Oath gets to know shoppers through their Yahoo emails

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Credit: Yahoo via YouTube

Oath, the newly formed Verizon division that combines AOL and Yahoo, is turning electronic receipts into shopper-marketing data for advertisers.

As Oath starts to connect disparate properties, from Verizon's mobile business to Yahoo Mail, one of its top selling points is the ability to decipher shopping behavior by analyzing email, ad executives say.

"There's a lot of sensitivity around Oath's promotion of this kind of tactic, but they are pushing it hard as a capability they have," says one agency executive, who asked not to be named to discuss a delicate subject. "This allows you to make marketing decisions based on actual purchasing insight."

Facebook and Google collect close to 60 percent of digital ad revenue in the U.S., eMarketer says, but Oath is in a growing competitive space with Amazon. Oath is the No. 4 in U.S. internet advertising with $3.7 billion this year, while Amazon is No. 5 with $2.4 billion, both slightly behind Microsoft, according to eMarketer.

One of Amazon's biggest advantages with advertisers is its rock-solid information on product sales. Even the biggest names in internet advertising have a hard time proving when ads lead to sales, much less knowing the minds of consumers.

Verizon acquired AOL in 2015 and Yahoo in 2017. Yahoo's 200 million email users opened a deep well of shopper insights.

It's no secret that email providers like Yahoo and Gmail have the capability to glean data from emails to target ads, but the practice has raised privacy concerns for years. Google was sued in 2010 for scanning emails for that purpose, and last year stopped doing it. Yahoo started scanning in 2013 under former Googler Marissa Mayer.

Yahoo does let consumers opt out of ad targeting based on email, and Oath recently updated its privacy policies in a way the company says makes them easier to understand. "The launch of a unified Oath privacy policy and terms of service is a key stepping stone toward creating what's next for our consumers while empowering them with transparency and controls over how and when their data is used," Oath said in a statement. The company also says data used in ad targeting is stripped of personally identifiable information. And it says the data helps improve Mail: Yahoo in March redesigned its inbox to highlight shopping-based emails, for example, organizing emails around recent purchases and deals.

Advertisers say Oath's proposal is more ambitious than Yahoo's earlier pitch because of its new connection with Verizon's consumer base.

"They have this unique vast data set," another agency exec says.

Data and privacy have become hot topics in digital advertising, of course, particularly after reports this year that data firm Cambridge Analytica improperly gained information on up to 87 million Facebook users. Last year, Yahoo belatedly revealed that a 2014 hack had breached all 3 billion accounts across its properties. Last week the Securities and Exchange Commission slapped a $35 million fine on the portion of the company—not the part Verizon bought—liable for the leak.

Advertisers say Oath has not finalized all the ways data will flow through its ad platform and that its ultimate approach could be refined to accommodate a more conservative climate on privacy.

And Amazon, at least, won't make it easy. Retailers include different degrees of data in email receipts. Amazon only emails consumers links to their full receipts, limiting the information an email provider can extract.

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