Ending DoubleClick's ID Export

Google’s move to end the use of DoubleClick User ID was made as part of its refreshed commitment to user privacy - heightened by GDPR and the Cambridge Analytica controversy. Yet given its market position, many industry insiders are inherently suspicious of moves that have the potential to materially impact the competitive balance. We discuss the potential ramifications in this Lift Letter.

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Google's New Ad Blocker

Lift Letter by TripleLift VP of Publisher Partnerships, Michael Lehman

You've likely seen a number of articles about Google's new ad blocker for Chrome that's slated to be released in 2018. This is an important release with a number of interesting implications, so I wanted to send a simple write-up and some general thoughts around.

Overview

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Google just announced a new ad blocking feature that, starting in 2018, will come installed on all Chrome mobile and desktop browsers.  The ad blocker will filter out "annoying" ads, as identified by the coalition for better ad standards - ie, auto audio ads, shaky/flashy, countdown ads, etc. 

Additionally and perhaps more importantly, Google is releasing a feature called "Funding Choices", which will present Chrome users who have 3rd party ad blockers installed with the choice of either a) whitelisting the site so that, per Chrome's Adblocker, only respectable ads show; or b) pay a fee to access the website (which Google will split with the publisher).  

What Does it Mean?

Publishers

  • You can potentially interpret this a few ways for publishers:
    • Why it's good: This is a win for load time, user experience, and ultimately the publishers user base, which should help traffic levels and organic performance of respectful ads.  Also, the funding choices release will likely reduce 3rd party ad blocking use, which will help publishers recoup some of the lost money from ad blocking or start receiving subscription fees. 
    • Why it's bad: Annoying ads do pay high CPMs (usually) and, for many pubs, represent a chunk of revenue. Considering Chrome is used by 50% of online users, publishers will lose this money in the short term. In the long term, the argument could be made that that budget will be recirculated to more respectful advertising and organic performance and spend levels of non-disruptive ads will organically improve.

Google

  • Power move by Google. Beyond threatening the Adblocking industry, Google sits on the Coalition for better ads and has helped define what constitutes acceptable advertising.  With this move, they will be making life VERY hard for some competitors and expanding their already enormous ownership of publisher monetization.

Tech companies that generate "annoying ads"

  • MAJOR challenge for obvious reasons

Ad Blockers

  • Life just got hard if you're an adblocking company. Chrome is the browser of choice for approximately 50% of global internet users and users are going to be forced to whitelist sites or pay a fee.  Adblock companies are saying that since the Chrome feature only blocks ads it deems as "annoying", users will still want the ability to block all ads and this will not affect adoption.  Time will tell is that ends up being an accurate assessment, although it feels like a stretch. 


Other thoughts

There is definitely an argument to be made that Google is flexing it's muscle as a monopoly - being a key decision-maker on the council that defines what ads are acceptable, controlling the browser AND giving it's own ads preferential treatment - but there is a lot here that could benefit the industry in the long run.  Anyone who works at TripleLift is in agreement that highly disruptive ads are not beneficial for anyone, despite the short term revenue they generate. This move towards respectful advertising and funding choices will improve user experience and organic performance of respectful ads, reduce the use of ad blockers, open up a new channel of publishers being compensated for their content, and pave the way for a brighter future for respectful ads (in particular native!). 

Now, we'll see how many users change their browser use when confronted with the Funding Choices question, but this is a step towards cleaning up the digital marketplace - a known objective for publishers and marketers alike!

Fake News

The question of Fake News is a very interesting subject in ad tech. Fake news is not new. It has a long and terrible history. This includes journalists Joseph Pulitzer and William Hearst simply fabricating stories about why the USS Maine exploded in 1898 in their newspapers to serve their agenda of a war with Spain, to the blood libel tales about the Jews killing people and drinking their blood - forming a basis for mainstream anti-semitism as far back as the 12th century, to the role of Fox News in the election of George W. Bush. Indeed, the National Enquirer once had the largest circulation of any publication in the US.

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So why is fake news especially an issue in 2016 / 2017? First, the extraordinary vitriol in this election, with the two least popular major party nominees of all time - and the new president having the lowest incoming approval rating ever - have heightened the dramatic partisan tensions in the country. Fake news could have played just as big a part in a less contentious election and people would have cared less. And indeed, fake news has been around in elections for as long as this country has held them.

Certain things have changed recently. While the cost of publishing content on the internet has always been fairly low, the cost of getting distribution of that content has decreased markedly - particularly with the rise of social channels like Facebook and Twitter. In the newspaper era, information - or misinformation - could only go as far as the number of copies printed. Similarly, in the cable news era, fake news only ever reached the people that chose to watch. And while the reach was greater, it was often self-selecting (the right watched Fox, the left watched MSNBC).

Audiences online are orders of magnitude larger. Stories can grow quickly and do not need a factual basis to be shared millions of times. While word-of-mouth could always have the same effect, the speed and compounding effect of social distribution has created an unparalleled situation.

There are certain easy fixes. Some sites exist solely to peddle fake news and that employ authors to make up news. TripleLift and all ad tech players should not work with these publishers. Similarly, sites that promote racism or hate speech violate our terms of service. We have a direct relationship with nearly every publisher that we work with and generally have a sense of the nature of the site when we onboard them. To the extent we learn of any such violations, we will terminate our relationship with these publishers. TripleLift's business model and standing generally makes these decisions easy and clear. 

