Marketing for the Masses

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The snazziest and most accurately targeted interactive-TV ad in the world isn't worth squat if it doesn't work.

As the cable industry gears up this year to launch wide-scale interactive and addressable ads, the MSOs and technology suppliers involved are turning their attention to the operational issues of making the technology work — consistently — across millions of diverse set-tops and thousands of headends.

“We need to have processes in place so we can actually grow this market to scale, and to do so economically and efficiently for every player in the ecosystem,” said Arthur Orduna (pictured, left), chief technology officer of Canoe Ventures.

Canoe, owned by the six largest U.S. cable operators, is driving the industry on this front. The company plans to soon release specifications for its first interactive services, working on collaboration with CableLabs and the member MSOs, Orduna said.

The goal: to be sure ITV ads will display and return data as expected.

“It's the MSOs' systems where these applications are going to execute, and the MSOs have the responsibility for the last mile,” said Orduna.

Those technical specs will be tied initially to Canoe's first two interactive product sets, request for information and voting/polling, and will be based on CableLabs' Enhanced Binary Interchange Format. “That's how you get to a degree of specificity where it makes sense for vendors to make investments in their products,” Orduna said.

What that also means is that some richer capabilities of EBIF, which was designed to be extensible, may be sacrificed in Canoe's version 1.0 cut.

“You'll see some relatively simple applications — from a visual perspective — at least at first,” said Aslam Khader, Ensequence chief technology and product officer. “Footprint will always trump functionality when the trade-offs start happening.”

Canoe and the MSOs still need to complete some standardization work. For example, different vendors' EBIF user agents, which sit in individual set-top boxes, have interpreted the CableLabs EBIF spec in slightly different ways, according to Jeremy Edmonds, director of product management for ActiveVideo Networks.

At least nine EBIF user agents have been deployed by different cable operators, Edmonds said. “They're all claiming to be compliant with the spec that came out of CableLabs … but the specification needs a little bit of tightening in some areas,” he said.

For example, different EBIF user agents call video-on-demand assets differently, and some don't provide a large palette of colors, Edmonds said. “It's fine for just clicking on an 'OK' button. But if you're trying to draw somebody into a brand, it has to be video-rich,” he said.

Orduna acknowledged that Canoe will have to scope out future functionality in EBIF, for features such as telescoping and television commerce. And while some ITV developers are creating unbound EBIF apps (meaning they're not tied to a specific video stream), such implementations won't be within Canoe's purview for now.

“EBIF is very fungible,” he said. “But I would say we really do need to be very specific about what we launch nationally first, to make sure the damn thing works.”

If the industry required EBIF user agents to run unbound applications, the code would become too “heavy” — delaying the launch of Canoe's first services, said Zodiac Interactive chief operating officer Alex Libkind.

Canoe's raison d'être, after all, is to bring advanced ads to a nationwide footprint.

“That's the thing that's always held us back,” said OpenTV's senior vice president and general manager of advanced advertising Paul Woidke. “Getting a wide reach with a narrowly focused product is far more important than getting a few thousand subs with something that does everything.”

Other pieces of the television-advertising food chain also will need to be automated for advanced ads to grow into a big business. For one thing, the applications that media buyers use today must be integrated with the systems that place ads. “Nobody wants to reinvent the wheel on this,” said Tara Walpert Levy, president of Visible World.

Even in the absence of a uniform industry standard, advertisers have found ways to reach millions of cable households by delivering custom ads channels on video-on-demand platforms, said Jacquie Corbelli, CEO of media agency Brightline ITV.

She claimed recent Brightline ITV campaigns for Unilever have been viewable in as many as 63 million households.

“There's the impression that the technology isn't there to do interactive TV campaigns,” she said. “But advertisers are getting pretty good at extracting what they want to get out of these households.”