Why am I seeing this ad? AI, ML & human error in advertising – gpgmail


Ad platforms create equal opportunities for businesses but not equal outcomes.

They’re mostly marketed as self-service and easy to use, however, there are new features added regularly and open-ended ways to set, structure and target. Meaning, countless ways to spend—creating winners and losers in advertising.

This is where machines and digital advertisers are needed, to provide a profitable outcome.

Enter AI, ML and experts as freelancers, via agencies or housed in some of the world’s biggest companies, equipped with ample data, tech and educational resources to match people with companies via ads on search, social, and elsewhere on the web.

But, are the machines still in infancy or too heavily relied upon and do the experts always get it right?

Well, how often are you seeing ads that are irrelevant to what you wanted or where you were or who you are?

An irrelevant ad is an ad paid for by the company advertising but can return zero value as it’s of no use to the person receiving the ad.

As a digital advertiser via my company Adboy.com, I’m always curious as to why I was served an ad and if the company paying makes or loses money from it.

Something I’ve noticed is that in easily avoidable errors, ads can be served to existing customers, people with irrelevant needs and people that can’t be or are far less likely to become customers.

With this article, I’m going to give you the lenses of a fastidious digital advertiser. You’ll spot errors like these for yourself and know how they could occur, what the negative impact could be and how they can be avoided.

Advertising to existing customers


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Spirable refuels with $7.4M to serve more personalized video ads in the US – gpgmail


London based adtech startup Spirable has closed a £6M Series A. The round was led by Smedvig Capital, with existing backers Frontline Ventures, Downing Ventures and 24 Haymarket also participating.

The startup is one of several playing in the customized video ads space — offering a platform that simplifies and scales video ad creation by enabling brands and advertisers to combine video templates with creative and data sources to automate the creation and delivery of scores of personalized marketing messages.

Spirable says its platform, which launched in 2014, is now used by more than 50 customers. Campaigns have run across 75+ countries, with more than 100M personalised videos distributed since launch.

Its most successful industries to date are CPG (consumer packaged goods), travel and telco, according to co-founders Dave and Ger O’Meara.

On the travel front, they give the example of a Deutsche Bahn ‘No Need to Fly’ campaign that used dynamic video to show a location-sensitive side by side comparison of flight costs juxtaposed with cheaper train trips to local beauty spots — which Spirable claims achieved a 397% increase in click throughs; a 849% performance increase; and 59% reduction in cost per click vs the control.

Another example they cite is a Vodafone campaign to promote two own brand smartphone models which integrates multiple data feeds (such as contextual weather and date data) with creative assets in order to dynamically spotlight different features of the devices. The personalized marketing messages were served across Facebook, YouTube and Display channels via APIs baked into the platform.

From five video templates the tech automated the creation of more than five and a half thousand “unique” videos, tweaked to be more relevant to the targeted viewers.

On that particular campaign, Spirable says Vodafone saw sales of its own-brand devices increase by 100%. While ad performance increased by up to 50%.

“We can use all the targeting available in Facebook and layer this with contextual live data like the weather, live sports scores etc. So if we know someone is in London (via geo-targeting via Facebook), we can pull the local weather for that location and tailor the video to people in that audience and also update the video when a goal is scored in a match by a team that the audience supports,” they explain. “Once set up the whole process if fully automated. When the weather, sports data etc change the videos update and change.”

As well as automating serving up personalized ads, the platform provides performance reports on the backend, and uses machine learning technology to optimize ad creative to boost engagement.

The startup notes it’s been a Facebook Marketing Partner for more than two years.

The privacy implications of such highly targeted ads are — or should be — plain.

Among the laundry list of data sources that Spirable’s platform lets advertisers plug in to automate “personalized” ads are “CRM data” which it says includes personal data, purchase data, website browsing, service usage data and preferences; “social audience data”, including behavioral data, audience persona, interests, preferences and intents; and “contextual” signals such as store locations, weather (including pollen and UV levels), markets and stock levels live spots, trending events, pricing, time & date, live travel data, Google traffic data and supermarket wi-fi data.

