How Comcast Will Use Blockchain Tech for Targeted Ads

OTT delivery and multiscreen access has changed the TV advertising landscape forever. With TV no longer shackled to the set-top box, consumers now have access to a massive number of content sources and ways to access that programming across smartphones, tablets, laptops and myriad TV-connected streaming devices.

While that has opened new doors and opportunities for programmers and pay-TV distributors, it the situation has likewise created a major challenge for marketers as they attempt to reach and advertise to this fragmented world at scale, rather than having to penetrate those silos on a one-off basis.

"It's creating more data than ever before, and it will only go up from here," Jason Manningham, general manager of Blockgraph, a new initiative that originated at Comcast that, along with a growing group of partners, is attempting to solve the privacy and security challenges raised by the emerging, data-driven, targeted TV advertising model.

Marketers, of course, are eager to tap into that data in order to more precise and targeted with their advertising, optimizing that spend in a way that drives consumers to toward a purchase or generates awareness of a product or service. But to make this happen, each player in the TV advertising ecosystem – from distributors, programmers and the ad agencies and ad buyers -- also has to expose some of their data... and it's difficult to get that data back once it's given.

As each player owns a piece to that larger data puzzle, they typically work together via a common third-party service such as Experian to ensure that their competitive and sensitive data is protected but still available in a form that can be used to create targeted campaigns that, for example, seek out "auto-intenders" -- consumers who plan to buy a vehicle in the next six months.

Getting access to that data is "friction-filled" and time-consuming, and has generally prohibited the industry from driving true scale into a data-driven TV advertising market, Manningham said during an interview at the recent CES event in Las Vegas.

Comcast Cable Advertising is trying to solve for this with Blockgraph, a platform and initiative that's designed to facilitate the secure exchange of privacy-compliant audience data for targeted advertising. Blockgraph was incubated at FreeWheel, the ad-tech startup that Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) acquired in 2014, but Comcast is attempting to make Blockgraph part of a broader, TV industry-wide initiative in the US and abroad. Others already on board include Viacom Inc. (NYSE: VIA) and Spectrum Reach, the ad sales division of Charter Communications Inc. Also participating is Pubitalia, the ad unit of Italy-based broadcaster Mediaset S.p.A. Comcast said additional media companies and MVPDs will be joining the mix. (See Comcast Spins Wheel for FreeWheel and Comcast Collaborates on Blockgraph Initiative.)

Blockchain techniques
As the name implies, Blockgraph uses blockchain techniques and protocols to decentralize the peer-to-peer TV data ecosystem and network, allowing companies to run common software and build a shared identity layer between customers without exposing sensitive competitive or consumer-specific information. The blockchain-enabled software runs on top of those data sets and anonymizes that information, creating an encrypted master universal ID that can be used for dynamic ad targeting, ad decisioning and ad reporting.

The key is for all parties to establish that the right consumer is being targeted for the ad campaign using a "bilateral blind match" between the parties supplying data for the ad plan. This bilateral blind match needs to be created without exposing sensitive, identifying data about the individuals being targeted.

"It creates a common ID without releasing private, sensitive competitive information" without the kind of middleman that's been common in these cross-party data sharing practices, Manningham said.

Manningham estimates that encryption and distributed systems make up about 95% of the new system, with the balance underpinned by blockchain technologies. "But blockchain provided a big piece of the puzzle," he said.

The Blockgraph organization would essentially take on the role of managing the data network, but would not maintain any central data or have direct visibility into that data. Instead, the decentralized nature of it would facilitate the data-matching but not handle any of that centrally or locally, Manningham explained.

Blockgraph has signed up just shy of 20 beta participants, including involvement with a yet unnamed broadcaster in the UK and other unidentified MVPDs and major TV networks and device makers, as the organization validates the design and privacy framework. There's also an internal pilot underway with Comcast and NBCU that is expected to move to a commercial deployment in a matter of months.

"The appetite is very high for the ability to run these data-driven, addressable campaigns," Manningham said while acknowledging that there are operational challenges being overcome to help partners get up to speed quickly and participate.

Further details about Blockgraph are surfacing as both Comcast-owned NBCUniversal LLC and Viacom look to advance their targeted advertising work in traditional television as well as in the OTT/direct-to-consumer TV market. NBCU, for example, is making plans to launch an ad-aided direct-to-consumer offering in the first half of 2020. Viacom, meanwhile, just put up $340 million to acquire Pluto TV, a free, ad-supported streaming TV service that's available on a range of mobile and TV-connected OTT devices. (See Viacom Bets Big on Free Streaming and Can NBCU Crack the Economics of OTT?)

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