In a perpetual mission to compete with the Facebook-Google duopoly, UK’s Channel 4 aims for more ad dollars with customer data sharing regime

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When British bank TSB ran ads for its Spend and Save account offerings featuring “Friends” star David Schwimmer as the prototypical hapless American tourist bumbling across the English countryside, even obliviously robbing soft-serve ice cream from a little kid, the risk-averse bank wanted to target specific people and directly measure its results.

The UK’s Channel 4, which ran the spots, complied by providing sophisticated privacy and security protections that the media outlet hopes will help it to compete with digital ad sellers like Google and Facebook in garnering ad revenue, especially from advertisers with lots of customer data but data privacy and security worries. 

The British government-owned TV network — which carries programs like “The Great British Baking Off” and also airs ex-pat shows from the U.S. such as “Homeland” invested in a new way to match the data it has about its 25 million logged-in viewers of its on-demand, streaming All 4 platform, such as their gender, email addresses, dates of birth and postal codes, with the heavily-fortified stuff ad clients such as financial services firms like TSB have, without actually having to share or intermingle the data. 

Finding a way to match Channel 4’s data safely to advertisers’ data to target known customers, prevent aiming ads at people they did not want to reach, and to enable a way to track whether ads led to purchases or other actions, was “the big thing that we wanted to crack,” said David Amodio, deputy head of digital and innovation at Channel 4.

Channel 4 works with data platform provider InfoSum. The latter firm provides infrastructure allowing companies like Channel 4 to spot connections between their own first-party data and data from protective advertisers that want to reach specific addressable audiences based on what they know about their customers but are concerned about ceding control of their data to another firm.

Unlike the more traditional data matching approaches requiring advertisers to upload customer data to firms such as LiveRamp, Google or Facebook that conduct matches to enable ad targeting to customized lists of people, what firms like Infosum and competitor Nth Party offer are ways to screen for identity connections between two encrypted sets of data without either party having any access to the other’s data and neither discovering which specific customers are matched. The decentralized approach Infosum uses involves querying data that has been cryptographically altered and sits in two siloed environments.

In the case of the TSB campaign, for example, rather than integrating the two data sets, the process involved Infosum’s system cross-referencing the mathematically disguised TSB customer email addresses with the mathematically disguised Channel 4 audience email addresses to identify matches without connecting the two data sets. To further preserve anonymity, Infosum employs differential privacy techniques such as injecting a controlled error rate.

“The critical aspect of this is the non-movement of data,” said Richard Foster, chief revenue officer of Infosum.

Media outlets and publishers are interested in investing in these sorts of approaches, said Matt Gay, director of media and entertainment at tech services firm Wizeline. “You can [conduct matches] without actually sharing data, and that’s always been the concern on both sides, on the brand side and on the publisher side,” he said.

“We’re not at any point merging data together, and that’s the fundamental difference,” said Amodio.

Kicking the data match tyres

While Channel 4 is able to target ads on All 4 based on streaming viewers’ geographic location, age, gender and what types of programming they watch, it targeted TSB’s video ads to specific viewers based entirely on the data-matching process. “In the TSB example or with most data matches we just target the matched audience and don’t add additional layers on top” because “advertisers have tended to want to reach 100% of those that are matched,” Amodio said.

The data process will also be employed to gauge performance of the TSB ads and attribute the campaign to data showing actual Spend and Save account activations. Channel 4 will pass along anonymized data reflecting which individuals were exposed to ads into the decentralized data environment, then will allow TSB to query the system using its own sales data to see how many of those people made a purchase or signed up for services.

Advertisers are also interested in testing the waters before they dive in with a publisher or media outlet to see if they indeed have enough matches to warrant a deal, said Shereen Shermak, CEO and co-founder of Nth Party, another data firm offering cryptographic data services for data matching. “It’s very helpful to do a match test before the sale,” she said. Shermak said what her firm does is “true cryptography” that goes above and beyond other more widely-used approaches to obscuring personally-identifiable data such as salting and hashing.

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As brands and media firms take a more strategic approach to gathering and using their first-party data, entertainment and media firms with lots of authenticated customer data — think firms such as Disney or Spotify — seek ways to provide trustworthy data collaborations with advertisers that allow both parties to use data about their customers, said Neil Joyce, CEO of CLV Group, which specializes in data-centric consulting. The company’s clients are evaluating private publisher marketplaces and other ways to combine data forces. 

The desire to compete with or detach from the duopoly of Google and Facebook is part of the draw, Joyce said. But for advertisers to pull dollars away, he said, “They would need greater clarity, certainty and control. Does shifting more money to those other publishers make sense?”

The guarded stance, of course, stems from data privacy and security goals. While financial services firms like TSB are historically extremely protective of customer data and subject to more data restrictions than other types of advertisers, the EU’s stringent data privacy rules set forth in the General Data Protection Regulation are another driver, said Amodio. However, he added that Channel 4 is especially concerned about protecting viewer data. “The law is one thing,” he said, “but for us it was actually more than that because we’re publicly owned.” He said U.K. viewers hold the outlet to “higher standards than just GDPR law.”

Giving advertisers the option of sharing data without having to hand it over could help convince them to make such a shift, said Amodio. “There is another way,” he said. “You don’t have to release all your data and just trust a publisher to be good with it.”

Digiday originally reported that “Friends” airs on Channel 4 though it does not currently. Also, while this story originally stated that Channel 4 has already conducted its attribution measurement for TSB, that process has yet to begin as the campaign has only recently completed.

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