may appear complicit in the asset stripping of their own content and audiences for what — per this study — seems only marginal gain, but the opacity of the adtech industry implies that most likely don’t realize exactly what kind of ‘deal’ they’re getting at the hands of the ad giants who grip them.

Which makes this research paper a very compelling read for the online publishing industry… and, well, a pretty awkward newsflash for anyone working in adtech.

 

While the study only provides a snapshot of ad market economics, as experienced by a single publisher, the glimpse it presents is distinctly different from the picture the adtech lobby has sought to paint, as it has ploughed money into arguing against privacy legislation — on the claimed grounds that ‘killing behavioural advertising would kill free online content’. 

Saying no more creepy ads might only marginally reduce publishers’ revenue doesn’t have quite the same doom-laden ring, clearly.

“In a nutshell, this study provides an initial data point on a portion of the advertising ecosystem over which claims had been made but little empirical verification was completed. The results highlight the need for more transparency over how the value generated by flows of data gets allocated to different stakeholders,” says Acquisti, summing up how the study should be read against the ad market as a whole.

Contacted for a response to the research, Randall Rothenberg, CEO of advertising business organization, the IAB, agreed that the digital supply chain is “too complex and too opaque” — and also expressed concern about how relatively little value generated by targeted ads is trickling down to publishers.

“One week’s worth of data from one unidentified publisher does not make for a projectible (sic) piece of research. Still, the study shows that targeted advertising creates immense value for brands — more than 90% of the unnamed publisher’s auctioned ads were sold with targeting attached, and advertisers were willing to pay a 60% premium for those ads. Yet very little of that value flowed to the publisher,” he told TechCrunch. “As IAB has been saying for a decade, the digital supply chain is too complex and too opaque, and this diversion of value is more proof that transparency is required so that publishers can benefit from the value they create.”

The research paper includes discussion of the limitations to the approach, as well as ideas for additional research work — such as looking at how the value of cookies changes depending on how much information they contain (on that they write of their initial findings: “Information seem to be very valuable (from the publisher’s perspective) when we compare cookies with very little information to cookies with some information; after a certain point, adding more information to a cookie does not seem to create additional value for the publisher”); and investigating how “the (un)availability of a cookie changes the competition in the auction” — to try to understand ad auction competition dynamics and the potential mechanisms at play.

“This is one new and hopefully useful data point, to which others must be added,” Acquisti also told us in concluding remarks. “The key to research work is incremental progress, with more studies progressively adding a clearer understanding of an issue, and we look forward to more research in this area.”

This report was updated with additional comment


Source: The Tech Crunch

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Cookie walls don’t comply with GDPR, says Dutch DPA

Posted by on Mar 8, 2019 in Advertising Tech, cookie consent, cookie walls, data protection, data protection law, dutch dpa, Europe, GDPR, General Data Protection Regulation, Google, Online Advertising, Privacy, targeted advertising | 0 comments

Cookie walls that demand a website visitor agrees to their Internet browsing being tracked for ad-targeting as the ‘price’ of entry to the site are not compliant with European data protection law, the Dutch data protection agency clarified yesterday.

The DPA said it has received dozens of complaints from Internet users who had had their access to websites blocked after refusing to accept tracking cookies — so it has taken the step of publishing clear guidance on the issue.

It also says it will be stepping up monitoring, adding that it has written to the most complained about organizations (without naming any names) — instructing them to make changes to ensure they come into compliance with GDPR.

Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation, which came into force last May, tightens the rules around consent as a legal basis for processing personal data — requiring it to be specific, informed and freely given in order for it to be valid under the law.

Of course consent is not the only legal basis for processing personal data but many websites do rely on asking Internet visitors for consent to ad cookies as they arrive.

And the Dutch DPA’s guidance makes it clear Internet visitors must be asked for permission in advance for any tracking software to be placed — such as third party tracking cookies; tracking pixels; and browser fingerprinting tech — and that that permission must be freely obtained. Ergo, a free choice must be offered.