So, for example, a parent who recently logged into a supermarket’s wi-fi network to check their Facebook account and was tracked lingering near shelves of diapers might find themselves being served video ads for a discount on girlie pink baby products at a nearby store.

The sheer volume of data integrations Spirable offers is one of the areas it claims sets its platform apart from competitors — name-checking Clinch and Idomoo as its main rivals in personalized video ads.

“Spirable has an unparalleled amount of data integrations to uniquely personalise video ads in real-time,” it says, further claiming Idomoo “doesn’t talk about live data and pre-render ads and upload to Facebook — so there is a lack of data-driven pipelines”.

Other areas where it reckons its approach stands out vs the competition is because it’s offering a ‘self-serve’ platform — meaning advertisers and brands can use it to “create, scale and optimise personalised video in-house”, without the need for specialist teams or agencies trained in video effects software (such as After Effects) to make use of the platform.

The video ad building process is also “modular” and “100% customisable” — vs the two named rivals not supporting layer level manipulation, meaning it’s less easy for their users to make changes on the fly to optimize ads.

Another claimed differentiator is that Spirable’s platform is cross-channel — with support for “all major social, email, messenger and display channels”.

It says the Series A funding will go on expanding the business in the US, with a plan to ramp up spending there on sales, customer support and marketing. Product development will also get investment.

“We have an exciting product roadmap of new features that will enable us to reach our vision of making video ads as engaging and useful as any other content a person sees on digital. This requires investment to scale up our engineering and product teams,” the co-founders tell gpgmail.

Commenting on the funding in a statement, Joe Knowles, principal at Smedvig Capital, added: “Spirable is a critical enabler of personalised video advertising, one of the major trends in video advertising today. Every marketer wants to use video in a more personalised way. But so far, slow and expensive content creation has been a barrier to mass adoption. Spirable’s Software as a Service removes this barrier and makes real time, automated video personalisation at scale a reality.

“Having tracked the business for over a year, we are excited to work with Ger, Dave and the high-quality team they are building at Spirable.”


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Mental health websites in Europe found sharing user data for ads – gpgmail


Research by a privacy rights advocacy group has found popular mental health websites in the EU are sharing users’ sensitive personal data with advertisers.

Europeans going online to seek support with mental health issues are having sensitive health data tracked and passed to third parties, according to Privacy International’s findings — including depression websites passing answers and results of mental health check tests direct to third parties for ad targeting purposes.

The charity used the open source Webxray tool to analyze the data gathering habits of 136 popular mental health web pages in France, Germany and the UK, as well as looking at a small sub-set of online depression tests (the top three Google search results for the phrase per country).

It has compiled its findings into a report called Your mental health for sale.

“Our findings show that many mental health websites don’t take the privacy of their visitors as seriously as they should,” Privacy International writes. “This research also shows that some mental health websites treat the personal data of their visitors as a commodity, while failing to meet their obligations under European data protection and privacy laws.”

Under Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), there are strict rules governing the processing of health data — which is classified as special category personal data.

If consent is being used as the legal basis to gather this type of data the standard that must be obtained from the user is “explicit” consent.

In practice that might mean a pop-up before you take a depression test which asks whether you’d like to share your mental health with a laundry list of advertisers so they can use it to sell you stuff when you’re feeling low — also offering a clear ‘hell no’ penalty-free choice not to consent (but still get to take the test).

Safe to say, such unvarnished consent screens are as rare as hen’s teeth on the modern Internet.

But, in Europe, beefed up privacy laws are now being used to challenge the ‘data industrial complex’s systemic abuses and help individuals enforce their rights against a behavior-tracking adtech industry that regulators have warned is out of control.

