Frontiers

Future Tool: Customizing Ads

By Gavin O'Malley

Marketers have long been accused of promoting cookie-cutter cultural homogenization for the purpose of streamlining commerce. But due to the relentless consumer fragmentation fostered by so many choices in the marketplace, advertisers have embraced targeted segmentation to make each consumer feel unique.

The process is called "customization," and its success rests on accuracy and scalability, according to Seth Haberman, president of Visible World Inc., a digital TV ad creative and distribution company.

Haberman recently teamed with News Corp.'s Fox News to customize its conventional TV ads by adjusting voiceovers, scripts, graphic elements and other visuals so, for instance, fast-talking New Yorkers aren't subjected to some pitchman's Texan twang, and vice versa.

With Visible World's technology, Fox News can't target ads by household, but it can alter the message for various shows, time slots or the days or week they're shown. For successful customization, marketers and their ad agencies are expected to come up with a default ad as well as a number of elements that can be slotted in depending on such variables as type of program or audience. A digital file with computerized codes and rules determining how special components of the ad are put together is shipped electronically to a Visible World router at the media outlet offering the service, and from there the spot can be configured and loaded into a network's rotation. Fox and Visible World split a production fee charged to advertisers, says Haberman.

But what Haberman and Fox News are doing is but an overture to ad targeting's real potential, says David Downey, CEO and president of Invidi, a company that helps cable channels categorize its programming to reach specific demographic targets.

"I credit those guys for priming the pump by bringing attention to the power of customization, but it's nothing new and it's not addressability, which is the real future of ad targeting," says Downey, who describes "addressability" as the ability to reach customers individually by household.

"Working with Time Warner and media buyers, in the not too distant future we'll allow them to aggregate audiences across a spectrum with the selectivity of direct mail," Downey continues. "That's when things will really get interesting."

Haberman admits that anything Visible World is currently doing could be done relatively easily by hand, but argues that critics underestimate the power the automation process has to adjust for project scale. "By automating even the simplest processes, in many cases it makes an endeavor worthwhile that wouldn't have made sense without automation," explains Haberman. "If it wasn't so expensive, marketers would have been pampering the average consumer a long time ago."

Ad representatives hungry for progress fault local cable operators for resisting the changes needed to facilitate ad targeting. "We're already doing this in broadband video because there are no operators to get in the way," says Tim Hamlin, senior vice president and director of emerging contacts at Starcom MediaVest in Chicago. "All sorts of targeting is technologically possible now, but cable operators who want to [encourage] local spot sales are holding back progress." This conflict is "something for local programmer and operators - who've always had an adversarial relationship - to work out," Hamlin says. "But tech companies like Visible World and Invidi can help by facilitating dialogue and continuing to promote the possibility and the value of targeting."

E-mail: Mobilepedia

By Gavin O'Malley

NOT LONG AGO, my chat with a cordial octogenarian on the train soured when he couldn't recall the names of haunts he'd frequented, celebrities he said he schmoozed, books he'd read. The details that should have threaded his chronicles were awkwardly misplaced. There must be some portable gadget to remedy a memory glitch, I thought then. It turns out that such a service already exists in the form of a new, cell-phone-based encyclopedia application called Cellphedia.

Created as a thesis project by an equally cordial 33-year-old New York University grad student named Limor Garcia, Cellphedia takes inspiration from two of the more innovative services online today: The popular Web user-built and -supported encyclopedia known as Wikipedia, and Dodgeball.com, a text message-facilitated social networking service, which was recently acquired by Google.

"The social, community element is the most important and the most interesting aspect of the project," explains Garcia. "Think about the questions you can ask a person that some algorithm and a database wouldn't understand, and think about why people would want to be part of such a community in the first place."

Cellphedia (pronounced cell-fEdia) encourages users to sign up and receive updates on information in one or a number of categories like sports, technology, and music. The service is free except for text-messaging fees. When a member of the community asks a question, other members with an interest in the relevant category receive the query via text message. Answer should ideally begin coming back within a matter of seconds or minutes, and then they're posted on the Cellphedia site.

Users can earn points in recognition for being the first to answer questions. But, says Garcia, the hope is that people will participate for participation's sake. Non-hierarchical, self-regulated enterprises like Wikipedia and, in a broader sense, the blogosphere, have thrived despite skeptics' predictions of corruption and neglect. Garcia says she's comfortable giving users the ability to modify incorrect answers, confident the White Hats will outnumber the Black.

Live since April, the site was slow to catch on, but thanks to a bit of press and several mentions on high-profile blogs, participation rates are shooting up. Garcia is considering an ad-supported business model, but has yet to commit to anything. There's no doubt that Cellphedia will face competition, which Garcia thinks is a good thing. In fact, Wikipedia is currently in talks with Nokia about creating a Wikipedia client on Nokia cell phones. "There's still so much to learn at this stage, that you have to naturally welcome as much competition as possible," says Garcia, adding: "Bringing the best technology together with the best human insight to anyone, anywhere, as fast as it can be processed? That's pretty exciting."