For sites like Facebook, however, the question is much more difficult. It is precisely because of Facebook's ability to distribute content so quickly that many have pointed to it (and, to a lesser degree, Twitter) as having primary responsibility to ensure fake news does not spread. This is where things get exceptionally complicated.

One could point to the Pizzagate conspiracy, an exceptionally strange situation where Hillary Clinton was accused of participation in a child trafficking ring out of DC area pizza restaurants (?). This was probably not true, but because it's so strange and scintillating and was based on extrapolations from actual - albeit unrelated - facts (John Podesta's leaked emails), it spread quickly. But how would Facebook know that it wasn't factually true? Similarly, there was a rumor that Hillary Clinton was fed the debate questions in advance - given how she dominated Trump in the second debate. This was probably not true. But then, when Donna Brazile's emails were leaked, it turned out to be actually true. How would Facebook have known, in either case, which rumor was correct and which was incorrect? Indeed, until Donna Brazile's emails were leaked a month later, the accusations were "incorrect." Had Facebook marked this as fake news, a legitimate story would have been suppressed. 

So if Facebook or Google were to get into business of marking news as fake news, where would they get their authority or knowledge. Blocking sites that simply peddle nonsense is easy, but otherwise - news stories are based on actual facts that are often not known to Google or Facebook. This means some entities, be it Snopes or others, will define "truth." And they've all been wrong in the past. This would also mean that only news that sticks to approved narratives, even if those narratives are wrong, would be eligible for broad distribution. Investigative journalism that calls on unique sources or relies on confidential information may be marked as inaccurate simply because the fact checker lacks the same information. It's not hard, especially given the current executive branch, to see this devolving into authoritarianism. Which is all to say, broadly speaking, the problem of fake news is not easy.

Acxiom and Identity

Acxiom, the publicly traded data broker, recently announced two acquisitions - Arbor and Circulate. Neither of these companies were very large, the total outlay for both combined was $140M, yet they show Acxiom's continued momentum building a true identity-based competitor to Facebook, Google, and Verizon.

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In our side of the business, we rarely discuss data players in much depth, so it's worth taking a minute to discuss who Acxiom is. Headquartered in Arkansas, the company is nearly 50 years old. Acxiom started in the days of direct mail, phone calls, and market research. In the past several years, it has moved forcefully into the digital space by merging its huge traditional data business with online identity tools. The company maintains huge records of offline behaviors, including credit card purchases, medical conditions that it can legally access or infer, deeply detailed demographic information along with online records - often linked through credit card numbers, email addresses or other deterministic-ish data sources. Their acquisition of LiveRamp only furthered the push into unifying disparate digital data sources into a holistic understanding of the customer. (Many have concerns about some Acxiom business practices, but this is beyond the scope of this discussion. Feel free to read more here: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/17/technology/acxiom-the-quiet-giant-of-consumer-database-marketing.html and https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/press-releases/2014/05/ftc-recommends-congress-require-data-broker-industry-be-more).

LiveRamp is a platform that allows entities to move data between partners. For example, if a company has a CRM with its customer data, it can use LiveRamp to upload that data and sync it to its partners by understanding the user IDs of the various partners (e.g. ad networks, Facebook, etc) and pushing the data to be available in all of those systems. This even means that if you're an offline company, you might be able to use credit card purchases of your customers, sync those with LiveRamp's ability to tie credit card numbers to online identities, and create a targetable pool of users online. So whatever your data is, and whatever identity key you have for that data (e.g. telephone numbers), as long as LiveRamp also has that identity key, that data can be used wherever through the LiveRamp system. This is valuable for marketing to those customers, licensing this data out, or enhancing various other data attributes. And, of course, Acxiom's extensive and valuable data can be matched and distributed through the same mechanism.

LiveRamp recently announced the acquisitions of Arbor and Circulate. Both companies were focused on mobile with similar missions. Both offered publishers recurring revenue based on their logged-in users - without publishers adding additional advertising to their sites. Users often provide some form of ID for email updates or other login purposes. These are then synced offline with Arbor / Circulate, and matched - often focusing on device ID as a main key. In effect, Arbor and Circulate were beginning to recreate LiveRamp's CRM connectivity offering, but designed for a mobile-first world (so adding things like location that hadn't been as important for LiveRamp). They had established a combined ~250 publisher relationships. While their revenue was limited - $5M combined, estimated for 2017 - they presented a growing thread to LiveRamp's CRM matching hegemony.

As Google and Facebook create closed silos of data, LiveRamp has created a very open mechanism to move and understand data. That said, with Google and Facebook, users have some understanding that their data may be tied to marketing data. Most consumers have no idea that Acxiom / LiveRamp exists, nor that when they enter their email into a form they are creating a persistent link for their identity to a device. The opt-out mechanism is hard to understand because the device provider is hard to trace. Thus, while their open platform is generally good for marketers - it is significantly more likely to be regulated than either Facebook or Google's opt-in systems (you do have to agree to their terms of service, regardless of whether you read them).