aCerno: The Funnel Frontier

Those familiar with the team at Catalyst:SF know that our folks have worked to develop more effective marketing for a variety of ad networks and rep firms over the years — I counted 15 last time I polled the group.

So it was somewhat surprising to me personally when I found a large ad network I had never even heard of, much less understood.

That network is aCerno, the digital side of I-Behavior, which has years and years and years and years and years of very successful experience in direct mail.


aCerno is just plain fascinating, so let me tell you a little bit about them. But first we need to draw distinctions between four kinds of web pages: HTTP, BUYPATH (HTTPS and HTTP portions of the buying funnel,) SOCIAL, and SEARCH.

HTTP pages are…well, the bulk of web pages online.

BUY PATH: Pages that are actually part of those last moments of a consumer’s decision to buy something online.

SOCIAL: Social media pages. These are also HTTP pages (almost always), but the reason I draw a distinction between HTTP-SOCIAL and HTTP-OTHER will be more transparent in a moment.

SEARCH: The pages that collect our queries and report back their findings for our queries.

Now, if you stop and think for a moment as a direct response marketer might, each of these different classes of pages is, on average, going to have a different probability of reaching someone ready to buy something. For instance, social media discussions CAN be about buying stuff, o’course, but tons of them are just talk. For a social net to provide valuable BT info, they will need to be able to draw such distinctions. No doubt that’s part of their plans.

Next in line would be HTTP. It is such a broad category that naturally different pages would have different probabilities of reaching a prospective buyer. For example, if one is browsing the page for the book What Happened? on Amazon, versus looking at the front page of Politico, there are naturally different levels of probability that one is going to buy the book.

Most BT companies focus on the HTTP pages at the top and the middle of the buying funnel — they are where ads run. Unfortunately, though, most of the best HTTP pages for predicting prospective purchases are NOT available for advertising. Amazon won’t sell a banner to on the What Happened? page. But the NYTimes review page for the book is available, and that’d be a goodie for a BT ad. What the traditional BT companies have, though, is VOLUME — billions of ad placements on millions of pages. And when you aggregate that info, you really can identify people who are more likely to buy. That’s what the whole industry is based on.

Next in line would be SEARCH. Search is a task oriented process by definition, and if you could know who had typed “Buy What Happened” into Yahoo Search, well then you’ve got pretty good odds of reaching good prospect eyeballs. Which is, of course, why SEARCH is such an enormous portion of total online marketing spend. BUT in many cases, there is still a little emotional difference between searching and buying. Search is a great way of increasing your odds, but there is still some waste.

Which brings us to BUYPATH pages. Naturally there are different sorts of such pages. If I get halfway through the shopping cart/buying process and then abandon, mine’r probably good eyeballs for retargeting or for intercepting a customer from some other retailer. Similarly, if a BT company could see that I made a certain purchase, they naturally could determine other related items I might buy in the near future, or when I might be willing to buy again.


“TRADITIONAL” BT COMPANIES: Most BT companies see all of the HTTP pages that have “their” ads on them. Note that they don’t see ALL HTTP pages — only the ones where their ads run. They don’t see HTTPS, most SEARCH, or most SOCIAL. Generally, HTTPS is considered “too hot to handle” by most companies. That’s mighty personal stuff, no matter how anonymized.

RETARGETING COMPANIES (a service that some of the basic BT companies also provide) generally know what you do and where you go on a marketer’s site within the HTTP pages.

SEARCH SITES/PORTALS: They can see anything you do on their pages. And you might think it stops there. But if you have a toolbar, like the Google toolbar, they have the ability (and the “right” — page 137, paragraph four, subsection 11, desk reference 22833495 of that 6 point type agreement you agreed to without reading it said so) to see anything you do that goes through the browser. The extent to which these companies actually DO look at all that info is unknown to me. Most people believe that Google uses more of this info than the other Toolbar-ed portals — after all, their entire model is based upon knowing you and what you want. Yahoo and MSN can use it, but as I read their privacy policies and T&Cs, I don’t think they ARE using it at this time.

SOCIAL NETWORKS know what you are doing on their pages. They know what apps you have, what you chat and blog about, and the like. But their reach beyond their own walls is limited. And it appears some consumers like it that way. Facebook’s Beacon debacle really stems from their learning what you did outside their walls.

Gentle reader, if you’re flaggin’ in terms of attention span, I ask you to bear with me for one more paragraph, because it really is about to get VERY interesting.


So, if you were keeping tabs, you probably noticed that BUYPATH pages are generally not tracked except by the marketers who own a site. And these marketers don’t have a view into the sites of other retailers, so their view is fairly limited.

aCerno saw this buying funnel opportunity and ran in. If you think about it, buying funnel tracking is pretty analogous to what DR companies do with Direct Mail (DM.) Everything that can be tracked IS tracked with DM, and there’s no aversion to collecting and using PII neither. Heck, the whole business is based upon appending demographic, psychographic, and purchase info to PII.

But let me be clear, aCerno is NOT collecting PII. Rather, they are using random numbered cookies to track users anonymously. I’m not sure if they track HTTPS or just HTTP, but they’re right down in there in the bottom of the funnel in that customer stream. In a recent interview with Internet Retailer, archived here, aCerno’s CEO explained the tracking process thus:

“If you’re interested in buying a big-screen TV, and you’re on the web going to e-commerce sites and looking at different brands and price points, what we see is a cookie number unique to a browser that is associated with all that viewing of products and information about big-screen TVs,” says Tom Sperry, CEO and chief privacy officer of aCerno. “We know cookie 456789 is probably very interested in purchasing a large-screen TV. Our advertisers can deliver a message to that user and influence that purchase decision on which brand he’s going to buy and where he’s going to purchase.”

The model aCerno uses is to combine data from over 375 major retailers and develop behavior profiles of consumers based upon this cross seller experience. Many have compared their model to the convention among catalogers to pool mailing lists and interest areas to collectively improve ROI. The list of retailer sites is a secret. And for damned good reason. Talk about opening the kimono! These companies are entrusting aCerno with amazingly sensitive info from the perspective of their businesses.


What aCerno says, interestingly, is that before they came along, online worked under a broadcast rather than a DR model, and that their network changes all that. Because they collect these buyer profiles and then buy ads from publishers to target audiences off the retailer sites. Let me be clear, this may sound like retargeting but it is actually much larger than that. This is full fledged cross category predictive BT based upon BUYPATH info.

I’ve never used them, but the model intrigues me, and I think it is worth a look for DR marketers. Like any other decision to use a network, one must compare sales and pricing to other networks to find the most efficient opps. But their model is very different, so if I had lots of units to move, I’d RFP ’em. Never hurts to see…

Thanks for reading, and don’t forget to write.