Could Blockchain Technology End Ad Fraud?

More often than not disruptive changes in an industry come from outside, rather than from within an industry. People inside the industry tend to tinker at the margins, not trying to alienate any of the existing constituencies. In that way, industries are like democracies. But just as innovations in healthcare came from outside the industry, innovations in the digital media ecosystem are beginning to come from outside as well.

One place we predict will change how advertising is bought and sold is the fairly new cryptocurrency space. Over the last five years or so, people have become familiar with Bitcoin, digital currency units that are created out of bits and bytes and fluctuate like the securities market or the currency exchange.

Bitcoin, like other cryptocurrencies, relies on an underlying technology called the blockchain, which is a decentralized network of personal computers. Being part of a blockchain network requires connecting to the blockchain through software, almost like connecting to a social network. People on the network can add new records  (assets) through their computers, and the new records are double-verified and added to a ledger of all other blockchain transactions around that asset.

Unless you’re speculating in Bitcoin, you don’t care about any of this. But there’s a related cryptocurrency, Ethereum, that was developed specifically to transparently facilitate contracts. And that’s where advertising could get disrupted.

Blockchain technology through something like Ethereum contracts could monitor ad placements and conduct real time audits of ad delivery. That would solve the problem of transparency in programmatic media buys. Each digital asset ( ad) could be located in real time.  Blockchain’s advantages could include

 verification of ad delivery; immutable contracts with consumers; handling consumer data in a way that is completely transparent; and verifications about products’ authenticity that track from the point of origin, like sustainable fishing. Shanghai-based Vechain is using blockchain tech to authenticate fashion products, as well as provide background info on the items.

Last year, MediaPost similarly pointed to blockchain opportunities for managing huge numbers of consumer relationships, settling of multiparty payments and user ID verification.

Other observers have suggested global payment systems and, especially, smart contracts that are secure and transparent, available throughout a network even as they get modified.

Blockchain technology could also be used to decentralize transaction data, which would offer clients and agencies security and anonymity benefits.

I’m sure there are more exciting uses of blockchain technology than to monitor ad fraud and track wasted digital media ad expenditures, but since this technology has already graduated well beyond the buying and selling of illegal drugs on the Silk Road web site (see Nick Bilton’s terrific new book American Kingpin) and is now being investigated by the big banks to change the way the entire financial system works, we think there will be a day when someone builds a platform that truly brings the advertising industry into the 21st century.

How to Make Consumers Want to Engage with Ads

We are a technology leader, and we have been struggling with how to make advertising effective and non-intrusive on mobile devices. We think we have come up with something that will not ruin the user experience for publishers and will also allow advertisers to build a brand, which has been very difficult to do in digital advertising up to now.
It’s useful to remember what a brand really is. A brand is a repeatable experience, a promise you made to a customer about your product. If you are Starbucks, the brand promise is that the coffee will be the same in Rotorua,  New Zealand as it is on Madison Avenue in New York, and so will the service. If you are BMW, your brand is that your engineering will be superior to everyone else’s–the ultimate driving machine. Brand managers know that the holy grail for a brand is top of mind awareness. That’s why it costs so much to build a strong brand. First comes a good product, and then comes a big awareness campaign.
Brands were originally built through print advertising in  newspapers and magazines, and then began to be built on TV. But a combination of factors have interfered with the ability to build a brand through digital advertising.
The first is an over-emphasis on metrics  and numbers even if we are measuring the wrong things.  That’s fine for direct response, but brand metrics have to be a softer number.
Then  came the commodification of creative, since all we were after was scale. Surely somewhere among those huge numbers now reachable would be our target customer. Early banner ads were all about incentives, and that’s why they were successful. Click for a MacDonalds special, click for a coupon.
But we’re now banner blind, and audiences click on nothing.  The plain fact, as Doc Searls reminded me, is that 99% of the time we’re on the web we don’t want to buy anything. Rather than acknowledge that and stick with brand advertising, consumer reluctance only made advertisers seek out more and more intrusive ad formats and more and more scale.
They forgot about incentivizing the customer. And they determined that building a brand was too difficult, so the focus shifted to tighter and tighter targeting.
We have always been a technology leader, but our leadership isn’t based on tracking consumers or selling personalized data.We are more interested in building engaging advertising formats that don’t destroy the user experience at a publisher site, and that encourage consumers to watch and complete a video ad.
Our newest format, Watch and Engage, incentivizes consumers who are playing games. It’s a short in app video ad that runs only at the end of the game, not interrupting play.  At the end, it incentivizes the consumer to do something. We have had outstanding completion rates with this format in the first few weeks it has been rolled out, and we’re looking to find more brand managers to try it out with us.
This is not an ad that can or will be blocked, because it offers the consumer something that she wants. Because it’s our proprietary format, we can’t give too much detail in a blog post, but we have shown it to enough ad execs to know that they are enthusiastic about its results for top of mind awareness.
For a private demo, contact us at

