Rubicon Project Buys Others Online in Audience Data Play

There’s an emerging trend in online advertising that I only flicked at in an article last February on ad networks: As data about people’s online activities grows, it’s allowing advertisers to start targeting those people directly, not just run display ads on Web sites prospective buyers might frequent or buy ads on search results pages they hope will draw clicks. Privacy concerns aside for the moment, the key not only for advertisers but publishers is to find the right data—and right now, that’s scattered among a huge number of players, in particular data brokers such as Blue Kai, Exelate, and AlmondNet.

With today’s acquisition of Others Online, Rubicon Project aims to provide its publisher customers a way to find the best data on audience segments from among all those data providers. Others Online, which apparently started out several years ago as a social network play, offers several audience data-related services—in particular an “affinity scoring” service that determines how strongly a person is interested in particular brands, products or topics.

Rubicon, which helps online publishers run the most lucrative ads from among hundreds of ad networks, views Others Online as a new data layer that will help publishers get higher ad rates. Not least, Rubicon CEO Frank Addante thinks it’s another step toward challenging the contextual display and search ads that dominate online advertising today. He reckons that those proxies for consumer interest could wane in favor of ads aimed at actual groups of people who have demonstrated their interests by their online behavior.

Jordan Mitchell, founder and CEO of Others Online, will become Rubicon’s vice president of data intelligence. Addante wouldn’t reveal the purchase price. Rubicon, which launched in 2007, has raised $34 million, most recently a $5 million Series C round.

As for privacy, such profiling no doubt will further raise the hackles of privacy hawks, which have been getting more vocal in their concerns about behavioral targeting. For his part, Addante thinks the fear of government regulation is worse than whatever regulations ultimately are adopted. For now, he thinks that fear is depressing investment in behavioral targeting just as fear of email regulation stunted email marketing a decade ago before the CAN-SPAM Act was enacted in 2003. Since then, he notes, email marketing has taken off.

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