Enterprise: Canoe Uses EBIF Launch To Propel Interactive Advertising

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The acronym may never be as well-known as CPM or GRP. But EBIF is starting to find its way into industry vernacular. It refers to a tech function, but Canoe Ventures executives might be wise to brand it as "Extended Brand Inventory Fulfillment" -- a reference to expanding opportunities that it can provide advertisers.

Canoe was founded by the six leading cable operators to develop new revenue streams by providing advertisers with cutting-edge options. The company is scheduled to launch a national interactive advertising system -- driven by the EBIF platform -- by the end of this year.

"As traditional media starts to diminish, the operators and programmers are going to need to find ways to create new inventory," said Mark Janes, marketing director at Alcatel-Lucent. Janes, who is involved in Alcatel's interactive TV applications, delivered the user-friendly twist on EBIF's phrasing last week at an industry event.

In fact, EBIF signifies Enhanced Binary Interchange Format. Simply put, it allows digital set-top boxes to offer advanced advertising. For Canoe, interactive advertising is the first planned use of the EBIF platform. Down the road, viewers could be offered the chance to participate in voting and polling. And ultimately, EBIF software can trigger "t-commerce," allowing for direct purchases of products via the remote control.

When Canoe taps EBIF, it will serve as a lead-generation engine for advertisers. Five seconds into a 30-second spot, the system will allow an overlay or banner to appear along the bottom of the screen. The drop-down would offer a viewer the opportunity to have a coupon or brochure sent to them with just several clicks of a remote control. That's known as a request for information (RFI). A positive response can lead to a dialogue with a consumer.

EBIF-enabled set-top boxes would facilitate the ads running in homes served by all six MSO members. But each operator is moving at a different pace in deployment, so launching the national iTV platform remains a challenge. For example, Comcast is moving faster than Charter. The four other Canoe members are Time Warner Cable, Cox Communications, Cablevision and Bright House Networks.

Comcast COO Steve Burke has been outspoken about the potential for iTV ads to increase the bottom lines for Canoe members, and the need to move quickly. "It's a big opportunity, so we're pushing hard," he said at an industry event.

Rolling out EBIF software is made easier, since the MSOs don't have to install new boxes. The code was written so boxes already in the field can be EBIF-enabled electronically, without home-by-home visits. But with the MSOs using various systems, questions remain about a national launch date and the number of homes advertisers will initially reach.

Canoe's lead-generation offering is not markedly different from other iTV applications already launched. Satellite operators DirecTV, Dish Network and TiVo offer RFI programs. Members of the Canoe consortium, such as Comcast and Time Warner Cable, have used it in local markets. Last week, Cablevision said it will launch a program this fall in and around New York.

But Canoe promises advertisers a chance to run spots on national cable networks in tens of millions of homes. EBIF-enabled boxes would allow a Procter & Gamble to run an ad offering a coupon for Scope on ESPN or HGTV.

"Anything moving to national is a great starting point," said Jen Soch, vice president and activation director for advanced TV at MediaVest.

Canoe says it will provide some details by late October or early November, although the murkiness frustrates ad executives. And there is some skepticism, in light of Canoe's failed attempt to offer addressable advertising earlier this year.

"We never know what the timetable is with Canoe, and that's been a concern," said Mitch Oscar, executive vice president of televisual applications at MPG. Last week, Oscar organized a Collaborative Alliance meeting, where there were several introductory presentations about EBIF.

Among the six Canoe operators, Comcast appears to be the furthest along with EBIF deployment. EBIF-enabled boxes are allowing the MSO to sell RFI advertising in 2 million-plus homes in Chicago and San Francisco. More homes are being added in Detroit.

Time Warner Cable has run an iTV ad trial in more than 1 million boxes in New York. And it is now converting them to the EBIF platform. It is also dropping the EBIF agent into boxes in upstate New York and Hawaii.

Among the other four Canoe members, Cox would not comment on EBIF deployment. A representative for Charter said the operator is looking for a "healthy" EBIF rollout in early 2010. Bright House Networks says it will have 200,000 EBIF-enabled boxes ready to go by the end of the year.

Cablevision is expected to have EBIF boxes synched with Canoe, but the iTV system it announced last week will use proprietary technology. The company declined further comment.

