Ad Tech’s Sleeping Data Giant: Wireless Carriers

khurrummalik“Data Driven Thinking” is written by members of the media community and contains fresh ideas on the digital revolution in media. 

Today’s column is written by Khurrum Malik, chief marketing officer at eXelate.

Despite all the attention paid to the consumer data available to Facebook and Google, they’re not the only players in the space – and perhaps not even the biggest.

Wireless carriers are ad tech’s sleeping giant, with access to a wide range of data points on millions of consumers. Players such as Sprint, AT&T and Verizon sit on vast troves of multiplatform consumer data, a cache so large it makes big data look small.

These carriers have the potential to disrupt the ad-tech industry by capturing a significant portion of dollars flowing into the ecosystem. They are uniquely capable of attracting marketers and media buyers with data-driven insights, fueled by data sourced directly from millions of wireless connections used daily by consumers.

Carriers Are Experimenting

Few wireless carriers have shown a full commitment to venturing into the ad-tech sector because  of concerns over privacy, business model and complexity. Sprint, AT&T and Verizon, however, have begun making moves in the hopes of incubating multibillion-dollar revenue streams.

In 2012, Verizon Wireless launched Precision Market Insights. This information-services business unit represents the company’s efforts to monetize the consumer data it gathers and aggregates anonymously. Verizon Wireless’ value proposition is simple: Marketers can more accurately understand and reach consumers across multiple platforms, including PCs, smartphones and tablets, with insights backed by a base of more than 100 million wireless connections. Precision’s initial business focus is disrupting outdoor media, mobile-audience measurement and site assessment.

Sprint, with a base of more than 53 million subscribers, launched Pinsight Media Plus in 2012, approaching the venture as a marketing-insights and information-services play with a focus on mobile-audience targeting. Sprint, like Verizon, offers data-driven insights with information sourced and aggregated anonymously from their wide range of consumer devices.

The oldest of the three, AT&T’s Adworks, has been around since 2011. AT&T, in addition to offering services similar to those at Verizon and Sprint, provides its own ad network along with multiplatform audience targeting fueled by its proprietary data sets.

The Data Available

Carriers have a distinct competitive advantage in the amount and types of consumer behavior data available to them. By drawing from billing plans, app and browser usage, calling patterns and location, wireless carriers offer perhaps the most complete portrait of digital consumer behavior. Almost anything that rides a wireless carrier’s network can be used to develop a richer consumer profile.

A recent university grad, for example, may sign up for a two-year contract with a wireless carrier and receive the latest iPhone. During the sign-up process, he agrees to an opt-out privacy policy that allows his data to be used anonymously for marketing purposes. He then downloads mobile apps, sends emails and browses the Web. He checks Facebook a few times daily and relies heavily on Google Maps while hunting for apartments and attending job interviews. A small sample of the data his wireless carrier can capture or append includes:

• Usage: Browsing, apps, calls and texts, including type and frequency

• Location: Where the smartphone or tablet is located, with varying levels of accuracy

• Demographics: Household income, age and number of children

• Value: Billing plan, credit score, payment history, purchase patterns and lifetime value

• Multiplatform: Usage data across PC, smartphones and tablets; TV for multiscreen providers

Wireless carriers hold a formidable advantage in the sheer amount and types of consumer data to which they have access. That advantage is balanced with a reasonable privacy policy that allows carriers to take advantage of the data sets. While several wireless carriers have moved to an opt-out policy where subscribers must ask to exclude their data from anonymous aggregation and usage, the privacy policies are fuzzy and sometimes unclear about when specific data can and can’t be used. Carriers have begun shifting their stance on data usage and are working to tap into as much data as possible, but detailed app and browser usage for specific subscribers is still unusable unless they opt in.

Latest Moves

Wireless carriers can become the world’s most effective consumer data providers. They could also become deeper players on the analytics side of ad tech. Why can’t carriers generate rich data and put it to work in a proprietary analytics platform sold to marketers, agencies and publishers?

Initial moves to enter the advertising ecosystem are still in early stages. Outdoor advertising has long missed the digital boat, with the industry still relying on prehistoric measurement and targeting methods. Wireless carriers like Verizon want to tap this market by employing location data to determine which physical areas are heavily trafficked at certain times. This allows advertisers to cross-reference that data with information on consumers’ interests and preferences in order to target outdoor media audiences more effectively.

Like a Nielsen or comScore for outdoor advertising, carriers can create comprehensive reports that inform an advertiser’s ability to match messaging to targeted consumer groups across a discrete inventory of outdoor media, such as billboards.

Carriers are also moving to use rich location data to help retailers, real estate developers and others with site assessment. This service allows retailers to determine where to launch a new store and choose which promotional campaigns to run by time of day or season using location, demographic and intent data heat maps.

Mobile audience measurement still remains a challenge for many in the ad-tech industry, but wireless carriers want to change that. By providing accurate audience analytics based on mobile app and browser usage, carriers are working to offer better audience data to improve mobile media buying. Media planners can now access data straight from the source for measurement, attribution and even mobile advertising targeting.

Opportunities And Risks

Should tech powerhouses be worried? Possibly.

Wireless carriers could move to create analytics platforms that may compete with today’s DMPs/DSPs, using their vast data stores and deep pocketbooks as a differentiator. Another option would be to launch a pure-play consumer insights business to compete with classic market research and insights vendors. Carriers could also choose to just be a data aggregator – one with the purest mobile data available.

Where could this go? The possibilities seem limited only by wireless carriers’ ability to commit to a new business not focused on selling connections and consumers’ willingness to exchange their usage data for a more relevant advertising experience. The potential privacy backlash from consumers could dampen wireless carriers’ desire to venture further into ad tech.

That said, carriers are sitting on a large potential opportunity. The question is: Are they ready to take advantage of it? Will the giant wake up or continue napping?

Follow Khurrum Malik (@digitalmalik), eXelate (@eXelate) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

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  1. Great piece Khurrum, we absolutely agree that carriers are ad tech’s sleeping data giants – both wireless and broadband providers. Here at Bering, we’ve been working hard over the last 5 years creating and deploying a common privacy platform that unlocks the different data assets available across the different carrier networks. From our point of view, the giant is definitely waking up and starting to take advantage.