Adware’s New Day: WhenU CEO Bill Day Cleans House and Educates Consumers

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At the time (and somewhat still today), there was a furor surrounding adware practices, especially when companies like Claria, 180Solutions and others like WhenU were violating privacy policies and irritating customers. Day almost didn’t know what he getting into. “The adware space, in late 2004, was the perfect storm of bad press and legislative action,” he admits. But rather than focus on the negativity of this field, Day was eyeing its potential. “When I looked at adware, I though that this was the perfect solution — if you could ignore all the hair on the space. As opposed to using log files to infer what someone’s done or used cookies to track, if you can do it in a privacy-compliant manner and do it in a matter where users actually see value, it would be a home-run opportunity.”

After talking to adware players, vendors and proponents, Day eventually hooked with New York-based WhenU in October 2004. In doing so, he immediately set about to change the company’s strategy, technology and policies. “When I came in, I made a lot of changes because I had a long-term vision that it’s about getting to a model where users receive excellent advertising, and go through an entirely above-board process for how the software gets on the computer. If you want to uninstall, you can uninstall. All our ads are branded heavily, and we actually offer an 800 number on the ad itself. These are things that most other people don’t do — I hope they do in the future — but they’re basically what I like to call the ground rules for properly competing in the space. We’re looking to continue to do things to generate user value.”

Prioritizing user value is something that seems to have worked in WhenU’s favor. While Claria, 180 and DirectRevenue continued making headlines for all the wrong reasons in 2005, Day’s company was being absolved of past misdeeds. “They continue to give the industry a bad name,” Day says of his competitors. “Right now, we package with a bunch of software publishers, and things we’re doing from a marketing standpoint are meant to trigger consumers saying ‘there’s value here. I see the value, I see what I give and that equation works for me.’ That to me is a very viable model if you can operate with some degree of principals. When you tell a consumer one thing, you actually do it. The problem that the other guys have had is that they now many times publicly say that they’re doing one thing, and they’ve been caught doing the other. It’s just deadly. The space has no tolerance for it.”

One of WhenU’s newest services, True Relevance, is a platform that Day hopes will assuage privacy concerns and increase consumer value. “True Relevance was rolled out last fall that knows how to extract data out of certain commerce-related web pages better. For example, Priceline, which has been a client for a long time, would run a targeted ad at the moment you’re about to purchase air travel. It would roll up a little ad in the right-hand corner, saying, ‘why don’t you consider Priceline’ and it would put up a form where you could fill up the dates and locations. They actually had a 4% click-through rate because of the fact that it was delivered right at the right moment for the user at a point where they’re making an important decision.”

Day adds that time and moment of truth are crucial elements that should come into play in one’s marketing strategy. “The moment a consumer’s about to buy is an incredibly important advertising opportunity that most behavioral solutions don’t have any way of interacting with. But it’s perfectly set up to do well in our software. . We took the Priceline ad, extracted information automatically from the web page and pre-populated it. [As a result], we saw a jump from 4% to 15% click-through rates and have been able to sustain that for 120 days.”

What Bill Day hopes won’t sustain is the term “adware” itself. He’s not alone in wishing the term dead, but unlike detractors, Day hopes that adware evolves into something more tangible, powerful and of course, legal. “Adware dies as a term in the next twelve months not because of PR efforts or anything like that, but because it morphs into where this industry belongs,” he says. “It belongs as a subset of the behavioral targeting space. What will happen to let it die is either the other players in the adware space step up and operate properly, so they’ll be more and more accepted into behavioral targeting. Or they’ll get in trouble. They’ll be sued or legislated or out of business. That’ll help clarify things.”

It’s respect to privacy and user-compliance that’ll build stronger bridges between consumers, vendors and marketers, according to the chief exec. “It’s the best solution to behavioral targeting, if you know in a user-compliant way as to what consumers are doing, rather than inferring,” he says. “You turn around and make the consumer relationship good, and the consumer understands what they’re getting and sees value, Advertising.com doesn’t have that kind of rapport with their user base. Users have become more demanding. They want to know what’s going to be on their desktop.”

Whether WhenU contributes to the demise of “adware” is one thing, but Bill Day & Co’s efforts have left Ben Edelman speechless. When pressed for comment, the usually outspoken figure replied succinctly with, “I have absolutely no comment on any matter pertaining to WhenU.” In a way, it’s a small victory for the company. As WhenU gravitates towards the behavioral targeting realm, which is riding high on groundbreaking desktop tools like Southwest’s Ding and Google Toolbar (Seismic stuff [that’s] shifting people’s minds,” Day raves), Bill Day wants nothing better than to reduce stigma towards behavioral targeting and give people like Edelman a little less to talk about.

“What Ben and I would disagree on today in 2006 is that Ben still has a problem with a service that shows [people] more ads,” he says. “Our answer is we’re looking for relevance. And Ben, that’s not your decision to make. If the industry truly comes around to where the consumers are in control, Ben’s going to move onto something else.”

He concludes, “It isn’t just about best practices, it’s about user value.”

4 COMMENTS

  1. No doubt about it Bill Day has taken WhenU from a complete mess to a much more respectable company as “adware” goes.

    But what of the past? What of the trickery and slimy tactics that built up the business? Who is to be held accountable for that and can WhenU ever shed that stigma?

  2. I notice Mr Day mentioned the benefits for advertisers (click through rates) but not the consumer. Let’s not pretend “target advertising” is actually more beneficial to the consumer that general advertising. I know it is FAR more annoying to me (what advertisers consider relevant and what consumers consider relevant are two different things). I find the idea of advertisers tracking my Internet use, to deliver me (usually irrelevant and almost always duplicitous )advertising, repellent.

    I propose Mr Day’s company pay for an independent researcher (or research company) to conduct a study (under the direction of a well-known consumer advocate group) to show consumers like targeting advertising, find it useful and are aware of, and understand, the REAL terms and conditions of the software used to deliver this advertising.

    Of course that will never happen, as Mr Day doesn’t give a rat’s ass about the consumer.

    His company’s practices may not be quite as sleazy as they once were, but let’s not pretend they are REALLY above board.

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