Routers from Juniper Networks such as this MX960 will soon include Feeva's zipcode tracking software, assuming ISPs want it.
Your internet service provider knows where you live, and soon, it will have a way to sell your zip code to advertisers so they can target ads by neighborhood. If your local pizza joint wants to find you, they will have a new way to do that. National advertisers will be able to market directly to neighborhoods with like characteristics across the whole country using demographic data they’ve been gathering for decades.
As websites continue to push for higher advertising rates, similar to what print publications command, this technology could allow them to boost their rates slightly. Every bit counts.
Juniper Networks, which sells routers to ISPs, plans to start selling them add-on technology from digital marketer Feeva that affixes a tag inside the HTTP header, consisting of each user’s “zip+4″ — a nine-digit zipcode that offers more accuracy than five-digit codes — delivered in coded form that is readable by participating ad network partners (updated). Juniper hopes to sell the software to ISPs starting this summer, having announced a partnership with Feeva earlier this year.
“Our technology fundamentally changes the industry,” Feeva vice president of advertising solutions Mike Blacker told Wired.com. “Nobody can deliver accuracy at the neighborhood level online or accurate demographics.”
Why is that so important? Advertisers have been gathering demographic information about zip codes for decades, yet lacked a reliable way to harness that data in the online world. IP-address detection is only accurate within 25 miles or so, and cookies that track users’ surfing habits don’t tell marketers about users’ location. Neither system meshes directly with all the demographic data marketers gathered about neighborhoods in the offline world.
Of course, privacy is a potential issue, but Feeva claims its software doesn’t tell marketers anything about web surfers except for their nine-digit zip codes. All their other personal information remains safe with their ISP.
“[This technology is] unleashing the underlying foundational data that [marketers] happen to have, but translating it into a language that [they] can use in such a way that the consumer is not in any way stripped of their privacy,” said Rishad Tobaccowala, advisor to Feeva and head of marketing giant Publicis’s future unit early last year, well before Feeva will begin marketing this product to ISPs.
Even federal regulators who scrutinize other ad firms over their targeting practices are apparently okay with this, in part because the zipcode is encoded and can only be ready by “trusted third parties.” That might reassure privacy advocates that personally identifying information is not at risk here (unless you’re the only person in your nine-digit zipcode, which would only happen in an incredibly remote region).
“The privacy folks in Washington love what we are doing,” claims Blacker, “because we never see any personally identifying information, we don’t track online usage like behavioral [advertising does], and we only aggregate at the neighborhood level.”
Feeva was founded in 2005 at the UC Berkeley Haas School of Business Incubator, and has a patent that "enables demographic information and user preferences to be distributed to any website or online advertising or media server."
The system cuts ISPs in on the advertising game in a new way, without them having to expend much effort. They can add Feeva tags to the HTTP headers that already tell online advertisers a person’s IP address, referring URL, language and browser, and they can do it using the same aggregation routers that already authenticate whether a given subscriber is paid up and should be allowed to connect.
ISPs have something not even Google has (something of a rarity these days) — the user’s zip+4 – and they can use it to take a chunk of the market currently dominated by that advertising behemoth, by charging ad networks for that valuable zipcode information.
“ISPs love Feeva, because we help them participate in the ecosystem instead of being just dumb pipes” said Blacker, “and letting Google make all the money from their expensive infrastructure.”
Of course, one big reason the internet matters at all is that it was not instantly co-opted by the same corporations in charge of other forms of media. We largely owe that to routers that are “dumb,” in the sense that they treat each bit passing through them the same regardless of where it’s coming from or where it’s going. Smart software that sits on routers threatens to undermine that system, by shooting bits through faster to certain users, or serving only specific subscribers a certain piece of content.
Assuming Juniper succeeds in selling Feeva’s software to ISPs, another potential use of its technology will be to go beyond the zip code and authenticate individual users with a higher level of certainty than a username and password could ever provide.
For instance, HBO could partner with an ISP to verify, at the network level, that a certain user subscribes to HBO, and so should be allowed to watch its programming for free on Hulu. Users might be annoyed that they can’t use a username and password to watch the channel from a computer outside their homes, but content providers will appreciate the way this system can prevent users from sharing accounts.
Juniper Networks, which says its current customers include the top 100 service providers globally, plans to start offering the Feeva add-on to ISPs in July or August.