Among Privacy International’s key findings are that —

  • 76.04% of the mental health web pages contained third-party trackers for marketing purposes
  • Google trackers are almost impossible to avoid, with 87.8% of the web pages in France having a Google tracker, 84.09% in Germany and 92.16% in the UK
  •  Facebook is the second most common third-party tracker after Google, with 48.78% of all French web pages analysed sharing data with Facebook; 22.73% for Germany; and 49.02 % for the UK.
  • Amazon Marketing Services were also used by many of the mental health web pages analysed (24.39% of analyzed web pages in France; 13.64 % in Germany; and 11.76% in the UK)
  • Depression-related web pages used a large number of third-party tracking cookies which were placed before users were able to express (or deny) consent. On average, PI found the mental health web pages placed 44.49 cookies in France; 7.82 for Germany; and 12.24 for the UK

European law around consent as a legal basis for processing (general) personal data — including for dropping tracking cookies — requires it to be informed, specific and freely given. This means websites that wish to gather user data must clearly state what data they intend to collect for what purpose, and do so before doing it, providing visitors with a free choice to accept or decline the tracking.

Dropping tracking cookies without even asking clearly falls foul of that legal standard. And very far foul when you consider the personal data being handled by these mental health websites is highly sensitive special category health data.

It is exceedingly difficult for people to seek mental health information and for example take a depression test without countless of third parties watching,” said Privacy International technologist Eliot Bendinelli in a statement. “All website providers have a responsibility to protect the privacy of their users and comply with existing laws, but this is particularly the case for websites that share unusually granular or sensitive data with third parties. Such is the case for mental health websites.”

Additionally, the group’s analysis found some of the trackers embedded on mental health websites are used to enable a programmatic advertising practice known as Real Time Bidding (RTB). 

This is important because RTB is subject to multiple complaints under GDPR.

These complaints argue that the systematic, high velocity trading of personal data is, by nature, inherently insecure — with no way for people’s information to be secured after it’s shared with hundreds or even thousands of entities involved in the programmatic chain, because there’s no way to control it once it’s been passed. And, therefore, that RTB fails to comply with the GDPR’s requirement that personal data be processed securely.

Complaints are being considered by regulators across multiple Member States. But this summer the UK’s data watchdog, the ICO, essentially signalled it is in agreement with the crux of the argument — putting the adtech industry on watch in an update report in which it warns that behavioral advertising is out of control and instructs the industry it must reform.

However the regulator also said it would give players “an appropriate period of time to adjust their practices”, rather than wade in with a decision and banhammers to enforce the law now.

The ICO’s decision to opt for an implied threat of future enforcement to push for reform of non-compliant adtech practices, rather than taking immediate action to end privacy breaches, drew criticism from privacy campaigners.

And it does look problematic now, given Privacy International’s findings suggest sensitive mental health data is being sucked up into bid requests and put about at insecure scale — where it could pose a serious risk to individuals’ rights and freedoms.

Privacy International says it found “numerous” mental health websites including trackers from known data brokers and AdTech companies — some of which engage in programmatic advertising. It also found some depression test websites (namely: netdoktor.de, passeportsante.net and doctissimo.fr, out of those it looked at) are using programmatic advertising with RTB.

“The findings of this study are part of a broader, much more systemic problem: The ways in which companies exploit people’s data to target ads with ever more precision is fundamentally broken,” adds Bendinelli. “We’re hopeful that the UK regulator is currently probing the AdTech industry and the many ways it uses special category data in ways that are neither transparent nor fair and often lack a clear legal basis.”

We’ve reached out to the ICO with questions.

We also asked the Internet Advertising Bureau Europe what steps it is taking to encourage reform of RTB to bring the system into compliance with EU privacy law. At the time of writing the industry association had not responded.

The IAB recently released a new version of what it refers to as a “transparency and consent management framework” intended for websites to embed to collect consent from visitors to processing their data including for ad targeting purposes — legally, the IAB contends.

However critics argue this is just another dose of business as usual ‘compliance theatre’ from the adtech industry — with users offered only phoney choices as there’s no real control over how their personal data gets used or where it ends up.

Earlier this year Google’s lead privacy regulator in Europe, the Irish DPC, opened a formal investigation into the company’s processing of personal data in the context of its online Ad Exchange — also as a result of a RTB complaint filed in Ireland.

The DPC said it will look at each stage of an ad transaction to establish whether the ad exchange is processing personal data in compliance with GDPR — including looking at the lawful basis for processing; the principles of transparency and data minimisation; and its data retention practices.

The outcome of that investigation remains to be seen. (Fresh fuel has just today been poured on with the complainant submitting new evidence of their personal data being shared in a way they allege infringes the GDPR.)

