Comcast believes it’s developed the next technology to elevate TV advertising.
The telco and media behemoth is piloting Blockgraph, a platform that allows distributors, networks, and marketers to connect their customer data across those entities to run addressable TV ad campaigns at scale. The initiative is one of Comcast Advertising’s top priorities for 2019, and Comcast plans to roll it out on a commercial basis at the start of next year.
For a marketer to run addressable TV ads across multiple networks today, it has to match its consumer data to data owned by a third party to see which households or individuals it should target.
That presents a challenge to marketers because audience data is fragmented across competing parties, Jason Manningham, the general manager of Blockgraph, told Business Insider. Gathering data across these companies doesn’t work because the data is sensitive and companies aren’t willing to freely share this proprietary information, Manningham said.
Comcast says Blockgraph is the solution. The premise is that companies will sign on as clients to Comcast because its platform allows for decentralized matching across multiple data sets.
“[TV advertising] is appropriately criticized for historically not having been as accountable or as targetable as other forms of advertising,” Marcien Jenckes, the president of Comcast Cable Advertising, told Business Insider.
“If you want to run an addressable campaign, you have to do it across multiple distributors, across multiple networks with multiple pools of data, and there’s no existing mechanism that allows you to do that until Blockgraph,” he said.
Data matching in TV advertising is slow and hard to scale
Today marketers, networks, and distributors use third-party data-matching companies such as LiveRamp, Acxiom, or Experian when they want to target subsets of users.
In a hypothetical example using a network, like Viacom, and a marketer, like Ford, the two companies typically send their data to one of these services to run a data match at the individual level to see how to target an ad campaign.
The process is slow and hard to scale, though, say Comcast and other Blockgraph industry early partners.
With Blockgraph, the companies would run the software in their own private cloud systems that plug in to the platform. Blockgraph then encrypts the data before returning matches on customers.
Viacom is an early Blockgraph partner. “[Blockgraph] allows for a massively scalable, effectively peer-to-peer, decentralized negotiation of data with a very high bar around privacy compliance,” Kern Schireson, the executive vice president and chief data officer at Viacom, told Business Insider.
To do location-based ad campaigns on TV today, for instance, Viacom takes a location vendor and television measurement data set like Comscore’s. Those data sets provide an incomplete picture of the US, so Viacom uses the matches, which might be in the low millions to 10 million, to project a national sample, Schireson said. Viacom can then expand that data set by adding another location vendor and another form of TV measurement data.
“It’s just extremely laborious to build brick by brick,” he said.
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Comcast says Blockgraph can cut the matching time from days or weeks down to seconds by having all participants plug in to its platform.
The Comcast-owned NBCUniversal has been testing Blockgraph and plans to incorporate it into its addressable TV offering in early 2019. NBCU framed the technology as an improvement over current options.
The initiative is intriguing, but it’s still early, Denise Colella, a senior vice president for advanced advertising products and strategy at NBCUniversal, told Business Insider. “It’s exciting of course, but I don’t know that I would rate it as the most exciting because it’s really just a better way to provide a function we’re already doing.”
Blockgraph is another attempt by Comcast to launch a product aimed at improving the TV-advertising ecosystem. NBCU this year launched a commercial-measurement tool called CFlight that uses metrics from sources like Nielsen and Comscore to measure viewing across linear and digital video. Like Blockgraph, CFlight is intended to be a solution for the entire industry.
The industry needs to participate for Blockgraph to succeed
Comcast said about 20 companies had already signed on to use Blockgraph, including Charter and four other MVPDs; six programmers, including NBCU; one connected TV manufacturer; and one advertiser.
Partners have already expressed interest in spinning the technology out from Comcast, according to the company. Comcast has a 10-person team working on Blockgraph and says it will “aggressively” grow the team over the next five years.
The goal is to get full visibility into TV households by getting enough distributors, programmers, and marketers to use the platform so that ad campaigns don’t have to rely on approximations but can specifically target individuals.
But for that to happen, Comcast needs competing industry players to adopt the technology over third-party options.
Agencies want the TV industry to be able to compete against digital giants
Getting agencies and marketers on board is the next step.
It’s good for agencies to have an alternative to third-party data companies and to have technology improvements that help the TV ecosystem compete against the duopoly, said Jack Smith, the global chief product officer for investment at GroupM, who hasn’t seen the Blockgraph pitch. He said that while clients hadn’t specifically called for a faster data-matching process, competition is good for the industry.
“The data match rate and the accuracy of the match is always important,” Smith said. “If Comcast is increasing that match rate and offering it at an attractive price, that’s something that would be attractive.”
A hurdle to industry-wide adoption of Blockgraph could be in getting companies up to speed on the new technology, Smith said.
Third-party data companies typically charge a combination of campaign and subscription fees for matching and onboarding. LiveRamp’s average revenue per customer is about $400,000, according to a presentation from June.
Blockgraph for its part plans to charge a flat fee. Users will be charged an annual technology license fee in the low to mid-hundreds of thousands of dollars, sources close to the initiative told Business Insider.
For its part, Comcast believes Blockgraph will be measuring its success in terms of the number of data-informed campaigns that leverage the platform, Jenckes said.
“If a lot of players and a lot of campaigns [use Blockgraph], that’s really good,” he said. “If not a lot of players or more importantly not a lot of campaigns, then it means for whatever reason we’re having difficulty getting traction, although that’s not my expectation.”