FM's Battelle: Data Levels The Playing Field

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John BattelleLast week, John Battelle, founder and chairman of blog network Federated Media, decided to join the board of marketing data services and technology company Acxiom – a digital entity that could hardly be more different from FM, which has positioned itself as a proponent of “conversational marketing” that looks to connect consumers and advertisers through specific content verticals like tech, food, parenting, health/wellness and other areas.

But an expanded focus on data and real-time bidding has become a bigger part of FM’s overall ad strategy. For example, FM’s acquisition of  Lijit last October not only expanded FM’s reach with an additional 77,000 online publishers and roughly “15,000 expert communities,” but it also gave it more data with which to manage its sites’ inventory in RTB environments.

So apart from helping serve his interests at FM, Battelle’s appointment to Acxiom’s board also reflects his wider interests in how online publishing and the ad dollars that support it are evolving. He spoke about what he hopes to get out of the relationship with Acxiom as well as his other thoughts about the digital marketplace in general.

AdExchanger: Why did you join the board of Acxiom? Does this suggest any formal relationship between FM and Acxiom?

JB: My joining the board is not directly related to FM certainly in any significant way. It's more of a personal interest of mine for a number of reasons. One, I'm just interested in how large companies are making this shift and transition with regard to their relationship with data and with their consumers and how the two connect. Acxiom is a mature company that is party to that market right now. Plus, it’s run by a guy, Scott Howe [the former aQuantive and Microsoft ad executive who joined Acxiom as CEO last July] who I have a lot of respect for. He asked me and I thought that was something worth doing both in terms of getting smarter myself in the space as well as getting some public company board experience which I've not had.

Aside from knowing Scott, what appeals to you about being involved with Acxiom?

The company has a long history, but they brought in a new team this year. I'm curious as to how Acxiom is going to pivot. It's always been a data company, but not the kind of data company that most tech companies think of. When the Valley thinks of a data company, they think of Google or [mobile app indexer] Splunk or these small data companies.

Acxiom’s heritage is as a manager of large databases of customer information for large financial and auto companies and others. So their purview is a lot wider than most companies that identify themselves as being in the business of data. And as I say, it’s just an interesting space and one that I've been paying a fair amount of attention to for a number of reasons – including the next book I'm writing, so I thought it would be a unique insight into that world.

What’s the book about?

The book is about identifying a number of what I'm calling "antiquities of the future" or "artifacts from the future" – things that exist now, but are not used by many people, but will be.

I’m sort of taking the archeological approach to telling a story about the future, which is to say when you're an archeologist, what you do is find artifacts and explain what they were and what purpose they served. They're very old and you stare at them very hard and try to understand or divine what the society that made them was like in the distant past.

So what I'm doing is sort of flipping that over and saying, "Look at these things that exist right now and imagine that they are telling us what they’re going to look like and how might they change our world. For example, take an “artifact” like the Fitbit, that little pedometer on steroids that quantifies the motion of your body and turns it into actionable insight. If you imagined that an entire society used a device like that, what kind of society would that be? Similarly the Google Glass project that came out publicly last month...

Are you impressed by Google Glass? Do you think that’s a practical product?

Yes. I've known about that project for some time. I think that's an artifact from the future. I've identified a number of them and I'm going to try to string them together under a general unified theory and say, "Here's what our world might look like if all of these things are used by billions of people as opposed to just at this point hundreds of thousands or in the case of the Google Glasses, which is probably about ten." There are an awful lot of interesting social and cultural and commercial questions about all of this that I'll be getting into and trying to tie together large themes about. So that's the book.

Data seems to be the big theme in all those projects you mentioned.

They're all driven by how data is used, so that is an essential part of the book. But I'm not going to write a book called "The Data," although I suppose I could call it that. It not might be clever, since James Gleick already wrote The Information.

Getting back to the advertising and the importance of data, I've never really thought about data and FM in any overarching way. My first thought about the company was it was great at simply organizing audiences. But I wonder if FM has become more of a data-oriented company in part thanks to deals like Lijit, BigTent and TextDigger. How does FM relate to the rise of data?

In a general way, I think that our company has absolutely become more of a data-driven operation, as all of our clients, partners and publishers have become more data driven. The publishers have, in varying degrees, become producers and consumers of data, particularly social data, sharing, retweeting, amplification data. We have already rolled out data‑driven marketing products and are doing a lot more.

The combination of Lijit has sparked a lot of new work. How do you look at vast amounts of data about how audiences consume content and roll that into useful products and services for both publishers and marketers?

A lot of traditional publishers have been slow to warm up to the uses of data and RTB, which was generally seen more as a marketer or advertiser friendly option. Obviously, there are fears about cannibalizing direct sales with RTB, but what’s your take on the issues publishers are facing? 

It's something that we talk about everyday here. There is not yet an elegant combination of creative expression of marketing messaging with the appropriate context and scale inside of content brands.

Right or wrong, the metaphor that I use a lot is the magazine page. You've got a format that is well understood by creators on both sides of the equation... The canvas is known. The canvas is not something that's in constant question by the bean counters who have to make sure that the ad performs.

That metaphor does not work in the online space for content right now, mainly because we committed a little too early to a standardized format that was too small. The display boxes and rectangles, it's not like they don't do anything but they are not equivalent in terms of return on investment for brands. They work great for some things, but they don't really work for brands.

And that’s why so many marketers view online as a direct response medium first and foremost, not a branding one.

Right. But where we're really paying a lot of attention is in the space of what I think people are calling content marketing. From our point of view, it's how do you get an aligned form of marketing messaging into the right place at the right time, such that it adds value to the ecosystem and doesn't detract from it. And so we've done, for example, with WordPress with the native format of WordAd, which are posts that are in the screen, not unlike promoted tweets in the screen of Twitter or search ads.

There's a format there that we developed three or four years ago we call "The Conversationalist" that we've adapted into the WordAd. It's very promising and I think I see a future where the content ‑‑ let's call it the creative from the marketer ‑‑ is matched using data and context, data about context, to the appropriate content in a real time or near real time fashion.

The other big problem facing online publishers is scale. Facebook and Google have it in spades, and they’re only taking more. Can independent web publishers compete?

But I think we are heading towards a place where we're going to start to find scale in various places. One of those places is Facebook. One of those places is Google. But I think another of those places are independent websites that have large and small audiences that are consuming high quality content and our goal is to be the biggest player in that space.

I think that we are moving into a new era where we'll have enough data and enough information and enough feedback to be able to say that in fact we can create canvas for you creatively that is contextually relevant, that understands this is where people are talking about subjects you care about, and we'll be able to deliver those units in conversation in context and at scale. That to me is a really important shift that's going to take time. We're getting there.

The input from social signals is a very important one, but not the only one.

By David Kaplan

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