Dave Zinman Aims To Combat 'Banner Blindness' At Infolinks

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Dave Zinman has seen his fair share of the display advertising business as recent stints at BlueLithium and then Yahoo! – where he was GM of Display – gave him a front row seat.

Zinman says there are still plenty of things to “fix” in display and his latest role as chief executive looks to take Infolinks, a company that’s been active as an in-text advertising provider, to broader display budgets.

And, the problem his 50-person company will try to solve with its new In3 platform is “banner blindness” as Infolinks will offer four different ad formats for insertion within content that will leverage the adjacency and perform the task commonly associated with native advertising. (See release.)

Zinman says about his company’s new platform, “You’re not targeting what they did yesterday or an hour ago or last week. You’re targeting the page, the content of the user based on the page they’re on right at that moment. (…) We analyze about a trillion words a month. We do that to understand the intent of the user at that moment. Then and only then do we figure out what ads to serve on the page. Those ads are targeted by keywords.”

AdExchanger spoke to Zinman recently as his company prepared for this week’s re-launch.

AdExchanger: How is this different than standard contextual advertising?

DAVE ZINMAN: With standard contextual advertising, you’re analyzing the textual page and then you’re bidding for an impression in the standardized units through an ad exchange - a lot of people are doing that today. The problem is that you’re basically bidding on a standard space that everybody has ignored. There’s a high degree of banner blindness.

Infolinks is trying to solve a very large problem that we’ve all become a little numb to and where the problem is a combination of relevance and placement.

What's different about the Infolinks creative?

We’ve launched a bunch of new ad units – and three, in particular, as part of this launch - that are unique.

One is called InSearch. It is a unit that only appears when the user arrives on a page directly from a search results page. They click on an organic listing and they get to a page from one of the publishers that’s using our platform.

When that happens, we create a new unit that doesn’t exist on the page otherwise. It slides up from the bottom of the page and is the size of a 728x90 leaderboard. The ad is targeted specifically to that keyword the person searched on. It gets about 30 times the engagement rate of a standard display ad banner. And, that’s because it’s relevant and the placement is unique so the users see it and don’t ignore it. We get a response.

Another unit, we call InTag. InTag is a tag cloud unit which again, this type of unit may not be unique to Infolinks, but it’s another example of where the unit uses keywords that are relevant to what’s on the page. And, if you hover over one of those keywords, you will get an ad unit that will pop up.

The last one we call InFrame where our server detects when the width of the browser window is wider that the width of the web page it’s being served to. We insert a skyscraper unit on the left or right margins depending upon some calculations. Those ads are also targeted by keyword of the users based on the content of the page.

All of those units together, InText, InTag, InSearch, and InFrame are all targeted by keywords so advertisers can use a keyword list to target them. They all show up in unexpected locations for users to try to break through “banner blindness.”

And, if we don’t have relevant ads, you don’t serve them. Looking across the competitive set, their primary audience is advertisers. Our primary audience is publishers. We are attempting to deliver to the publishers a monetization platform that they can utilize to try to generate more money from their sites than just using standard IAB units alone.

So, you’re managing scarcity against the need to drive yield?

Yes. One of the things I observed at Yahoo, when I was there, was that when we did user studies and eye-tracking studies, there was only a limited amount of time that users are willing to spend on advertising. Whether you put one ad on the page or ten ads on the page, they’re not going to change that [time] budget very much.

Part of our philosophy is to only show the ads that are going to be absolutely relevant and when you really want the user to respond. If we don’t have a high value ad to serve, we don’t serve anything.

Is there going to be a fit with what you’re doing and programmatic buying?

There is definitely a fit between the option we run and programmatic buying. The issue is that a lot of the work in programmatic buying and display does not use a keyword as the basis for targeting that tends to go into Search. The demand that we tend to run usually involves advertisers that are doing a lot of search spend.

One of the flaws in display if you step away from the problems that I’m talking about is that advertisers aren’t really focusing at a granular level on specific product needs. They’re focusing on category needs. I think eventually display will be much better off if it can target at a keyword level.

Another way to frame this is to say that what we’re doing is we’re bringing that search level intent to display advertising.

Do you think there’s a brand advertising play here?

There’s definitely a brand advertising play. We’re running lots of brand advertisers today. They tend to take their Google keyword list and use that as the targeting. They can run all sorts of rich media creatives through our ad unit.

One clarification regarding our units - when I say non-IAB standard units, I mean the place on the page where our units run isn’t the normal place on the page. You can serve on our unit with an advertiser’s standard IAB creative.

So, are you creating a publisher network? Can you tell us a little bit about the sell side strategy, go-to-market strategy here?

Publishers are our primary focus. We are building a self-service platform for publishers. The publishers can sign up on a website and manage their ad units. They can customize all the ad units to the look of their site. They can choose what ad units they want to run and which ones they don’t. They can get all of their reporting in real time, including through a mobile application that they can run on their iPhone or Android phone.

A lot of our publishers get most of their revenue from Infolinks. Some of them, we deliver a smaller portion of the revenue depending upon how big the site is.

To give you a sense for the scale, Infolinks has 100,000 sites that have signed up and are active each month who are serving ads to the sites. They operate in 128 countries. Once they adopt our platform, they don’t leave. We have our churn rate of 1.1 percent a month and we’re getting 500 new sign-ups per day.

What’s the revenue model with these new products? Is it all revenue share with the publishers?

It is revenue share with the publishers. We do a guaranteed minimum for larger publishers who test so there’s no risk to them. We give them a minimum eCPM, but it is a rev share.

On the advertisers’ side, all of the products are sold under a CPC model. This is an important distinction in that we’re focused on delivering valuable clicks to advertisers, targeting by keyword intent of the user. We’re doing it by serving display ads or text ads or whatever the advertiser wants to serve.

Can they re-target their own users? Can they bring first-party data or target their own users through your Infolinks network?

We don’t support that now.  We’re focused on [our current product and] trying to identify people when they’re on task, in real-time and not after the fact.

…This is almost heretical. When I was at BlueLithium and ran the ad network for a few years before it was bought by Yahoo, retargeting was the heart of what we were doing. Retargeting is so important to display, but we’ve all grown so close to it that we’ve forgotten we’re targeting what people are interested in before - not what they’re interested in now.

Can you talk a little bit about revenue today and then your expectations about revenues going forward?  And – need funding?

We are a private company, so we don’t talk about revenues. But, we turned profitable this year. Revenues are growing at a very fast clip year-over-year. Beyond that we’re not talking about revenue specifically.

The original product of the company was an in-text ad unit. As I said, we’re launching these three new ad units and part of the growth we’re seeing is the opportunity to deliver those ad units and create a lot more ad inventory and revenue for the company and its publishers.

As for funding, we don’t have the funding pressure right now. We’ve got cash in the bank.

How do you see Infolinks fitting into a native advertising budget or world, if you will?

We talk about native advertising a lot inside Infolinks. It’s highly relevant because the essence of unit advertising is that advertising is relevant to the content the user is looking at at the moment. Native advertising is the shorthand way of saying that the advertising is tied to the content very tightly.

That is an apt description of exactly what we do. We serve ad units. We’re analyzing the content and we’re trying to create a way to link the advertising to the content in a very fresh and creative way so it gets noticed by users.

Follow Dave Zinman (@davebehappy), Infolinks (@Infolinksinc) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

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