How to Get Creative in the Feed

We were listening to a podcast about creativity in the feed, and we realized there is something VERY new happening in advertising.  Because most advertising now takes place in the news feed, there are new opportunities and challenges for brands.

There is no such thing any longer as an ad campaign based only on traditional ad “units.” Instead the future will consist more and more of branded emojis, stickers and chatbots communicating with the consumer in entirely new ways that are more contextually relevant. Those “ad units” of the future are in messaging apps, which go well beyond just the feed.

For creatives, the fact that larger ad units have disappeared, creates a narrow but potentially very appealing possibility. But first the advertising industry has to get rid of the “muscle memory” it developed back in the day when two thirds of what people consumed was controllable by the media industry. Now, a switch has been flipped and only a third of what people consume is controllable, because there’s so much consumer preference and so much user-generated content organic.

We used to try to change consumer behavior with communications platforms. Now, instead, we have to change brand behavior. We used to be able to invade consumer spaces with repurposed TV ads, but consumers have told us in no uncertain terms that they don’t want to be invaded, though they may still be willing to get engaged.

Advertising needs to be invited into people’s feeds. Consumers are far more judicious in what they want to see in their feeds, and they only want to see a brand that is accretive to their lives in some way — perhaps learning or educational, a utility, commerce, or entertainment. If it doesn’t fall into those buckets, people are not interested.

The brands that are going to be invited into the feed are going to be minimal if we follow those dicta, so brands will also have to figure out how to “crash” the feed. And here Rob Norman, the host of Tagline, had something very telling to say: if you are going to crash someone’s feed you have to be like the crasher at a party — the guy who wasn’t invited but gets very drunk and is allowed to stay because he’s very funny, rather than the guy who crashes the party and ruins it.

Thus brands and agencies have to think about how to be valuable.  Facebook, Google and the other large platforms feel like the key to this puzzle is relevance, which is determined by artificial intelligence in programmatic buys that take place in trillionths of seconds. In that context, how does a creative agency determine what message will get the most relevant ads surfaced most frequently?

This is where chatbots come in. For example, in a successful recent NFL campaign for Bud Light,  a bot asked two simple questions in a messaging app, “where do you live” and “what’s your team,” and then disappeared until two hours before game time, when an ad in the feed appeared for BudLight along with a link to a beer delivery service. That’s probably the best contextual use of bots and ads we’ve seen in a while.

We’d welcome your ideas for other creative ways to make consumers more comfortable with ads in the feed. Put your comments here, or on the   Twitter.



It’s the Quality, Not the Ad’s Length That Matters

As the use of video ads grows, the time we spend paying attention to them seems to shrink. Your video ad now has about 8 seconds to make an impression  Researchers in Canada “surveyed 2,000 participants and studied the brain activity of 112 others using electroencephalograms (EEGs) and found that since the year 2000 (or about when the mobile revolution began) the average attention span dropped from 12 seconds to eight seconds.”

Why then are video ads so effective? There is quite a bit of conflicting information on this, so let’s look at a few opinions. And believe us, these ARE opinions.

Ad Age believes video ads are effective because they can tell more of a story in less time. According to this article, there are two ways ads affect a viewer: the central route and the peripheral route.

The central route refers to situations whereby the consumer is invested, in the sense that they want or need the product, and thus can make thoughtful decisions based on facts and logic.

