You know how it feels to be tracked, like when that pair of shoes you checked out on Zappos.com suddenly shows up in banner ads on sites all over your browsing experience?
"That's not what we do," says Tom Phillips, CEO of what's been known as Media6Degrees. "If we're doing our job right, no one ever knows." The people the company observes don't feel tracked. Ads just make sense to them, they say. Today the technology company, which promises to use cutting-edge data science to find the most likely audiences to engage with brands, is rebranding itself. It's called Dstillery now. More than a new coat of paint, the company has fully integrated technology from mobile media-buying and -targeting company EveryScreen Media, which it acquired in mid-July. EveryScreen effectively turbocharges the mobile arm of Dstillery's technology, which is so intuitive about what you might buy, it's difficult to explain.
Dstillery starts by assembling a very specific picture of audiences for brands based on people's browsing behavior, plus device information, plus key elements in your location data. Since opening shop in 2008, the company has become really good at turning the websites you visit into a map of your brand affinities. Before it acquired EveryScreen, the company mostly tracked people through powerful Web cookies. "That has worked brilliantly in the last five years," says Phillips, a Harvard and Stanford grad, former publisher of Spy magazine, and former media chief for the creators of ESPN.com, NFL.com, ABCnews.com, and NBA.com. He also managed media platforms and the DoubleClick integration for Google.
Phillips says that instead of mostly using a bit of code on a person's device or browser, Dstillery is now able to use the person's IP address. Then with what Phillips cryptically calls "some advanced data science," Dstillery can associate devices across that IP address. "We can associate a laptop with a smartphone. We can even associate adjacent laptops," he says. The EveryScreen acquisition gave the company the technology to exponentially grow what it knew by the power of a massive mobile data base, too, which brought location into the formula. "What people do on their smartphones is a whole other set of data," Phillips says. "We don't have to be based on cookies. We can be based on other stuff."
Until recently, the company has been "using web pages and websites that people visit at a massive scale—a very sizable number of the sites people visit—and each one has some evidence for or against some particular brand," says Foster J. Provost, a Professor of Information Systems, NEC Faculty Fellow at New York University Stern School of Business, and author of the recent book, Data Science for Business. He pioneered much of the data science behind Dstillery's operation as a member of the founding team. "They can use both the info from the physical world and the info from the digital world, and they can use this info together to get more of a pure audience," he says of the newly christened Dstillery.
Phillips talks about an example for one his clients, whom he won't name, but he says that it's massive and that it advertises during the Super Bowl. Its digital team wanted Dstillery to help this company reach NFL fans. "So what's the obvious way to find NFL fans?" Phillips asks. "You've got all of those people watching on Sunday afternoon. That's fine. We wanted the people right at the stadium—stadiums are great places for us to tap signals. People spend four hours there. They do it 16 times a season. They are doing things with their mobile devices while they're there, which means we can find them. And that population becomes a population we can identify when they're home or at work later." Whether or not those people are buying a product within a single step after seeing an ad isn't the ending Dstillery is always seeking. They're more interested in showing strong affinity for brands.
Think about it this way: Let's say you use your laptop to visit a website, such as Williams-Sonoma. But you're out the door to work. So at work, you use your office laptop to actually go back to the site. You don't even have to make a purchase right then or there. Dstillery can connect the dots whether or not you make the purchase—or make the purchase days later. Lots of what happens throughout that process helps them create a picture of a person's affinity with that brand.
But that's only half of the equation. The name of the game in the digital ad space is being able to say your ad was the last one in front of someone's eyes before that person decided to convert from browser to buyer. So plenty of digital agencies in Dstillery's competitive set take the strategy of flooding the marketplace, buying up half of the ads available to game the odds. Dstillery says it's upending that idea with it's data-driven approach and starting with the "purest" (relevant) audience in recommending strategies. The company buys a fraction of the ad impression opportunities compared to its competitors but says it delivers comparable performance.
At any given time, Dstillery has maintained about 400 clients—Hertz, Citi, Mercedes-Benz, Microsoft, Disney, AT&T, and Verizon, to name a handful. It has always claimed to be able to home in on affinity for brands with relatively specific clientele. But now, being able to cross devices and screens and follow people around through the digital and physical worlds lets them increasingly find a strong signal for corporate, institutional brands—such as AT&T, whose client demographic is typically described internally as "two out of three Americans." "Our ability to discern a signal strength for an AT&T is greater than they can find elsewhere," the company says. In some case studies, Dstillery claims to deliver three times the click-through rate and almost eight times the conversion rate of competitors.
So where does all this fit in with privacy? "We've been a leader in doing the things the industry needs to do to be responsible—putting notice on all ads, offering an opt-out for consumers," Phillips says, though it's hard to imagine many people savvy or dedicated enough to dodge Dstillery's tracking—or care much about it in the age of Facebook, Foursquare, and Google Now. By exponentially expanding its reach with the mobile factor, Dstillery has stayed a step or three ahead of opt-outs. The key is not abusing the power they've learned to harness, Phillips says. "Be transparent. Anonymize the data. Don't keep it too long. Don't collect too much. All of those things that are fundamentally important."
[Image: Flickr user Thomas Leuthard]