It May Not Be a Robot or ‘Smart Gear,’ but Data-Driven Advertising Still Plays at SXSW

Unacast and Ninja Metrics pitch targeting innovations

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South by Southwest 2015 (more known nowadays for fostering buzzier, futuristic narratives around topics like wearable devices and robots) has offered attendees interested in the nuts and bolts of digital ad targeting plenty of information to chew on. For every startup pitching an innovation around physical hardware, there are still more companies pushing software in better developed areas of mobile and social where there is money to be made now rather than in five years.

Take Unacast, which this weekend was pitching its global beacons-based network at SXSW. It's a mobile retargeting system, built to let marketers know what consumers did before and after leaving a physical location. The Norway-based company has partnered with various proximity data providers around the world and meshes the stats with a pool of offline metrics. The tech player said that University of Mississippi and an unnamed Scandinavian cinema company are testing the system.

Ole Miss is using the beacon technology to power a loyalty program around its campus. As one use case, when fans of the school's football team visit Vaught-Hemingway Stadium this fall, they may receive a promotion via Unacast software.

"For example, on return to the stadium, a fan that has visited several pizza restaurants in the last month could receive a personal food coupon for pizza at a game," said Michael Thompson, a marketing lead at Ole Miss. "Or someone that visits boutique stores online and offline could be directed toward more premium level seats. And brands can focus their attention on the most appropriate fans with messaging that will really resonate with them. Closing the online-offline loop and including data from multiple locations, that picture can only get more accurate, [making] our offer to fans and brands ever more valuable."

Ninja Metrics, which helps brands zero in on their most influential customers, today is announcing a program called True Ad Value. Marketers who use True Ad Value, interestingly, can calculate the return on investment after buying ads that are based on what Ninja Metrics calls "social whales"—or brands' customers who affect other consumers' purchase decisions online more than others. And with its predictive algorithms, it can estimate the performance of a campaign before it launches. Scott Philip, CEO of Wedge Buster, claimed that the system is driving big sales for his digital games company. 

"What Ninja opened my eyes to was that I have these great social influencers who might be worth hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars because they drive engagement and retention in their network," he said.

Philip utilizes influencer data to create models that let him, he said, more accurately buy Facebook look-alike audiences. So he not only targets his influencers but also "influencer clones," if you will. Here's the core of the idea: If you get the most influential gamers paying to play your game via advertising, that will lead droves of other players to taking out their credit cards. 

"The system shows me value of users that I couldn't otherwise track," Philip added. "Certain users are worth a lot more than others."

While Ninja Metrics is based in Los Angeles, a tech company local to SXSW called People Pattern is making an intriguing appeal during the show. Developed by a University of Texas, Austin linguistics professor Jason Baldridge, the system's data is based not on where or what people purchase but by what they say and how they say it. The software is designed to understand Facebook audience interests and other social channels to improve ad targeting, content marketing and product development. 

"We take all of this messy, unstructured data and give it structure," said Ken Cho, People Pattern CEO. "We can help brands like McDonald's and Campbell's enhance their house lists and customer-relationship management."

Umang Shah, director of global digital marketing and innovation at Campbell's, explained further: "Brands have invested in their social properties and have really built them up. But we didn't always know who these people were in those communities. We didn't really understand them in order to do something with that information."

Because Facebook's newsfeed algorithm now generally requires marketers to "pay to play" with advertising, Shah said, Campbell's wants to lure consumers from the social platform to its mobile properties, recipes sites, etc. And his packaged-goods brand, ironically, will use Facebook-minded People Pattern's technology to rechannel consumers to Campbell's-owned destinations. 

"A big focus for us is on owned properties, such as Campbell's Kitchen," he said. 

Meanwhile, check out several Twitter reactions to South by panel discussions about data-driven advertising innovation below.

@Chris_Heine Christopher Heine is a New York-based editor and writer.