The peripheral route is where the receiver does not think carefully about the communication itself, and instead makes decisions based on superficial stimuli, also known as “cues.” Cues can include colors, music, storytelling and more. In the peripheral route, content and facts may be ignored or overlooked.

Even a short video can generate more emotional cues than a photo, as we all learned from the existence of Vine, the site where people could watch 6-second videos. Some of those videos gave enough emotional cues in that 6-second time frame that their authors became “stars.” Some of the funniest Vine videos have been saved to YouTube here, and you can see their power. In a very short amount of time, they can tell a pretty good story. But how does that work for an ad?

Videos trigger the central route for some people and the peripheral route for others, two avenues that eventually converge with a common goal: to sell a product or service by selling an underlying idea. It’s ideas that evoke specific emotional responses: joy, pride, sadness, anger, laughter, nostalgia, etc. These emotions fuel passion, and drives human behavior while building a brand relationship with an audience.

While Google originally began selling 30-second and 60-second preroll on YouTube, it has been so roundly rejected that they’ve been largely replaced by 15-second spots. However, an experiment Google performed with Mondelez also found that some people will watch longer videos — as long as 3 minutes –if there is a really good developing story.

However, since it only takes 15-seconds to generate brand recall, why take the risk and spend the extra money?  Geico won video ad campaign of the year in 2016 with its “unskippable” campaign, a series of 6-second videos that introduced the brand in the first five seconds, and told viewers they didn’t have to skip the ads because it was already over. The ad had awesome creative, however, which is often missing from less well-tolerated ads.

Once again it all comes down to the quality of the creative, not the length of the ad.

Acceptable Ads Committee Ponders Problems

Eyeo, the German company behind AdBlock Plus, has been trying to find a helpful way to play in the digital media industry without selling out its user base and still make money. Last year, it established standards for acceptable ads — ads that would get through AdBlock Plus’s filters. After being accused of extortion, Eyeo showed good faith by establishing a standards setting body call the Acceptable Ads Commission of industry heavyweights on the buy, sell and tech sides and spun it off into a separate non-profit corporation.  Like every other industry initiative, it will probably soon be dominated by Facebook and Google, who are already paying Eyeo to have their ads white-listed.

But we don’t believe that Eyeo is in the extortion business, so we accepted a seat on the AdTech segment of the Acceptable Ads Commission. The first meeting was last week, and the agenda was quite inclusive.

Goal: Establish what constitutes an acceptable ad.

Core Values of AAC:

— Protect user experience

— Approve ads that users do not find obtrusive

— Provide publishers/content creators with monetization opportunities

As the ad tech section of this Commission,  we wanted to discuss the value exchange of the internet, and the right of publishers to support themselves based on free content and services. However, we also want to help find appropriate solutions for intrusiveness, privacy and data collection, load time, native advertising, and ad formats. It does not help anyone if free content goes away, quality publishers can’t sustain themselves, and brands can’t find their customers.

The questions we considered include:

  1. What rules should be considered when exempting an ad from being blocked?
  2. What rules are missing from the Acceptable Ads Rules that should be included?
  3. Which acceptable ads rules are too strict and should be rolled back?
  4. What research is needed into this, and does it already exist?

There are a crazy number of industry initiatives going on right now into which this new group must fit itself. There is the Coalition for Better Ads, there is the Trustworthy Accountability Group, a spinoff from IAB, and now the new Chrome Ad Blocker. We also need to recognize efforts to provide users with transparency and choice, ie DigiTrust and the Online Trust Alliance.

Part of the still-to-be-discussed items are whether a committee that originated with an ad blocking service can ever be truly independent, and whether if people like us participate, we will be seen as having a conflict of interest.

But I believe we’re on track to be part of the solution, rather than part of the problem, which is how we always see ourselves. As a closed system, ZINC and ZEDO are in a unique position to advise buyers on what can and cannot run in our system, and advise publishers on issues like ad density. We have a suite of ad formats that are all part of the acceptable ads framework, and a network of publishers whose content is brand safe depending on the brand, We will also adhere to everyone’s white list.

