Answers Served: 33Across Dishes on Social Targeting and Funding

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conversationADOTAS – Social targeting — can you feel the buzz racing to your eyeballs? There’s a lot of noise in the industry about this increasingly popular targeting technique, and 33Across is right in the middle. Today the firm closed a $9 million Series B round of funding led by Flybridge Capital Parters, an investment it will use to enhance its social targeting platform and expand its national sales squad.

CEO and cofounder Eric Wheeler opened up to us about how why social targeting is growing in use. how 33Across’ Social DNA platform operates and the utmost importance of consumer education.

ADOTAS: So why all the buzz over social targeting lately? Why are more brands and agencies taking notice?

WHEELER: Social is top of mind for everyone these days given the incredible trajectories of companies like Facebook and Groupon. We speak with lots of clients who think are thinking about social more broadly than maintaining a Facebook page or Twitter account. 33Across offers a unique proposition to leverage similar dynamics that make Facebook and Groupon so popular, but for media programs delivered across the web. Which brand would not want to be able to reach potential customers or brand fans who are socially connected to their core customers?

Why 33Across? Why not 44 Down, “Greek God of War”? It’s only four letters.

Ares.com or Zeus.com would have been cool but they were taken unfortunately. 33Across is a crossword puzzle reference. The toughest crossword puzzles can be quickly solved if you decipher a large horizontal word in the middle of the puzzle. In many puzzles this horizontal word is often around 32 or 33 across. 33Across unlocks the puzzle of social connections.

Let us in on your background — what inspired you and Greg Levitt to start up 33Across?

Back in early 2008 Greg and I both were excited about the rise of social media and the disruptive implications for marketing. I was approaching the business from a marketer’s perspective having spent many years creating innovative programs at Ogilvy, Carat and Lot21. Greg was at Yahoo thinking about data, next-generation technology and the evolving social media ecosystem.

How’s business been? Where do you think your revenue is coming from?

Business has been fantastic. Revenue for 33Across in 2010 was up 15 times from 2009. Our revenue is coming from agency and client-direct relationships where we’ve been able to demonstrate superior campaign performance and provide unique social insights — which in turn has led to strong renewal rates and increasing spend levels.

What is SocialDNA? If you tinker with it, can you create mutant superheroes?

SocialDNA™ is our social targeting technology that builds and delivers anonymous audiences who are socially connected to a brand. Our SocialDNA™ Insights platform enables marketers to gain a deep understanding of the social network characteristics of their customers. Today we can only deliver superior campaign results… although grafting adamantium to our servers is on the 2011 product roadmap for the Wolverine fans out there.

On a more serious note, mind giving a layman’s example about how 33Across uses social graphs to enhance targeting?

To deliver relevant ads, we have developed technology which tries to predict what consumers might be interested in based on anonymous social interaction data. How does this work? One example is that when two people post a comment on the same photo on a social network site, our technology assumes that these people are part of the same social circle, and are therefore likely to have similar interests. Then, if one of those people clicks on an ad for running shoes (for example), our technology might deliver the same ad to the other person.

How does 33 Across’ social targeting platform differ from similar services? You can say you’re better — but only if you explain why.

One of our larger clients once told us that she works with 33Across because “it’s one thing to have data, it’s another thing to know how to use it.” Since we founded company, we’ve taken a dual approach of combining the most advanced targeting techniques with an easy-to-understand product offering that includes deep insights and analytical tools — which we give to clients for free as part of every campaign.

The end result is that 33Across campaigns not only perform extremely well — top of plan in most cases — but they help make clients smarter about their overall marketing strategies. Putting data in the hands of clients creates an environment of trust and transparency that has enabled 33Across to develop a number of long-term client relationships.

That approach carries over to our relationship with consumers where, in addition to active participation in industry groups like the NAI, we were recently named as one of seven launch partners for the Better Advertising’s Open Data Partnership to give consumers more control over the collection and usage of information about their interests.

How does 33Across employ cookies? Do you believe cookies will continue to be a central component for targeting?

We use cookies to store an anonymous unique browser ID. We do think that cookies will continue to be important for online marketing, but we are strong supporters of industry efforts to provide consumers with better choice and more transparency regarding online data collection in general.

What advances in advertising technology have made social targeting a reality? What aspects need further development?

There are a few trends in play that have given rise to social targeting. First, from a data perspective, there is the rapid growth of the social media industry which has led to broader accessibility of social interaction datasets. From a monetization standpoint, there is now a robust ad exchange ecosystem which allows for ever-easier access to marry custom targeting datasets with on-demand impression availability.

Finally, from a tech perspective, there is the availability of solutions like Hadoop to help process massive quantities of data which, prior to a few years ago, would have been cost prohibitive for most startups. In addition, we’re starting to see more innovative rich media and video advertising solutions which allow for much deeper consumer engagement.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of social targeting versus behavioral targeting? Will the former replace the latter?

The primary advantages of 33Across’ SocialDNA™ targeting are the scale and performance benefits versus behavioral and contextual targeting. Behavioral targeting is still a good method to target small niche audiences. While there is certainly room for both solutions, we are seeing that our graph-based targeting capability is much more predictive for clients than current behavioral methodologies.

What do you hope to do with that wad of cash — I mean Series B round of funding?

The largest use of funds will be investing in the people and technology to support our SocialDNA™ platform, which helps marketers identify and target audiences of people socially connected to their brand. We have a number of innovative data visualization and insight tools on the roadmap for early 2011 to help clients better understand the power of the social graph. Regarding sales, we’re rapidly expanding our national sales footprint (we’re currently in seven U.S. markets) and global footprint this year.

What’s the goal behind the Social Graph Project, 33Across’ recently introduced industry resource for all things social graph?

The mission of The Social Graph Project is to collect and share the most exciting innovations, research and practical applications involving social networks and graphs. It came out of the realization that we had spent the past two years internally aggregating the best social graph media coverage along with related research, commentary and tools and that it would do the most collective good if we shared it openly.

The categories we cover range from the history of social network analysis to consumer privacy – and it’s now an open resource for everyone. We expect the SocialGraphProject to evolve into even more of a resource over the coming months.

How would a federally legislated “Do Not Track” list affect your business?

That’s a tough question because it’s not clear what a “Do Not Track” list actually is since we don’t know anything that would personally identify a user. We’d have to see how a federally legislated “Do Not Track” list would be implemented to judge the potential impact to our business or any other targeting/audience company.

What we do know is that a lot more effort needs to be put behind consumer education and transparency to enable users to be as informed as possible when they make choices around advertising preferences. We’re glad to be partnering with the leading organizations that are driving industry self-regulation and governance.

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