What Went Wrong at Ringleader Digital?

As targeting and measurement limitations continue to frustrate mobile marketers, interest in device fingerprinting is gathering significant momentum as a potential workaround for the lack of third-party cookies in the non-desktop environment. This emerging technology is capable of uniquely and persistently identifying devices such as cellphones and tablets simply by analyzing the various attributes they possess, rather than employing cookies or the like.

Despite that fact, one of the pioneers of the technology, Ringleader Digital, shuttered its operations earlier this year having failed to attract any significant revenue. Does Ringleader’s experience suggest fingerprinting might not be the answer to the mobile-tracking conundrum after all, or was the company just ahead of its time?

The latter, the firm’s ex-chief executive Bob Walczak argues. “We were really getting on a role and had signed up some major business,” Walczak said. “It was just starting to take off, but at the end of the day we just ran out of capital,” he told Digiday.

In fact, Walczak claims that Ringleader was on the verge of signing agreements with Microsoft and AOL when it eventually went under in June.

Of course, investment isn’t necessarily all that hard to come by in the online ad tech space, but Ringleader had problems beyond just financing. In 2010, it found itself on the receiving end of a class-action privacy-related lawsuit over its use of HTML5 storage facilities on the iPhone. The legal action not only stunted the firm’s growth but irreversibly tarnished its image.

“The suit just took our lights out. There were a number of factors that contributed, but that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. We had a lot of momentum when that suit hit,” Walczak said. The media portrayal of the situation didn’t help, he added. “It just ruined our reputation. The press was quick to say what we were doing was malicious and wrong, but nobody took the time to describe what we were actually trying to achieve.”

Providers of the technology claim fingerprinting is more privacy-friendly than existing mobile-tracking methods and, indeed, those on the desktop Web. Regardless of whether or not that’s true, the Ringleader example highlights the necessity for tracking companies to tread carefully, as regulators and privacy groups will undoubtedly scrutinize them with increasing intensity.

Perhaps in light of that, rival technology providers are reluctant to speak about their clients, if indeed they have any. BlueCava, for example, has refused to disclose any partners to date, though it says it plans to by the end of the year. Mobile ad network InMobi, however, has been vocal about its plans to adopt the services of 41st Parameter, another vendor of fingerprinting technology, in order to track devices across its ad network.

Despite the issues Ringleader ran into, Walczak remains bullish on fingerprinting and still believes it has the potential to become the de facto standard for tracking on mobile and tablet devices. Continued agency demand for better solutions in mobile certainly appears to support that view. According to Paul Gelb, mobile practice lead at Razorfish, fingerprinting has “great potential to replace the cookie.”

Some publishers and networks appear to be approaching it with more caution, though. Ad network Jumptap claims it is not currently considering the technology, for example, as does AOL, despite –- or perhaps because of — its previous discussions with Ringleader.

Whatever happens, mobile needs to do something to address its measurement problems if it ever hopes to attract the level of marketer investment some have predicted. Whether or not that solution comes in the form of fingerprinting remains to be seen, but it’s clear that both vendors and marketers are aggressively seeking a cookie alternative for the non-desktop Web.

As Walczak put it, “The market needs this type of technology; it was just bad timing for Ringleader that it didn’t need it until 2011.”Bob Walczak


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