Online Ads Can Now Follow You Home

April 29, 2013, 8:06 p.m. ET

Online Ads Can Now Follow You Home

Firms Are Helping Brands Like Expedia Serve Ads to Users Across PCs and Mobile Devices


Advertisers already know what people are up to on their personal computers. But understanding their online whereabouts on smartphones or tablets has remained elusive. A number of companies are trying to better pinpoint mobile users’ online activity with new software and techniques they say could help advertisers track users across devices. By harvesting cross-screen identities, the ad industry could serve ads to mobile phones based on the interests people express when surfing the Web on their PCs. “Every retailer is trying to figure out cross-platform activities,” said Jeff Warren, vice president of mobile and online partner marketing at online travel company Expedia Inc.EXPE -4.27%

MK-CC833_mobile_G_20130429180034Right on Target

Firms are employing a number of new methods to better serve more relevant ads to groups of people on mobile devices.

Look-Alike Modeling

Ad-technology firms like Tapad and Exelate analyze mobile and e-commerce data to create segments of people who are likely to buy certain kinds of products based on similar demographics, online usage and purchasing behavior.

Google can serve mobile ads during specific days and times of the week, so ads can display phone numbers when stores are staffed, for example, or promote certain brands at night when people are more likely to use tablets.

Cross-device Marketing
The next frontier in advertising is identifying multiple devices used by one person. Drawbridge’s algorithms try to anonymously match devices by triangulating ads requested by different devices across similar times and locations.

The emergence of cross-screen marketing is one of several new forms of technology aimed at solving a fundamental problem with mobile ads: It is harder to target people on smartphones than on PCs.

On the desktop, targeting is done by “cookies”—small software programs installed by Web pages on a user’s browser to monitor online activity. But cookies generally don’t work in wireless applications, where users spend much of their mobile time and money.

Users who aren’t served relevant ads don’t act on them as often, making the ads less valuable.

U.S. mobile ads grew to $4.1 billion dollars last year from about $1.5 billion in 2011, according to eMarketer Inc. But they accounted for just 2.4% of all U.S. ad spending. The new technologies aim to help further close that gap.

Last summer, Expedia began a trial with mobile ad technology provider Drawbridge Inc., which uses a “triangulation” method to try to figure out when a mobile user is the same person as a desktop user.

Drawbridge sends cookies to desktop and mobile browsers to track the ads being requested by the devices. If the patterns show enough in common—using the same Internet address at similar times, for instance—the company figures there is a good chance they are from one anonymous user.

That level of detail is important for Expedia, where the bulk of mobile bookings come in the days before a weekend, Mr. Warren said.

When delivering deals Expedia hopes will trigger a booking, he said, “Knowing when you are on your mobile phone is really key.”

Drawbridge helped Expedia deliver ads to a large pool of mobile users it believed had recently visited the travel service’s desktop website.

Expedia sent travel offers to people viewing travel guides at night in certain cities on mobile devices associated with the desktop users. If a person clicked on the ad, it would prompt the user to download or use the Expedia app to book the transaction.

“We have seen a direct positive relationship between spending on app downloads and someone consummating a transaction,” Mr. Warren said. “Technologies like Drawbridge give me a bit of a prayer but it is still early days.”

Major technology companies are also working to improve targeting of mobile ads while improving protection of user privacy.

Apple recently introduced a tool that lets developers anonymously track users, phasing out use of the old device ID that some privacy advocates said could be coupled with enough data to identify people. The new tool lets people limit ad tracking or reset the advertising identifier on their devices.

“It creates a level of comfortability for advertisers,” said Paul Gelb, head of strategy for ad server MoPub Inc.

Facebook Inc. FB +0.48% doesn’t provide data on its members to advertisers. But it does make it possible to send ads to actual people across their devices, which has fueled ad sales, said Gokul Rajaram, Facebook’s product director for ads.

Mobile ads accounted for 23% of Facebook’s revenue in the fourth quarter, up from zero six months earlier.

In February, top mobile ad provider Google Inc. GOOG +2.20% rolled out a new program called “enhanced campaigns” that lets advertisers tailor their ad bids by multiple locations and specific days and times of the week all within one campaign.

Tapad Inc., a company that delivers ads across devices, aims to improve mobile ad targeting by analyzing usage data from smartphones, tablets and PCs to create “look-alike” models of millions of people who may be likely to buy certain products.

It does so by identifying the apps users have downloaded, the mobile websites they have visited or items they’ve bought within a mobile app, CEO Are Traasdahl said.

It then compares those findings with data advertisers give Tapad about the online behavior of prospective and existing customers.

When a person has viewed a Web page for a particular device several times, for example, Tapad considers that a sign of purchasing intent. Tapad will then pool other people who have shown the same purchasing intent and sell that segment to an advertiser.

Tapad works with 75 of the largest U.S. advertisers, up from zero 18 months ago, Mr. Traasdahl said.

“What we are seeing now is you can really start doing advanced targeting on mobile devices,” Mr. Traasdahl said.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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