Saturday, January 30, 2010

Privacy and Relevance

There's a poll on linkedin that asks an interesting question

The best advertising I’ve seen online is:

* Popups that open up all over the place, opening new windows when I try to close them
* Ads that tell me I have won a million dollars by the virtue of being visitor number XXXXXX, or the ones that mimic a Windows alert dialog telling me my infected computer needs to be purged of its virii
* In text links that popup a window when the mouse moves over them even by mistake (or video ads that start playing for the same reason)
* All of the above

No points for guessing that I am kidding. Never would anyone ask a question that honest. They asked this instead.

The best advertising I’ve seen online :

* Provides useful information and content
* entertains me with video and sound
* appears before a page loads
* allows me to interact with the ad
As a self proclaimed online advertising expert, I went ahead and choose the third option (appears before a page loads). But the 118 people who had chosen to answer begged to differ

Now what good I would be as an expert if my opinion was the same as the masses? Jokes apart, the results of this poll reflect our infatuation with metrics, and one unfortunate tradeoff. Surely, "You can't manage what you can't measure" makes for a great quote, and the ability to measure performance is one of the USP's of our industry, but this obsession has done us a great deal of harm. First, because going by the metrics that we commonly employ - all the tactics I presented as the options for the non existent linkedin poll at the start of this post, and which would make the most even the greatest fanboys of online advertising turn in their graves (there are no fanboys of online advertising - hence the grave example), will be counted among the best performing advertising seen online. They all enjoy a very high click through rate, appear to be more engaging than anything else for the advertiser, and generate more revenue for the publishers who run them. But more importantly, everyone seems to miss the tradeoff between privacy and relevance. In order that we target you better than we currently do, we need to know more about you, and that does require you giving up some of your privacy. We need to know what is 'useful information' - because one man's useful information can be another man's ... Okay, okay - no more cliches for you now.

So the unfortunate trade off between privacy and relevance is what we have to live with now. The better we become at being relevant, the more spooky it is going to appear to the average netizen, and the more concerned she is going to be about online advertising. And that is why I feel, with 95% confidence, that 61% of linkedin is mistaken. And that the best advertising after all is advertising that doesn't takes up our limited bandwidth, advertising that loads fast, and not the flashturbation we sometimes see. After all, we have found static gif banners performing better than flash and this could be the only rational explanation, however improbable, because that is the only explanation left after eliminating the impossible. But I would keep this for another post.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

iPhone and advertising

iPhone has been a discontinuity in the mobile world, and one way it has changed the status quo is by making advertising on the iPhone a real possibility. There already have been acquisitions in this space (Admob, Quattro), and given's Apple interest in this segment, one would expect things would change.

Right now, Safari is the most difficult browser to work with when it comes to online advertising, simply because it turns third party cookie tracking off by default. Most advertising, as we know it is HTTP Cookie based, although there are several work arounds for Safari (Flash Cookie, Local Storage etc). This is even worse on iPhone, because the UIWebView component that allows applications to render html (via webkit), runs in a sandbox environment - meaning that cookies can't be shared between browsers and applications (and not even within applications). I believe this would change - although anyone enterprising enough should be able to work around this as well. I have a work around in mind - which will only be a thought experiment till the time I am able to test it out, but I believe if it works, it would present excellent opportunities. I wonder if the companies already in this space have figured this out - it seems like they haven't, at least from this dated blog post on User First Web.

I wrote recently about the new AdMob service that can tie advertising to iPhone App Store downloads. I was curious whether this feature was limited to ads in applications only or would apply to ads viewed in Mobile Safari.

AdMob clarified this via email recently saying, “as our iPhone app download tracking relies on unique user information, it only functions for ads shown within applications.”

If you happen to bump on this post, and have anything interesting to say in this matter - I would be interested.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Inspect Element

I work in the online ad industry, and while you may hate even looking at the banner ads, I am often tasked with finding out who is running that banner ad. With aggregators, meta-aggregator, networks and exchanges, it is increasingly difficult to tell who is running on which site, and you need to check.

You can always hover/click on the ad and hope to be able to be fast enough to notice the redirect, but this would often not work with flash content/javascript based clicks. Or you can run a monitoring tool like Firebug or HttpWatch and look at the http request/response for that page, it is too clumsy - Firebug is painfully slow to have it running all the time, so running it means one has to refresh the page after the ad has been loaded. I usually find the 'Inspect Element' option (shown when you right click) very handy. It lets you inspect the page source (not the static source but the generated one, in all its glory, and takes you right away to the element of interest, under the hood. Like all good things, it is a Firefox only option, and one of the things that ensured I couldn't really switch from Firefox to Camino or Safari even when I want to.

The good news is, this option is available on Safari too, although it is hidden. To enable it, fire up a terminal window and issue this command

defaults write WebKitDeveloperExtras -bool true

That's it. When you restart Safari next, you would see the Inspect Element option when your right click anywhere on page, and should you exercise that option, you would be greeted with a pane like the one below