So, in other words, a ‘data for access’ cookie wall isn’t going to cut it. (Or, as the DPA puts it: “Permission is not ‘free’ if someone has no real or free choice. Or if the person cannot refuse giving permission without adverse consequences.”)

“This is not for nothing; website visitors must be able to trust that their personal data are properly protected,” it further writes in a clarification published on its website [translated via Google Translate].

“There is no objection to software for the proper functioning of the website and the general analysis of the visit on that site. More thorough monitoring and analysis of the behavior of website visitors and the sharing of this information with other parties is only allowed with permission. That permission must be completely free,” it adds. 

We’ve reached out to the DPA with questions.

In light of this ruling the cookie wall on the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB)’s European site (screengrabbed below) looks like a textbook example of what not to do — given the online ad industry association is bundling multiple cookie uses (site functional cookies; site analytical cookies; and third party advertising cookies) under a single ‘I agree’ option.

It does not offer visitors any opt-outs at all. (Not even under the ‘More info’ or privacy policy options pictured below).

If the user does not click ‘I agree’ they cannot gain access to the IAB’s website. So there’s no free choice here. It’s agree or leave.

Clicking ‘More info’ brings up additional information about the purposes the IAB uses cookies for — where it states it is not using collected information to create “visitor profiles”.

However it notes it is using Google products, and explains that some of these use cookies that may collect visitors’ information for advertising — thereby bundling ad tracking into the provision of its website ‘service’.

Again the only ‘choice’ offered to site visitors is ‘I agree’ or to leave without gaining access to the website. Which means it’s not a free choice.

The IAB told us no data protection agencies had been in touch regarding its cookie wall.

Asked whether it intends to amend the cookie wall in light of the Dutch DPA’s guidance a spokeswoman said she wasn’t sure what the team planned to do yet — but she claimed GDPR does not “outright prohibit making access to a service conditional upon consent”; pointing also to the (2002) ePrivacy Directive which she claimed applies here, saying it “also includes recital language to the effect of saying that website content can be made conditional upon the well-informed acceptance of cookies”.

So the IAB’s position appears to be that the ePrivacy Directive trumps GDPR on this issue.

Though it’s not clear how they’ve arrived at that conclusion. (The fifteen+ year old ePrivacy Directive is also in the process of being updated — while the flagship GDPR only came into force last year.)

The portion of the ePrivacy Directive that the IAB appears to be referring to is recital 25 — which includes the following line:

Access to specific website content may still be made conditional on the well-informed acceptance of a cookie or similar device, if it is used for a legitimate purpose.

However “specific website content” is hardly the same as full site access, i.e. as is entirely blocked by their cookie wall.

The “legitimate purpose” point in the recital also provides a second caveat vis-a-vis making access conditional on accepting cookies — and the recital text includes an example of “facilita[ting] the provision of information society services” as such a legitimate purpose.

What are “information society services”? An earlier European directive defines this legal term as services that are “provided at a distance, electronically and at the individual request of a recipient” [emphasis ours] — suggesting it refers to Internet content that the user actually intends to access (i.e. the website itself), rather than ads that track them behind the scenes as they surf.

So, in other words, even per the outdated ePrivacy Directive, a site might be able to require consent for functional cookies from a user to access a portion of the site.

But that’s not the same as saying you can gate off an entire website unless the visitor agrees to their browsing being pervasively tracked by advertisers.

That’s not the kind of ‘service’ website visitors are looking for. 

Add to that, returning to present day Europe, the Dutch DPA has put out very clear guidance demolishing cookie walls.

The only sensible legal interpretation here is that the writing is on the wall for cookie walls.


Source: The Tech Crunch

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Polis, the door-to-door marketer, raises another $2.5 million

Posted by on Feb 26, 2019 in Alexis Ohanian, api, boston, Business, digital advertising, distribution, garry tan, initialized capital, Marketing, NRG Energy, polis, Recent Funding, sales, Semil Shah, Startups, targeted advertising, TC, texas | 0 comments

Polis founder Kendall Tucker began her professional life as a campaign organizer in local Democratic politics, but — seeing an opportunity in her one-on-one conversations with everyday folks — has built a business taking that shoe leather approach to political campaigns to the business world.

