Searching for the Moon

Shannon Clark's rambles and conversations on food, geeks, San Francisco and occasionally economics

Advertising – do’s, don’t’s and other thoughts

Posted by shannonclark on July 13, 2007

As some of you may know I am in the process of forming an Ad Network (working name is Nearness Function) with my business partner, David Spector.

This afternoon I had a wide ranging conversation with a fellow entrepreneur who is moving to the Bay Area (side note – one very positive sign, smart, talented, experienced people from all over the country are continueing to move to the bay area – and even buying homes here). In the course of the conversation we covered a number of my thoughts on advertising – and where/what we are planning with Nearness Function.

And then early this morning, while I was reading my gmail I encountered an example of what I am hoping to avoid – while also illustrating to a degree exactly what we are planning on doing as well.

So, first the example.

In gmail (which I use as my primary email – helps simplify a multiple platform/machine work style) there is a small line above your message window which displays “clips” (rss feeds) and occasional ads. While reading my mail this morning, it displayed a “sponsored link” which was – apparently – a link to a real estate listing for a home for sale in Noe Valley – the neighborhood in San Francisco where I live and which I love.

So, out of curiosity about the price of homes in this area, I clicked on the link.

First, the good stuff – the stuff which is related to what we are planning.

1. Google clearly discloses sponsored listings. In this case with the words “Sponsored Link” on the same line and in the same graphical element as the link. I strongly feel that ALL commercial messages on a page (other than a page which is, itself clearly the company’s own site), should be noted as such. i.e. much as in magazines or newspapers advertisements sometimes have the words “advertisement” superimposed over them. Though better still is a design where the words are unnecessary as it is always clear what is an ad and what is not.

2. The ad is, at least minimally, contextual. I am not certain what in my email triggered this ad, but I do indeed live in Noe Valley (I may have noted that in the body or subject of an email). It is not unreasonable to guess that as a resident of that neighborhood whether or not I was actively looking for a new home I might be interested in a listing for a home for sale in my neighborhood.

3. A small thing, but the ad link opens up in a new window, I know this behavior is the standard in these types of ads so I am less reluctant to click on them than I might be if I had to back out to get back to my email (I have Firefox configured so these new windows open as new tabs in the window I’m working in).

But now for the bad stuff.

The ad, though it claimed to be an ad for a new listing in Noe Valley (and even noted some of the specifics about the property and listed a specific URL), did not, in fact, end me up at the URL as listed. Instead it was redirected/remapped to another URL which presented me with a form to sign up to be a “VIP Buyer” on some Real Estate listing site.

Why is this bad?

1. My trust has been abused. I clicked on what looked like an ad link to get more information – in this case a full listing – and instead was sent someplace else.

2. Before I have seen anything useful, before I have been given any reason to trust the company advertising (and indeed I have only been given strong reasons not to trust them) I am asked to give a bunch of personal details – including my level of interest in making one of the bigger investments most people make in their lifetimes (buying a home). Yes, I’m an entrepreneur so though CA real estate is costly (and I’m renting for now) it is not likely to be my biggest investment – but for the vast majority of people a home is their largest investment.

3. The page I was redirected to appears to only have, itself, links back to the same form – i.e. all of the links on that page that seem to promise more information – samples of what the service is the company performs – lean only to the form.

So the net result is that my trust in the filters that Google employs on its advertisers is diminished – and with it to a slight degree my trust in Google.

I was so annoyed by this ad that I found the form on to report on advertisers and reported my very poor experience with this advertiser (whom I am not linking to as I have no interest in helping them via free links).

And neither would I be interested in helping with with paid links. Either here on my personal blog, or as an advertiser on my new ad network.

Which brings me to my points. Leaving aside, for the moment at least, the specifics of the ad network technology we’re developing and building, there are some very important aspects of the ad network which I have settled on, and which I can talk about.

1. Our focus is on messages which are useful and valued by the people who receive them. This means no spam ads. No “get rich quick” messages. No “free iPhone” gimmicks. No online versions of cheesy infomercials.

2. Sometimes the best message is no message at all. We will require all of our publishers to accept that at times showing no message is the right action. That is, if there is not a relevant message to show, rather than running a junk ad, showing nothing is the right action. Google does this already, they do not always show ads. Other forms of media have realized this as well – not all commercial messages at all times or in all placements add value – and the wrong messages are not just poorly performing, but will reduce value (people stop using the service, switch to alternatives, are that much less likely to take action even when a relevant message is presented (i.e. if all the ads I have followed in the past from a site ended up with me being sent to a scam site, even when a valid, non-scam advertiser is presented, I will be more distrustful – and may even assume that they too are a scammer.

3. Openness and transparency, not stealth or secrecy is core. People have many views on the “stealth/no stealth” debate about how to launch and sustain a startup. Do you talk openly about what you doing or do you stay in “stealth” until what you are building is ready? Do you require NDA’s from people to talk with you – or do you write blog posts like this one?

You are reading this post (I hope). So guess where I stand on this last point….

My view is that, especially for an ad network, we can’t be in stealth mode. We need too many partners – publishers (in our case a far more complex set than just online content – we’re focusing on dynamic applications), advertisers, media buyers, even other ad networks.

I will go into more details about what we are building. But if you are an advertiser, a media buyer, or a publisher feel free to contact me. Especially if you are building dynamic, AJAX applications on the web, widgets (including Facebook widgets – though no widgets to places that do not allow advertising), mobile application (whether iPhone style web apps or downloads), or even if your firm builds desktop applications. Over the summer we are building partnerships and will be looking to have our first alpha in the late-summer/early Fall.


4 Responses to “Advertising – do’s, don’t’s and other thoughts”

  1. Bharadwaj said

    very true. cannot agree with you more on this.


  2. januarys said

    Okay. This is my first visit to your page, so I’m only seeing a bit of the picture here. Are you saying that you intend to run…”honest” advertising? That’s just plain cool. I hesitate to ask… how on earth do you plan to find honest clients? If indeed someone is willing to advertise exactly what they are selling, and a link to more information – instead of, say, a whack-a-mole “win money” script that links to an electronics wholesaler’s site – how do you plan to weed out the bottom-line, git ‘r done, office types who will hire you on the front end to do just what you say you’ll do, then begin to pressure you into mainstream advertising tactics?

  3. Januarys,

    You raise some great points.

    One answer – price. We do not expect to be offering low cost inventory (for one thing we will be highly targeted which is typically 25-50% more costly than non-targeted – and often much more). Our thesis is that higher prices along with other filters to avoid the whack-a-mole type ads will also result in higher positive reception to the commercial messages which we do deliver (we will be doing both branding ads and click-to-action so the reception may not always be a click). Price is a filter both by a per-unit basis and by an overall spend. We do, however, plan on having capacity for very highly targeted (often local but not always) advertisers which will be somewhat more self-service – however we will monitor them carefully for deceptive practices..

    Second answer – publisher partners and their users. While we will not be a customer facing brand, our focus is on the actual individuals who are presented with commercial messages we deliver – if their experience is not enriched by these messages then we are not succeeding. Keeping that foremost in mind means we will have many methods by which their reactions – and that of the publishers who are our partners – have a very real impact on the advertisers we work with – lots of negative reactions and we take serious action (at a minimum revise our targeting but we anticipate canceling campaigns which drift into whack-a-mole type territory).

    Hope you come back and follow our progress!



  4. januarys said

    WOW. So you’re going to carefully monitor your real audience’s experience? Enrichment… as a GOAL?

    I’ll definitely follow. Your vision is downright innovative. Love it. Thanks for the great answer, too. I’m subscribing to your feed. 🙂

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