Increased regulatory attention on adtech practices is certainly highlighting plenty of legally questionable and ethically dubious stuff — like embedded tracking infrastructure that’s taking liberal notes on people’s mental health condition for ad targeting purposes. And it’s clear that EU regulators have a lot more work to do to deliver on the promise of GDPR.




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How to use Amazon and advertising to build a D2C startup – gpgmail


Entrepreneurship in consumer packaged goods (CPG) is being democratized. Every step of the value channel has been compressed and made more affordable (and thereby accessible).

At VMG Ignite, we have worked with dozens of direct-to-consumer startups trying to both find product-market fit and achieve scale through Amazon and online advertising.

This article focuses on customer acquisition, particularly Amazon and online advertising, for the direct-to-consumer (D2C) CPG venture. Selling on Amazon, specifically third-party (3P), has become an increasingly important component of the D2C playbook. About 46% of product searches start on Amazon, which makes it a compelling source of sales even for early-stage ventures.

Table of contents

How to find product-market fit 

People say that ideas are a dime a dozen. They aren’t valuable. But finding product-market fit? Now, that’s hard. The gap between an unexecuted idea and proven product-market fit can seem vast. Yet it’s a critical first step because, ultimately, marketing amplifies your product and value proposition.

If they aren’t compelling, marketing will fail. If they’re compelling, even mediocre marketing can often be successful. So start with a great product that people love.

How do you create a great product, you ask? A/B test your product configuration like you A/B test your landing page, copy, and design. Your product is a variable, not a constant. Build, ship, get feedback. Build, ship, get feedback. Turn detractors into your customer panel for testing.

Early-stage D2C companies typically get their first customers through three channels:

  1. Begging your friends and family to buy and promote your product.
  2. List it on Amazon as a 3P seller. Figure out the platform and start selling!
  3. Advertise on Facebook. Start with a daily budget of 10x your price point to get started and start tinkering with creative, audiences, and settings to minimize cost per order.

The companies that succeed are often the ones that iterate the fastest. In his book Creative Confidence, IDEO founder David Kelley and his co-author (and brother) Tom relay a story of a pottery class that was split into two groups.

The first group was told they would each be graded on the single best piece of pottery they each produced. The second group was told they would each be graded based on the sheer volume of pottery they produced.

Naturally, the first group labored to craft the perfect piece while the second group churned through pottery with reckless abandon. Perhaps not so intuitive, at the end of the class, all the best pottery came from the second group! Iteration was a more effective driver of quality than intentionality.

Don’t know how to manage Amazon or Facebook? Here are some best practices:

How to get started with Amazon


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Twitter ‘fesses up to more adtech leaks – gpgmail


Twitter has disclosed more bugs related to how it uses personal data for ad targeting that means it may have shared users data with advertising partners even when a user had expressly told it not to.

Back in May the social network disclosed a bug that in certain conditions resulted in an account’s location data being shared with a Twitter ad partner, during real-time bidding (RTB) auctions.

In a blog post on its Help Center about the latest “issues” Twitter says it “recently” found, it admits to finding two problems with users’ ad settings choices that mean they “may not have worked as intended”.

It claims both problems were fixed on August 5. Though it does not specify when it realized it was processing user data without their consent.

The first bug relates to tracking ad conversions. This meant that if a Twitter user clicked or viewed an ad for a mobile application on the platform and subsequently interacted with the mobile app Twitter says it “may have shared certain data (e.g., country code; if you engaged with the ad and when; information about the ad, etc)” with its ad measurement and advertising partners — regardless of whether the user had agreed their personal data could be shared in this way.

It suggests this leak of data has been happening since May 2018 — which is also the day when Europe’s updated privacy framework, GDPR, came into force. The regulation mandates disclosure of data breaches (which explains why you’re hearing about all these issues from Twitter) — and means that quite a lot is riding on how “recently” Twitter found these latest bugs. Because GDPR also includes a supersized regime of fines for confirmed data protection violations.