Now the company she founded to test her thesis that Americans would welcome back the return of the door-to-door salesperson three years ago is $2.5 million richer thanks to a new round of financing from Initialized Capital (the fund founded by Garry Tan and Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian) and Semil Shah’s Haystack.vc.

The Boston-based company currently straddles the line between political organizing tool and new marketing platform — a situation that even its founder admits is tenuous at the moment.

That tension is only exacerbated by the fact that the company is coming off one of its biggest political campaign seasons. Helping to power the get-out-the-vote initiative for Senatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke in Texas, Polis’ software managed the campaign’s outreach effort to 3 million voters across the state.

However, politically focused software and services businesses are risky. Earlier this year the Sean Parker-backed Brigade shut down and there are rumblings that other startups targeting political action may follow suit.

“Essentially, we got really excited about going into the corporate space because online has gotten so nasty,” says Tucker. “And, at the end of the day, digital advertising isn’t as effective as it once was.”

Customer acquisition costs in the digital ad space are rising. For companies like NRG Energy and Inspire Energy (both Polis clients), the cost of acquisitions online can be as much as $300 per person.

Polis helps identify which doors for salespeople to target and works with companies to identify the scripts that are most persuasive for consumers, according to Tucker. The company also monitors for sales success and helps manage the process so customers aren’t getting too many house calls from persistent sales people.

“We do everything through the conversation at the door,” says Tucker. “We do targeting and we do script curation (everything from what script do you use and when do you branch out of scripts) and we have an open API so they can push that out and they run with it through the rest of their marketing.”


Source: The Tech Crunch

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The brains behind one of marketing’s biggest hits are out to reshape the industry again… with direct mail

Posted by on Jul 3, 2018 in Advertising Tech, bonfire ventures, chief technology officer, Co-founder, CRM, crosscut ventures, digital marketing, direct marketing, dogvacay, dollar shave club, Los Angeles, Marketing, Online Advertising, online marketing, Postie, spamming, targeted advertising, TC, wishbone | 0 comments

Postie, a new Los Angeles-based startup, has a vision for the future of advertising and marketing — and it’s direct mail.

Founded by some of the men responsible for the biggest hits in online marketing (like the Dollar Shave Club commercial that launched what became a billion-dollar acquisition) think that it’s time to take technology where it’s never gone before — into targeted, direct mail campaigns using the best ad-targeting that money can buy.

Postie uses a combination of online data collection and an on-demand print and mail technology to give its customers turnaround times on print orders in as little as 24 hours, and what the company boasts is the equivalent of online ad-targeting.

Using the service, customers can access demographic, interest and behavioral data of more than 320 million people; can use retargeting to provide direct mail campaigns; and integrate with existing customer relationship management tools.

The company was founded by Dave Fink and Jonathan Neddenriep, two former principals at the startup studio and early-stage investor, Science. At the early-stage investment firm, Fink said he was responsible for marketing activities for companies including Dollar Shave Club, DogVacay, SpringRole, Wishbone and Hello Society over the six years he worked at the company. Neddenriep served as the chief technology officer for Science — a role he’s continuing at Postie.

Where once Fink focused on reaching the widest possible audience with a viral message that could cut through the noise of online advertising, the scale of his messaging is now much smaller, even if the scope of the market he’s trying to capture remains just as vast.

“A highly targeted physical piece of mail, especially in today’s ephemeral world, elicits an emotional response that goes above and beyond what is possible online,” says Fink, in a statement. “It’s now possible to open up a whole new scalable media channel by leveraging the same data driven insights and quantitative approach as digital.”

According to study from the Direct Marketing Association, direct mail campaigns rang up $46 billion from advertisers and companies in 2014, and Fink and his co-founder are hoping that number will climb.

They aren’t the only ones. Postie has raised $3.5 million in seed funding from the Los Angeles-based firms Bonfire Ventures and Crosscut Ventures to expand its business (maybe through direct marketing?).

 


Source: The Tech Crunch

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