Sprout Providing Engagement Through Display Ads For Brand Marketers Says CEO Williams

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Sprout Inc.Carnet Williams is CEO and Co-Founder of Sprout, a brand engagement ad platform.

AdExchanger.com: Let's start with the name - how does "Sprout" mesh with what you're doing today? And, what problem is Sprout solving and how does this play out with your announcement about Disney?

CW: The display advertising business is still incredibly young. There is so much room for innovation to sprout. We want to make display ads relevant and engaging. We want to enable brands to plant relationships with customers and nurture those relationships with continuous conversations over time.

Today, we announced Sprout Engage Ads. Sprout Engage Ads allow brands to make stronger connections with their audiences by providing a fun, interactive experience, wherever their audiences travel online.

Our first customer to roll out these ads is Disney, who created Engage Ads for Alice in Wonderland. These ads are designed to take display advertising to the next level by bringing personally relevant data right into a standard Flash ad unit. The ads are 'smart' in that they know when you have engaged with them so you will never see the same content twice. In addition, the ad and the Facebook application is linked so the ads know if you have engaged with the app and vice versa. For example, if you add yourself to the Mad Hatter's Army in the ad, when you come to the Facebook app you will be recognized as being in the army.

Please discuss your datasets around the social graph. How is it collected? And, how much flexibility does a brand marketer have to customize her/his campaign?

Sprout creates both Engage Apps and Engage Ads. Sprout connects to social graph APIs to read profile data and write activities back. In the case of Engage Ads running outside of social networks, we use cookie data to personally identify users and give them content that is applicable to them, whether it's based on location, for example, or actions a user has taken in another ad.

One great thing about our platform is that brands have complete control over customizing campaigns. Our platform is incredibly deep. Sky's the limit for what you can do within an ad or social application. And, brand marketers can modify campaigns based on real-time analytics and these changes go live immediately.

Given your use of Flash, do you see Flash continuing to dominate rich media ads? Is HTML 5 a potential option for use in development in the future - or even Silverlight? Curious your thoughts on the Web's "format future," (HTML 5, Flash, Silverlight, etc.) in general.

Right now, given its ubiquity, we are continuing to bet on Flash. I like the idea of an open rich media format but it looks like we're 18 months away from any real decision-making events. But we will continue to watch the numbers closely. The Sprout Engage platform is built on XML so if we need to shift we can easily adjust the platform to output something other than a .SWF file, such as DHTML or HTML 5.

What's the case for advertising in social media beyond the sheer numbers of eyeballs? And, does Sprout help with brand safety in delivery of campaigns?

I think that social media is about more than eyeballs. It's about allowing people to have continuous conversations with the brands they care about. You see the conversations happening on the fan page wall, within applications and between brand advocates and their friends. Our new Engage Ads allow brands to extend those conversations beyond the walls of the social networks to any web site.

In terms of brand safety, Sprout offers a campaign console that allows content to be moderated (either before it goes live or when it's live) and removed, if needed.

What challenges is the creative (as in the human) dealing with today in digital advertising?

One thing we repeatedly hear from our customers is how important time-to-market is when launching apps or ads. Creatives need to build quickly while focusing on UI, not coding. One of the things that Sprout has said from the beginning is that we want the creative to maintain control of the rich media. Our platform has a visual interface and all our Engage Apps and Ads are created by a designer, using WYSIWYG tools. This is important because it puts the focus on the user experience versus the underlying technology, which can get very complex.

You've likely heard about the media trading platform strategies at VivaKi (nerve center), IPG (Cadreon), MDC (Varick Media) and Havas (Adnetik) to name a few. How does Sprout work into these strategies?

One of the bottlenecks for real-time ad exchanges is quickly and easily creating content for display advertising. We think we can solve this problem with the Sprout Engage platform and look forward to working with these DSPs moving forward. As I mentioned before, the Sprout Engage Platform has a completely visual interface. We have already done the backend integration with the social networks and 3rd party services, such as Twitter and Google, for example. So, if a designer wants to add a Twitter feed to an ad, all he/she has to do is drag a Twitter component onto a canvas and set the user name. It literally takes 2 seconds.

Any thoughts on recent news that Facebook is taking back its display advertising from Microsoft and using its own, non-standard (as in IAB) units? Does this say anything about the social media advertising opportunity? And, for brand marketers, in particular?

Consumers expect ads running within social networks to be more targeted and social. When they're not, performance suffers. Facebook knows that a regular display ad won't perform well on the social network so they have done the right thing pulling them back.

Today, Sprout Engage Ads running on certain social networks can display social graph data so they're display ads - - but they're personally relevant to the user. What we're excited about is being able to provide social, application-like experiences outside of the networks, wherever people see advertising.

If you were a publisher, perhaps a social media publisher, what would you be doing to insure a future?

Publishers are starting to see advertisers spend dollars traditionally spent with them on social networks. Publishers need to socialize content on their site. In particular they need to offer their advertisers social features. The standard IAB ad unit offers a compelling opportunity for them to think of ad units as pieces of content for managing customers.

Follow Carnet Williams (@carnet), Sprout (@sprout) and AdExchanger.com (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

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