If you had “something blockchain related” on your Christmas list this year (And really, who didn’t?), then consider Comcast Cable Advertising your very own Santa Claus.
Comcast Corporation’s ad division unveiled Blockgraph on Friday, designed to help media owners and advertisers securely share data for addressable TV advertising. Blockgraph is winding down its pilot phase and intends to go live in early 2019.
Early partners include Charter and Viacom. And Comcast subsidiary NBCUniversal is piloting Blockgraph with the aim of incorporating it into its addressable TV advertising product in 2019. In total, 15 of the largest media companies on both buy- and sell-sides are early participants in the program, said Blockgraph GM Jason Manningham.
If all this sounds familiar, it’s because Comcast Cable Advertising first announced this initiative at Cannes in 2017. At the time, the product was called Blockchain Insights Platform, and Comcast Cable Advertising was called Comcast Advanced Advertising Group.
Name changes aside, the product’s ambition as a method to quickly and securely share data across the entire TV industry remains the same.
“It’s going to unlock a lot of value by bringing more data in a privacy compliant way to the point of transaction around advertising,” said Viacom Chief Data Officer Kern Schireson. “Blockgraph facilitates the ability for an advertiser and the owner of an impression to understand across all available data sets, who the viewer is – in a de-identified privacy compliant way – and to understand all the attributes of a viewer. And to contextualize what’s happened before, during and after the impression, which all together determines the value of the impression.”
Blockgraph is a peer-to-peer platform designed to let participants match their data directly, quickly and in a way that preserves consumer privacy.
Here’s how it works: Media companies and advertisers run common Blockgraph software in their own secure systems, on top of their private data.
Say a car manufacturer has the device IDs of the auto intenders they want to target. Using their installed Blockgraph software, that privately owned data would be transformed into non-identifiable Blockgraph IDs, which would then be sent to the car manufacturer’s media partners – namely, the broadcasters it has chosen to work with.
Those broadcasters will use the Blockgraph ID to find the audiences that they’ve mapped against the marketer’s segment, paving the way for the marketer to use its first-party data for ad targeting and planning.
Because that activity happens on a peer-to-peer basis, there’s no server in the middle doing the matching.
If Blockgraph proliferates throughout the TV industry, Schireson believes it can make ad exposures more valuable, enabling better monetization for publishers, less waste and – the big boon for consumers – a “less interruptive experience.”
So if the dominoes fall as Schireson hopes, ad breaks will be shorter because each ad will be more valuable. It’s one of the many promises of addressable TV, but it’s been slow to develop because of the hassle getting actionable data into a TV environment.
In the past, advertisers and media owners would either have direct data sharing relationships with each other, or use a company like LiveRamp or Experian to onboard the data and perform the blind match. Both processes are inefficient.
Direct relationships between advertisers and media sellers need to be maintained, said Schireson.
“If I want to match a set of households between the identified data I have and the data from the set-top box, I can do that,” Shireson said. “But if I also want to bring in more contextual information on what happened before, during or after the exposure, or track that through a commercial partner or device partner, that’s hard to do. Now I’ve got two or three or four hops in the chain.”
Meanwhile, working with a data match partner like LiveRamp or Experian has its own hassles. First, there’s an additional fee to pay out to the middleman. Second, clients who use data match partners don’t always feel assured that those partners aren’t keeping some of their data. Third, it’s inefficient.
“It requires both parties to agree on a common matching provider, to then send their data sets to that matching provider,” Manningham said. “And then have that matching provider do their magic and build an omnichannel media plan, create the IDs and send it back to both parties.”
All those difficulties, he said, prevent addressable TV advertising from growing as fast as it can.
But because Blockgraph is a peer-to-peer network, audience matches happen directly and securely, Manningham insists, in minutes instead of days. Denise Colella, SVP of advanced advertising products and strategy at NBCUniversal, backs up that statement, noting how working with a data match partner can take days or even weeks for the match to be returned.
“Sometimes it’s acceptable and sometimes not,” she said. “With Blockgraph, it can happen in seconds to minutes.”
Additionally, Blockgraph benefits from the network effect: As more parties get involved, the match rates become more scaled and more accurate. NBCU is actively thinking about how Blockgraph could potentially work with OpenAP – an initiative across NBCU, Fox, Turner and Viacom to standardize audience definitions.
But for any of Blockgraph’s potential advantages to manifest, more partners need to sign on. So Blockgraph’s success through 2019 will be judged according to how many participants are active in the Blockgraph network, and how many Blockgraph-enabled campaigns are executed. Manningham wouldn’t say how many participants or campaigns he hoped to see.
While Blockgraph is initially rolling out to first-party data owners, Manningham said he eventually wants to open the solution up to the wider ad tech ecosystem. While that might seem like a risk, Manningham points to the blockchain-inspired encryption mechanisms in Blockgraph. And of course, data owners have to allow other parties to access their data – a transcaction recorded through the blockchain ledger.
For now, Manningham and his team are focused on helping Blockgraph users set up the software, and build processes around the new use of their data. “There’s an operational challenge, and a technical challenge,” he said.
Viacom has its node installed, but it’s not completely ready to go live yet. For Blockgraph to work, it needs more players in the ecosystem – advertisers and content owners – to buy in.
“There’s some development work that needs to get done,” Schireson said. “Adapting it to their systems, integrating it with ad serving, making sure the data that gets exposed supports decisioning and transactions.”
That work will happen over the next few months, he said, but if Viacom and its peers can prove Blockgraph’s value, he thinks it’ll be easy to get buy-in from potential partners.
Blockgraph will be available on a subscription basis.