No one ever got fired for buying ZEDO:-)



Mobile Acceptable Ads Standards Part Two

Two weeks ago we began discussing the Coalition for Acceptable Ads’ new standards. Although there’s nothing surprising to us in them, because we always put ourselves in the shoes of the consumer before we begin designing a format, and we always test with partners before rolling anything out, there are many marketers to are still demanding ads that we already know will anger viewers. Snapchat especially is still experimenting. It’s Discover and story partners use many of the formats the Coalition’s research found offensive.

We’ve been around long enough (and been burned hard enough) to know how much consumers hate popup ads. Our ad server began serving them in the early years of this century when marketers demanded them, and we took the brunt of consumer ire. It taught us to choose our partners and customers more carefully, and now we carefully guard our own reputation, although it sometimes means we sacrifice profits.

Pop-up ads are a type of interstitial ad that do exactly what they say — pop up and block the main content of the page. They appear after content on the page begins to load and are among the most commonly cited annoyances for visitors to a website. Pop-up ads come in many varieties – they can take up part of the screen, or the entire screen.

Included ad experiences tested: Pop-up Ad with Countdown, Pop-up Ad without Countdown

Prestitial ads are another common annoyance.

Mobile prestitial ads appear on a mobile page before content has loaded, blocking the user from continuing on to the content they have sought out. These pop-ups vary in size from full-screen to part of the screen. They may also appear as a standalone page that prevents users from getting to the main content.

Included ad experiences tested: Prestitial ad with countdown, Prestitial ad without countdown.

In fact, the larger the ad is, the more consumers dislike it. Any ad density over 30% is a no-no.

When ads on a mobile page take up more than 30% of the vertical height of the main content portion of the page, the result is a disruptive ad experience, regardless of whether these ads are text, video, or static images. This includes “sticky” ads and in-line ads. This kind of density makes it very difficult to focus on text content on a mobile device, and can lead to frustrated users.

Included ad experiences tested: 50% single-column ad density, 35% single-column ad density, 30% single-column ad density.

The last consumer annoyance: flashing animated ads.

Ads that animate and “flash” with rapidly changing background and colors are highly aggravating for consumers, and serve to create a severe distraction for them as they attempt to read the content on a given page.

Animations that do not “flash” did not fall beneath the initial Better Ads Standard.

We think these are extremely useful guidelines, and we hope marketers will adopt them, and not kill the only way we have of providing free web content, which consumers have also signaled is important to them.

Digital Content NewFronts Predicted to Capture 40% of ODV Spending

The IAB has done a new study just in time for the Digital Content New Fronts. Like most IAB studies, this one is positive for the industry.

The key highlights are a prediction of ongoing strong growth for digital video, with the average advertiser spending more than $9 million annually for its grand’s digital video advertising. This represents a 67% increase from two years ago, and at present, video represents more than 50% of a brands digital/mobile ad spending. Most advertisers are optimistic about how their advertising is contributing to the brand’s success, and plan to invest more in the next 12 months in mobile and video and maintain current TV spend levels. For the first time this year, digital spending outpaced TV spend.

Agencies really like cross-platform campaigns that include both TV and online video, and those campaigns are driven the agencies, 67% of whom plan to increase cross-platform spending.

How brands and agencies spend: 

Direct and indirect buying of Digital Video are both robust: Programmatic Video buying seeing broad adoption and steady growth – accounting for 45% of all Digital Video dollars spent. Yet still more than half spend directly with premium video sites. Advertisers currently allocate digital video budgets fairly evenly across multiple channels (TV shows online, news sites, etc.) Suggesting advertisers are still in a test and learn phase and presenting an opportunity for channels to prove their effectiveness for a greater slice of the pie.

The good news is that every market sector increased its mobile/digital video spend over the past three years, although telecommunications is the biggest ad spender.

Ad spending on original digital programming has nearly doubled since 2015. In 2016, 42% of original digital video dollars went to native advertising opportunities. The perception on the part of video advertisers is that digital video reaches an audience that can’t be reached on TV, and will become as important as original TV programming within the next 3 years.

