ZoomInfo, a site that compiles information about your personal profile — whether you like it or not — is supplying that information to other sites and advertisers so they can target you while you surf the Web.
The new advertising network offering is significant because it comes at a time when Facebook is unleashing a advertising platform that it says makes targeting even more precise. However, ZoomInfo’s may be more controversial, because of the reams of personal information it has about you.
ZoomInfo, based in Waltham, Mass, has detailed personal information for almost 40 million business professionals. It gets the information by scouring the Web, gathering things such as your name, past work affiliation, and even your email address if it can find it. It tracks the industry you work in, your company, title, functional area, education, sex and location.
Going forward, this is an example of how ZoomInfo’s network, due to go live next year, will work: Say you register at Dell’s web site, to buy a computer, and provide that company with your name and email address. Dell can then draw much more information about you from ZoomInfo – and serve up advertising that can target you much more effectively.
Here’s the catch: ZoomInfo can only do this if the user has visited ZoomInfo before. Because ZoomInfo needs to place a cookies on their browser. That way they ZoomInfo can exchange information about that person with Dell, which also drops a cookie on the person. This why, they can both maintain that they’re not personally identifying individuals with their advertising campaigns (the person’s information is not traded according to their name, but by cookie), even if the effect is practically the same.
ZoomInfo can use its cookie to track the individual across other sites too.
By the way, if you haven’t already picked up a ZoomInfo cookie, you’re increasingly likely to do so. If you’re like me, you find yourself landing at ZoomInfo’s profile pages from time to time, directed there by Google after you search for someone.
ZoomInfo calls its information “bizographic,” because it is biographic data related to business identity. The company says its data is much more useful to advertisers than say, Facebook’s targeting information, because its more precise.
An advertiser of a platinum credit card offer, for example, could use ZoomInfo’s information to target only CEOs and directors of IT.
Bryan Burdick, COO said Facebook was smart to launch a targeted advertising program to be unveiled this week. “We’re excited about what Facebook is doing, it’s validating what we’ve believed all along,” he said. “This is the next wave in advertising. Contextually placed ads don’t cut it anymore,” he said, referring to the ads supplied by companies like Google, which simply look at the words within a Web page and serve up an ad that is related to those words, but knowing nothing about the reader.
However, Burdick says Facebook risks upsetting its members, who signed up with certain expectations, for example about not having their data and activities presented to advertisers. Facebook, for example, is expected to let advertisers target users with say, dog food ads, if they user owns a dog and show that they are dog lovers. A big problem is that few people are active enough to update profiles regularly. Information or interests that users expressed two years ago may not longer apply to them even if it is still on their profile page.
Paul Martino, a co-founder of one of the early social network companies, Tribe, and founder of advertising company Aggregate Knowledge says this will limit Facebook’s success at ad targeting. Outdated profiles have been a major problem for every social network. People would get married, but the system was still targeting the fact that you were single. Another challenge is accurately divining peoples’ interests from their profile pages. Tribe tried advertising by targeting people’s profiles, but it “went poorly,” he said. Ad targeting a profile based on stated interests or words may sound easy, but it carries a conceptual flaw, Martino said. The aren’t a good way to match ads, he said. “That’s not going to work. I promise you that..I was surprised at how bad ad targeting was.” He said few people have realized how poor such targeting is because only a few players, such as Tribe and LinkedIn have actually had the profile information to target against. “Its one of those things, I think you almost have the scars on your back,” he said.
ZoomInfo updates about 3 million profiles a night, so at least its profile information is updated.
It’s also trying to avoid an association with “spooky” targeting. It insists it doesn’t personally identify you. In the Dell example above, Dell already had your name and address, and ZoomInfo provides Dell with much more personal information about you based on the cookie information.
ZoomInfo collects its data about you whether or not you “register” with that site. The company says that about 100,000 people a week are finding their profiles on ZoomInfo and then clicking on a button to confirm that the profile is about them and otherwise correct (ZoomInfo allows people to edit their profiles).
The company says it is ahead of Facebook’s ad network plans. ZoomInfo has already started building a network of sties and partners that will be able to use its information to target readers, Burdick said.
The closest competitors to ZoomInfo’s ad network are the behavioral networks such as Tacoda and Revenue Science. Those companies don’t offer biographical information, however. LinkedIn, a networking site for professionals, has so far remained critical of ZoomInfo’s moves to comb the Web for names and emails, without getting users’ permission.