Though it remains to be seen whether Twitter’s now repeatedly leaky adtech will attract regulatory attention…

Twitter specifies that it does not share users’ names, Twitter handles, email or phone number with ad partners. However it does share a user’s mobile device identifier, which GDPR treats as personal data as it acts as a unique identifier. Using this identifier, Twitter and Twitter’s ad partners can work together to link a device identifier to other pieces of identity-linked personal data they collectively hold on the same user to track their use of the wider Internet, thereby allowing user profiling and creepy ad targeting to take place in the background.

The second issue Twitter discloses in the blog post also relates to tracking users’ wider web browsing to serve them targeted ads.

Here Twitter admits that, since September 2018, it may have served targeted ads that used inferences made about the user’s interests based on tracking their wider use of the Internet — even when the user had not given permission to be tracked.

This sounds like another breach of GDPR, given that in cases where the user did not consent to being tracked for ad targeting Twitter would lack a legal basis for processing their personal data. But it’s saying it processed it anyway — albeit, it claims accidentally.

This type of creepy ad targeting — based on so-called ‘inferences’ — is made possible because Twitter associates the devices you use (including mobile and browsers) when you’re logged in to its service with your Twitter account, and then receives information linked to these same device identifiers (IP addresses and potentially browser fingerprinting) back from its ad partners, likely gathered via tracking cookies (including Twitter’s own social plug-ins) which are larded all over the mainstream Internet for the purpose of tracking what you look at online.

These third party ad cookies link individuals’ browsing data (which gets turned into inferred interests) with unique device/browser identifiers (linked to individuals) to enable the adtech industry (platforms, data brokers, ad exchanges and so on) to track web users across the web and serve them “relevant” (aka creepy) ads.

“As part of a process we use to try and serve more relevant advertising on Twitter and other services since September 2018, we may have shown you ads based on inferences we made about the devices you use, even if you did not give us permission to do so,” it how Twitter explains this second ‘issue’.

“The data involved stayed within Twitter and did not contain things like passwords, email accounts, etc.,” it adds. Although the key point here is one of a lack of consent, not where the data ended up.

(Also, the users’ wider Internet browsing activity linked to their devices via cookie tracking did not originate with Twitter — even if it’s claiming the surveillance files it received from its “trusted” partners stayed on its servers. Bits and pieces of that tracked data would, in any case, exist all over the place.)

In an explainer on its website on “personalization based on your inferred identity” Twitter seeks to reassure users that it will not track them without their consent, writing:

We are committed to providing you meaningful privacy choices. You can control whether we operate and personalize your experience based on browsers or devices other than the ones you use to log in to Twitter (or if you’re logged out, browsers or devices other than the one you’re currently using), or email addresses and phone numbers similar to those linked to your Twitter account. You can do this by visiting your Personalization and data settings and adjusting the Personalize based on your inferred identity setting.

The problem in this case is that users’ privacy choices were simply overridden. Twitter says it did not do so intentionally. But either way it’s not consent. Ergo, a breach.

“We know you will want to know if you were personally affected, and how many people in total were involved. We are still conducting our investigation to determine who may have been impacted and If we discover more information that is useful we will share it,” Twitter goes on. “What is there for you to do? Aside from checking your settings, we don’t believe there is anything for you to do.

“You trust us to follow your choices and we failed here. We’re sorry this happened, and are taking steps to make sure we don’t make a mistake like this again. If you have any questions, you may contact Twitter’s Office of Data Protection through this form.”

While the company may “believe” there is nothing Twitter users can do — aside from accept its apology for screwing up — European Twitter users who believe it processed their data without their consent do have a course of action they can take: They can complain to their local data protection watchdog.

Zooming out, there are also major legal question marks hanging over behaviourally targeted ads in Europe.

The UK’s privacy regulator warned in June that systematic profiling of web users via invasive tracking technologies such as cookies is in breach of pan-EU privacy laws — following multiple complaints filed in the region that argue RTB is in breach of the GDPR.

While, back in May Google’s lead regulator in Europe, the Irish Data Protection Commission, confirmed it has opened a formal investigation into use of personal data in the context of its online Ad Exchange.

So the wider point here is that the whole leaky business of creepy ads looks to be operating on borrowed time.




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