As a result of rapid changes and growth in the industry, 67% of video advertisers plan to attend the 2017 NewFronts, and those who believe in video agree that attending last year’s NewFronts encouraged them to plan ways to incorporate VR and 360 video ads into their lineups. Although VR hasn’t taken off on a mass scale just yet, 360 video and VR are already supported by Facebook and Google, which makes investment in those formats unavoidable for advertisers.  This year’s NewFronts is predicted to capture 40% of advertisers’ original digital video budgets.

Once again the winds of change are sweeping across the media landscape.



Digital Video Ad Spend Grows

Digital Video Ad Spend Growing Sharply

Where Advertising Could Be

We recently had an opportunity to sit down with a Millennial who had  fled the advertising and media worlds of New York for the startup scene, and we asked her to reflect on her six-year career in advertising.

She had actually graduated from a liberal arts college in Ohio with a degree that prepared her for the advertising industry, having studied art, journalism, and the meaning and purpose of advertising. At her college, she told us, advertising was sold  to students as a way to change the world through art. So she didn’t just drift into it as many of her compatriots did.

However, after her first job in a small creative agency, things went steadily downhill. She drew a picture for us of a world in which agencies were turning out completely uncreative products, so as not to offend their clients. The projects she thought she would work on when she was in school — public service campaigns in which great creative actually helped people in poor communities find jobs — gave way to repetitive assignments that eventually killed her faith in the industry.  She began to wonder whether advertising still had a place in the world. After four jobs in six years, she fled to become an account executive at a tech company with a remote team that allowed her to work from wherever she wanted to live.

She immediately deserted New York.

We found this very sad, and yet easily correctable. Advertising provides many young, creative, and well-educated people their first jobs out of college. These talented people come into the workforce bringing all their enthusiasm, as well as their insights into how they feel about brands.  These customer insights, combined with data from the brand’s existing customers, should be harnessed to produce “creative” that is truly creative. It would be like letting artists interpret the world instead of making them paint existing interpretations by the numbers.

We’ve always said that the secret to advertising is good creative. Especially in the world of digital video, it’s not really pre-roll that’s the problem for consumers — it’s the bland, uninteresting and often irrelevant content of the pre-roll. Agencies have a responsibility to present “cool” creative to their clients, and brand marketers have a responsibility to go by more than just numbers. We would all be better off if this was how advertising worked. And actually, that’s how it used to work.


Facebook’s F8 Reveals Future Plans

Facebook has been taking a lot of heat from both publishers and advertisers lately. Advertisers are angry when their ads appear next to “fake news,” or even real, but offensive news like the live streaming of violent crimes. Publishers are not seeing much monetization from their AMP pages, and have become reluctant to give away their audiences. Several big ones have already returned to directing readers back to their own sites, which they are now optimizing for faster page load times. And user-generated content is down.

At last week’s F8 Developer Conference, the company laid out plans for its future, and none of them really had advertisers or publishers in mind.  Of course this was a developer conference, but there was a notable lack of representation from media companies.

The company wants advertisers to run midroll ads on longer form video content, but brands are reluctant to do that, because they know people who watch videos on Facebook — and there are precious few of them anyway — do not want to watch long form content on their phones while they’re on the way to work. In addition, no one knows if mid-roll ads will ever convert to sales.

Facebook’s head of product, Chris Cox,  spoke about the fake news issue in his presentation about Facebook and the media.

“We know that people don’t want to be lied to or deceived on our platform, and that is a role we take 100 percent responsibility for, We’ve put a lot of our teams up against this problem: How do we make sure people can’t spread false news and disinformation on our platform?”

As the company looks to lean more heavily on video, which will be augmented with animated tools, enhanced by artificial intelligence and made more immersive using 360-degree cameras and virtual-reality techniques, the risk of abuse only grows, critics said. Yet so does the danger of shutting down the expression it hopes to foster.

Although brands can imagine ways in which they would use virtual reality,  the audience for VR anywhere in the world is small yet, and there’s not much evidence Facebook, with an older audience, is any different. It will take a while for Facebook to begin monetizing virtual reality content.

