By: Andrew Ransom“Most ads I see are irrelevant to me.”
“Ads aren't very exciting.”
As brand and agency advertisers, we are constantly hearing from users and our clients about poor ad experiences. Ads are being served to irrelevant audiences, they aren’t captivating to users, or they provide a terrible experience by disrupting content. These are problems we work tirelessly to address, as our customers, and theirs, are best served by well targeted, engaging, and non-disruptive ads. And our biggest tool in addressing these issues is data collection; one of the least understood, and least trusted areas of advertising.
Before we get started, I want to address the elephant in the room. Proper, transparent, and ethical data collection, using third-party ad tags, must be the foundation for building a trusted ecosystem. This starts by eliminating the collection of personally identifiable information (PII). PII is essentially any data that could identify a specific individual to an advertiser. This includes names, addresses, etc. If we keep data collection anonymous, advertisers can still glean enormous insights without invading the privacy of those we are trying to serve.
How does user data help solve bad ads?
When a user browses the internet, visits websites, reads articles, or views ads, their browser is collecting things called cookies. These cookies collect information about the user’s behavior online; what sites they visit, what they’re shopping for, and more. This data is then used to bundle users anonymously into segments that share common behavioral, interest, or demographic traits. And those segments are how advertisers target users that may be interested in their products or services.
Thanks to this data, advertisers no longer have to serve ads to users solely through direct sales relationships or publisher-declared content categories; we are able to narrow down our reach to users who exhibit traits that make them more likely to be interested in our products. This increases relevance for users and advertisers alike, a true win-win for the digital ecosystem.
Tags also allow advertisers to cookie users who visit their website. By doing this, we can determine what categories of our products you’re looking for, if you added products to your cart and didn’t purchase, or if you actually completed a purchase. Knowing these things helps advertisers increase relevance another level. We can deliver ads that show you additional products in the category you browsed, we can send you a discount code for the product you added to your cart, and we can let you cool down after making a purchase so we don’t overwhelm you and create hostility toward our brand.
This non-invasive form of data collection is simple and protects the privacy of internet users. Because of these two things, even the smallest advertisers can now deliver a personalized ad experience for nearly every user. As more and more advertisers begin to adopt these practices, user experience will improve, advertising will become more effective, and we will create a more efficient digital economy for everyone.
How does data stop disruptive ads?
While collecting data on user behavior is an important part of improving digital advertising, there is another side to data collection that helps improve user experience across the web.
Tags placed within ads and on sites help DSPs, ad exchanges, and advertisers identify bad and disruptive ad inventory. When an impression is served we can tell where the ad is placed on the page, the probability that it was viewed by the user, if the ad was displayed in a pop-up window, etc. By identifying and eliminating these disruptive ads from the buy-side we accomplish a couple of things.
First, It allows us to stop buying disruptive ads. If they’re bad for the user, they’re bad for the advertiser, and we don’t want to spend money on inventory that will make users angry and potentially damage our brand. By eliminating this inventory from our campaigns, we reduce demand for them overall. As this continues to occur we will reach our second goal.
When demand for disruptive inventory reaches a certain point, it will become economically unsustainable for sites to continue to serve them. We will see DSPs and exchanges eliminate these sites from their inventory completely until disruptive ads are removed, and the industry will self-correct. We’ve already seen the beginning of this trend with Google’s latest announcement on ad blocking within its Chrome browser.
This type of data collection has a snowball effect. As it picks up steam, it rapidly helps improve the advertising inventory by signaling to advertisers which ad spaces are relevant, non-invasive, and provide a good user experience. As advertisers, when we see those signals we compete for those premium inventory spots, which pushes us to make more captivating and relevant ads as each impression becomes more valuable, and user experience is again increased.
What if we eliminated ad tracking?
As advertisers, we are sometimes asked why we track users at all. Why can’t we just let users view content in peace without following them around the web. The answer to that question is very simple and straightforward.
Advertising is how the internet gets paid for. It’s how companies, organizations, and individuals are rewarded for publishing captivating content on the web. Good content brings users, but users have an expectation online for content to be free. In order to maintain that relationship with users, content creators offer ad space to help offset the cost of content creation and to make a profit on their hard work. So, in essence, advertising will always be there as long as users expect content to be free.
If advertising is inevitable then we must make it useful to consumers. For nearly all its history advertisers could not track user behavior across the web. We were confined to purchasing blind impressions on groups of websites, purely because there were a large number of users there. Maybe we knew age and gender demographics of users, maybe we didn’t. But one thing was for sure, our ads wouldn’t be relevant to even a majority of those users.
So, for years, advertisers were forced to decide between boring and general ads that were made for everyone, or risk serving specific and irrelevant ads to millions of users. This was the equivalent of playing Dove commercials on Spike TV, or ESPN ads on Bravo. The ads were disruptive because users didn’t care about what was in them.
Now that we have the capability to deliver an ad experience tailored to the individual, where nearly every ad a user sees has some relevance to their life and desires, we have a responsibility to provide it to them. Providing a relevant experience increases user happiness, increases advertiser’s brand awareness, and increases profits. That’s why we track user data.
I’m still skeptical of being tracked.
As advertisers we have to respect that users will always be protective of their data, and they should be. And if we are going to collect their data, we have to set up safeguards to protect privacy. And that is what leaders in our industry are doing.
Data companies are providing data using double-blind methods, where the advertiser never sees the actual data, but is allowed to serve to audience segments based on a system of checks and balances. Data companies that provide better data get more business, and to continue to collect and provide good data they must protect user privacy. This adversarial system benefits user privacy while also providing advertisers with the tools to provide a unique experience.
Companies like Google, The Trade Desk, and others have also created coalitions to eliminate disruptive inventory on websites, allowing users to continue to view content without being interrupted. These coalitions are the watchdogs of advertising inventory. Their businesses benefit when ads are more effective, which happens when users are engaged.
These steps are the beginning of a movement in the advertising industry to restore trust between users and advertisers. This allows advertisers to truly understand what individual users want, and provide it to them. Proper and ethical data collection is not only a revolutionary movement in advertising, it’s a renaissance in the growing digital economy.