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AOL’s Plan To Make Online Ads Into Choose-Your-Own Adventures

How do you make online ads engaging again? Give ads creative psychic powers.

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Online advertising’s looking at a rough patch. Publishers need to keep ads on people’s eyeballs longer than ever to make ends meet, even as Apple is poised to make ad blocking mainstream with Safari’s built-in Content Blocking functionality in iOS 9. Meanwhile, there are more platforms than ever to optimize ads for: not just desktop and mobile, but smart TVs and even wearables.

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So if you’re AOL, a former dial-up ISP turned global media company that depends on digital advertising dollars, how do you get users actually wanting to see ads on your network? Unveiled today, OneCreative is AOL’s answer to that problem. It’s a totally new platform that not only can make ads a lot more compelling for users—it makes designing those ads like writing a Choose Your Own Adventure novel.

While distracting web apps get a bad rap, they’re not bad in their own right, says Seth Demsey, CTO of AOL Platforms. As an example, he points to Vogue. “Vogue has the highest percentage of ads-to-content of any magazine, because to a certain extent, the ads are the content,” he says. If there was an analog ad blocker for Vogue, it wouldn’t take off, because Vogue’s readers are actually interested in its ads, because they are perfectly harmonious with the magazine’s content.

It’s that sort of harmony, Demsey says, that every brand, every ad agency, and every publisher should be striving for. OneCreative is just a toolset designed to help unlock it. The idea is to make a platform that can empower ad creatives to dynamically tailor their ads to the viewer. Not just by device, but according to any of the other data ad networks can track or extrapolate: gender, age, location, you name it.

Let’s say you’ve got to design an ad for Jeep. Normally, you might tailor it according to the publication it’s going to appear on. So you might design a Jeep ad for Fast Company that emphasizes its sleek design and innovative new chassis, while an ad you push to Inc. might highlight the company’s place on the Inc. 5000. That’s great, but it’s not aiming the ad at the reader, just the magazine.

If you designed a Jeep ad using OneCreative, though, you’d have a lot more options. “The idea is that instead of having a one-size-fits-most ad, you have a choose-your-own-adventure ad,” says Demsey. So if you were viewing the Jeep ad during winter in a city that gets a lot of snow, you might see an ad highlighting Jeep’s performance on icy roads; if you viewed it the same time of year in Arizona, though, it might be all about Jeep’s off-road capabilities. And ads designed using OneCreative can be granularly targeted from there: You could just as easily design a Jeep ad tailored specifically for dog lovers, a Jeep ad for seniors, or a Jeep ad for day traders.

“The reality is that for every person viewing ads on the web, ad networks have already gathered a lot of data about them,” says Demsey. But the creatives who are actually designing ads don’t often get access to this data: It’s usually only being consulted in aggregate upstream “by people with the word planner or analyst in their titles.” So ad designers haven’t been able to leverage an individual reader’s data to design more compelling, personalized ads.

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With OneCreative, they now can, using the platform to supplement their existing apps, or choosing to create ads using a ton of built-in templates. “We’re hoping the platform will empower creatives,” Demsey says. And that doesn’t just go for creating new ads, but fine-tuning them according to how they’re performing. For example, if you’re designing a Jeep ad, maybe one image of a Jeep resonates more deeply for readers than others. That’s the kind of thing OneCreative is designed to let users know.

For ad makers, OneCreative is going live to customers in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, with other markets rolling out in the coming months. And if you’re just a reader, you’ll start seeing OneCreative ads soon on up to 450 publisher sites, including AOL’s network of blogs, Reuters, Billboard, Martha Stewart, and–yep–Fast Company.