 Mark Zuckerberg wasn’t kidding when he said he didn’t build the company to make money, but rather to connect the world. He has succeeded in creating a site where consumers are empowered to ignore brand messages and to respond poorly to publishers’ news posts. We sat in on a conference call with Corey Weinberg, who covers Facebook for The Information, and this is what he had to say about Facebook’s other bet, augmented reality:

Facebook gave a pretty soft sell on augmented reality. They launched with Nike as a partner, but there don’t seem to be many incentives for developers to develop for AR. For now, it’s a closed beta to find out how users respond to it. On the other hand, games and commerce are definitely on the roadmap for the future. There will be more social interactions, and more ability to leave sticky notes for your friends.

But this doesn’t seem to be a business platform — more something for its users. The softness of the sell for this somewhat futuristic platform tells us that they are having a problem getting users to share, which is their existential dilemma. Facebook has seen a real decline in user-generated content. (Facebook’s Spaces was the company’s bet on social VR. You, as an avatar, can hang out with your friends in VR. This is not new, as we did that fifteen years ago in Second Life.)

There didn’t seem to be any big media brands present at F8, except for the Wall Street Journal and CNN bots, who both use bots on Messenger.

Quite frankly, we think Facebook is flailing as it seeks to cut off all its competitors at the pass, without knowing which is a significant threat.





Mobile Acceptable Ads Standards, Part One

The ad experience on mobile is very different from desktop, and advertisers are learning that, even as they delay ad spend on mobile until they figure it out. It is much easier to annoy a visitor to a mobile site who is scrolling through a feed, and advertisers know that. Last year, Facebook, Google, and IAB, along with many other industry players, formed the Coalition for Acceptable Ads. Like all industry committees, the Coalition took a while to release its standards, but here are a few of the worst offenders. The conclusions are based on consumer studies about what would make a viewer likely to install an ad blocker.

The worst offender, full screen scrollover ads. These are very similar to takeover ads from the past.

Full-Screen Scrollover ads force a user to scroll through an ad that appears on top of content. These ads take up more than 30% of the page and float on top of the page’s main content, obstructing it from view. The result can be disorienting for users, as it obscures the content a consumer is attempting to browse. These are different from similar ads that scroll in-line with the content and more smoothly scroll out of sight.

Autoplay video with sound. We don’t know why Facebook is again experimenting with these, but we bet they will go away again.

Auto-playing video ads with sound automatically play with sound, without any user interaction.

This ad experience is especially disruptive because it catches the reader off guard and often compels them to quickly close the window or tab in order to stop the sound — especially if they are on their mobile device and in a public place, where such noise can be a public nuisance and personal embarrassment.

Ads that require a click to activate sound did not fall beneath the initial Better Ads Standard.

The Better Ads Methodology has not yet tested video ads that appear before (“pre-roll”) or during (“mid-roll”) video content that is relevant to the content of the page itself.

Included ad experiences tested: Auto-playing in-line video with sound

Postitial ads with countdown.

Postitial ads with countdown timers appear after the user follows a link. These ads force the user to wait a number of seconds before they can dismiss the ad, or for the ad to close or redirect them to another page.

These ads frustrate users by breaking the flow of content in a manner that can prove distracting — if a user is trying to navigate from one page to another, only to be delayed by this ad, they might abandon the page entirely.

Postitial ads with countdowns that can be dismissed immediately did not fall beneath the initial Better Ads Standard.

Large sticky ads:

Large Sticky Ads stick to a side of a mobile page, regardless of a user’s efforts to scroll. As the user browses the page, this static, immobile sticky ad takes up more than 30% of the screen’s real estate.

A Large Sticky Ad has an impeding effect by continuing to obstruct a portion of the mobile page view regardless of where the user moves on the page. A Large Sticky Ad’s positioning disrupts and obscures a page’s main content — unavoidably leading to a negative user experience.

Included ad experiences tested: Large sticky ad on the bottom

There are more, and we will discuss those next week. Ad Age greeted these standards with a big, “duh,” but we see them on mobile sites all the time, which means marketers still buy them. We, however, do not sell them in our mobile suite — for obvious reasons. Why make a visitor angry if you are trying to close a sale?