Comcast COO Burke said he expects the six Canoe operators to have a combined 10 million EBIF-enabled boxes deployed soon, and 25 million by the end of 2010. Potentially, Canoe could use all of them to flow its iTV ads, but how many it can access is unclear. (MediaPost incorrectly reported that Burke suggested Canoe would launch in 25 million homes by the end of this year.)

While Canoe will bring revenues to the MSOs, EBIF also could help markedly strengthen their flagging local sales. Comcast has had some success in attracting advertisers to use its iTV platform in San Francisco and Chicago. And it is running an EBIF-based "t-commerce" offering in partnership with HSN.

Beyond advertising, EBIF allows operators to offer a range of iTV functions -- from caller ID on the screen to restarting programs to setting DVRs. "If Canoe didn't exist, all six MSOs would be using EBIF to set up their own interactivity within their own footprints," said Arthur Orduna, Canoe's chief technology officer.

Still, the operators believe there is s certain imperative in turning Canoe into a needle-moving success. Potential subscribers to their core TV business may have peaked, while local ad sales may continue to suffer. Burke expects Canoe to yield some revenue in 2010 and to "become more material in the future."

Interactive advertising, he said, can offer "the kind of target-ability and measurement" the Internet does, helping operators stem dollars flowing to the Web. An RFI platform can bring advertisers a form of customer contact that can also compete with direct mail. But while Canoe tries to muscle together its national footprint, it faces another potential obstacle in getting its interactive platform launched: cable networks.

At some level, networks will have to be convinced it is worth their time and money to cut deals with Canoe for rights to sell the interactive spots. Are advertisers eager enough for RFI capabilities to pay a USA or MTV a premium to run one of the ads? A top executive at a cable network said he doesn't think the current climate would permit such experimentation.

"If I were spending a $1 million on all my cable networks," said MPG's Oscar, "and then to do this, they wanted to charge me $1 million more? They make it financially impossible, so that's an issue." Canoe would not comment on revenue models. Comcast's Burke said the consortium has some "general ideas" about pricing, but would "evolve as we get closer" to launch.

Earlier this year, Time Warner Cable rolled out a lead-generation interactive application --- not with EBIF -- in Los Angeles. The pricing structure would seem to be enticing to a network. Advertisers such as Carl's Jr. pay once to run a 30-second spot, a second time to integrate the RFI function, and again per lead received.

When Canoe does debut its EBIF system, it will act as a middleman in producing and serving the ads. In-house campaign managers will use both a Web interface and one-on-one communication to activate the spots. RFI spots can run only 30 seconds, and an EBIF trigger drops the interactive banner down 5 seconds into the commercial, which continues to run behind it. After a network and agency reach a deal to run one of the ads, they will designate a "creative lead" (an account manager) to work with Canoe.

A phone conversation between the two follows, where they would explore several generic templates for the ad on a secure Web site. When a version is selected, the creative provides RFI material: copy, graphics, logos, etc. The Canoe manager will essentially build the spot.

The creative and Canoe manager will then reconvene over the phone and review the commercial -- the look and feel, the drop-down motion, the click-through process, etc. Any requested changes would be made by Canoe until the advertiser and network are satisfied.

Canoe will then run the spot through its EBIF-enabled system and send the finished product to the network, which will insert it into its pre-recorded broadcast stream. The network provides Canoe with a schedule of when the spot(s) are slated to run, so it can ensure that its system delivers them over the length of a campaign.

Viewers of the RFI spots encounter a so-called double opt-in. A person responding yes to an offer is sent to another screen asking whether he or she indeed wants to receive something in the mail. In order to protect privacy, Canoe then sends the positive responses to a traditional fulfillment house -- the kind used in direct mail -- to process the orders.

While Canoe preps its iTV platform, Verizon has 2.5 million EBIF-enabled boxes already deployed for its FiOS TV service. Last summer, the company ran a trial with NBC Universal in Portland, Ore. during the Beijing Olympics. On-screen overlays allowed viewers to click on prompts to view athlete bios, medal counts and the latest news.

Now, Verizon is conducting tests to also launch lead-generation ads. The spots could run in individual markets, or on national networks across its expanding footprint that now stretches from Tampa to Seattle. NBCU could use the system for next year's Winter Olympics. "We expect to be available for advertisers and programmers shortly," said Jason Malamud, director of ad sales for FiOS.

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