Penry Price: Why Social Is The Next Frontier of Ad Targeting

Former Googler Talks About Why Connections Will Trump Context and Keywords

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"There is probably never a good time to leave Google," Penry Price said one stormy afternoon last week from the ninth floor of a Flatiron highrise a block off Manhattan's Union Square. Mr. Price did just that a week earlier, leaving Google after seven years to join startup Media6Degrees as president. (Former Interpublic Group of Cos. CEO David Bell joined the Media6Degrees board this week.)

Penry Price
Penry Price

Mr. Price left the search giant just as it is realizing its long-held ambition to become a powerhouse in brand advertising. Indeed, when Mr. Price joined Google it had not bought YouTube, had no display ad revenue to speak of , and was still just a curiosity on Madison Avenue. Today, it is assembling a display-ad infrastructure (DoubleClick, Invite Media, Admeld) that is as close to a one-stop system for buying, selling and placing display ads as exists today.

So, why leave? Partly, Mr. Price believes the next phase of ad relevance won't be tied to keywords as much as to personal relationships, and that 's where Media6Degrees comes in. The company is predicated on the notion that as people live more of their lives on the web, the kind of data they generate will be a more powerful indicator of their preferences than demographics, behavioral, search or any of the other forms of targeting used today.

Then there was a more personal question, he said. "Anyone who's been at Google for a while has to wonder, 'Is it me or that primary-colored logo?'"

Ad Age : What's changing about the online ad business?

Mr. Price: What I started seeing is the infrastructure of the web is basically now built. What you are starting to see is the social side as people are being normal human beings online. If you believe that , then there is a rich set of new data to better target ads. If I've learned anything from Google, it is the amazing importance of relevance and timeliness. Add that to the social fabric now connecting us online, therefore your ads have to be targeted differently.

Ad Age : What can you know about a person's interests from their connections?

Mr. Price: I think what's new to ad targeting is this new social layer. To me, this is what is interesting. As the web becomes more personalized, our data set will be richer and we will be able to find larger sets of potential customers. It's inferred interest based on social signals. If I bought an Audi, how do I help Audi expand the funnel of potential conversions based on people who look like me? That's a big data science problem.

Ad Age : If social is the next frontier in targeting, where does that leave Google?

Mr. Price: The immediate intent of a keyword will go down as one of the most amazing ad-targeting signals of all time. It is pure intent at a specific time. Once you have enough ads in the system, the ability to be relevant is unmatched. What they don't have yet and what they are trying to work on is capturing social signals. At Google, we never asked people to log in, so it's about finding the social signals in their ecosystem. The way the web is becoming more personalized, we are going to need these signals to more successfully target ads.

Ad Age : Google had been working on its stealth social network, but now seems more focused on online ad infrastructure. Is that the case?

Mr. Price: From Google's point of view, it's about delivering the right message in real time. They are using traditional targeting techniques that they have, behavioral and interest-based. I think over time that data will become commoditized. The unique area will be who gets access to the social DNA of the web. Facebook has a ton of it. Their weakness is that people don't spend all their time in Facebook. That's why they invented the "like" button, to find social signals outside their ecosystem.

Ad Age : Does this mean Google faces decline?

Mr. Price: Google is going to continue to be a huge player and will be bigger. The reason they have done so well in display is they looked at it as similar to the search story -- its about performance, it's about driving metrics, data for marketers. Google is good at is getting rid of the inefficiencies in a market. As you know, the inefficiencies in display are ridiculous. The benefits in online display are almost completely undercut by the inefficiencies in the process. That is what Google is tackling.

Ad Age : What kinds of messages are suited for social targeting?

Mr. Price: The messages don't have to be so deliberate and transactional -- you are reaching people who are already fans. Now the nuances are reiterating brand strengths versus trying to sell them something. You are going to have a real change in the way you're looking at creative in terms of the social interest in brands.

Ad Age : I'd imagine it's a big adjustment moving from Google with 20,000 employees to a startup with less than 100.

Mr. Price: It's refreshing. You feel like a kid again. You do the things I have always loved about the business: meeting people, going in and not be known or understood. I haven't been this excited since joining Google and starting that learning curve. It will be get down in the weeds again, get scrappy and fight a little bit and take nothing for granted as far as access. Now you've got to earn it with the value you bring to the meeting.

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