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BW Businessworld

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A guy sees a girl. He likes her. He starts following her everywhere, at the canteen, the class, the parking area. The girl enjoys the attention but feels ill-at-ease for the encroachment of her personal space. With everything going digital, we have a tech version of this scenario too where an advertisement you had viewed once online keeps appearing on the corner of disparate web pages you visit on your computer or in an app on your cellphone? The answer is a cross-device ad retargeting technology. And a company playing such a trick with you is Mudit Seth, Hitesh Chawla and Alex Bodon’s startup SilverPush, which is using this technology to service clients.

Based out of Gurgaon and San Francisco, SilverPush helps advertisers identify potential customers based on the latter’s Internet browsing pattern and then retargets relevant ads to them across the devices they use — mobile phone, television or personal computer.

For advertisers, retargeting increases the chances of converting casual browsers into buyers as they have already visited the website and experienced the brand earlier. “Sending relevant ads to customers can speed up their decision-making process, thereby improving sales of firms,” says Chawla. “There are companies that retarget ads across one device, either on the desktop or phone,” says Seth. “But there is no company other than ours that can target a user across phone, desktop and TV.”

Profitable Programme
In August 2012, Seth and Chawla sold their first venture, Wiseassist Technologies, a platform providing location-specific information and advertisements for an infotainment system in radio taxis to a Delhi-based outdoor media company. While looking for their next entrepreneurial idea, in October 2012 the duo got selected for the first batch of the accelerator programme, GSF Global Accelerator, started by former Reliance Entertainment president Rajesh Sawhney. During the 10-week programme, mentors from bigwigs such as Times Internet and Ibibo Group consistently voiced one idea: targeting ads to users across devices — from smartphone to desktop or vice versa.

Chawla and Seth decided to use this technology. SilverPush’s first cross-device retargeting product was based on probability. It tracked the number of devices using Internet from the same IP address, and on the basis of certain algorithms, deduced the number of users. Based on the browsing patterns of users, the product pushed relevant ads on to the computers and phones of users. “There are only two companies in the US, Tapad and Drawbridge, that use probability to track users across phones and computers,” says Chawla.
Year Of Founding: 2012
What It Does: An ad retargeting company that tracks user behaviour and helps advertisers target their ads to relevant audiences across devices
USP: Identify users across phones, desktops and television and target ads to them
Funding: GSF Accelerator in October 2012, 500 Startups in November 2013,and IDG Ventures, Unilazer Ventures and Palaash Ventures in April 2014
Competitors: None that can retarget ads across all three devices: TV, cell phone and desktop
Revenue:  $5 million
No. Of Employees: 36
In September 2013, Chawla and Seth launched their product and in no time Myntra and Jabong came on board as clients. But with funds exhausted, the duo found it difficult to sustain SilverPush. “We started looking for funding options, but investors weren’t interested in ad tech companies then,” says Seth.

The two founders then decided to accept an acquisition offer from a Delhi-based digital ad network firm for $1 million. “We even went to Goa for an offsite with them to celebrate the deal,” recalls Chawla. “But then we got a mail from US-based accelerator 500 Startups expressing interest in investing in our company.”

Chawla and Seth wanted to back out of the acquisition offer, but knew that such a move could have serious legal repercussions. They requested Sawhney to intervene and help them get out of the contract. “Rajesh had had an accident and was advised bed rest, yet he agreed to support us,” says Seth. “Eventually, he helped us pull out of the deal.”

Stepping It Up
In October 2013, for the accelerator programme by 500 Startups, the duo moved to the US for six months, where they met Alex Modon through common friends. Later, Modon came on board as a co-founder to look after the US market. “It wasn’t easy,” says Chawla. “Alex had a well-paid job with an ad tech company, Quantcast. We had to convince him to join SilverPush for no salary. We met almost every day and he finally agreed to join us a month later.”

In the US, as the trio worked on developing their product, Chawla read about audio-beacon technology developed by a California-based company, ShopKick. The company had created a shopping app for smartphones and tablets, which automatically added rewards points to customers’ accounts the moment they entered certain retail outlets. It did that by placing speakers at certain retail outlets, which emitted high-frequency audio waves that were recognised by the customers’ phones. Loyalty points were then added to the customers’ app. Chawla, Seth and Modon decided to apply this technology for cross-device user targeting.

It took Chawla six team members and six months to adapt the technology. They programmed these audio beacons into the clients’ ads for desktops, which the apps in a phone would capture and send the details back to SilverPush’s data centre. This allowed them to know which desktop and phone were used by the same user. They would then map user behaviour across these devices and push relevant ads to the user.

The biggest challenge for Chawlawas to ensure the technology did not consume too much phone battery, else users would uninstall the app. SilverPush ended up getting a patent for its battery optimisation technology. “Audio beacon technology is more efficient (than probability-based cross-device retargeting) as it is based on data instead of probability and helps target audience effectively, ensuring higher returns on investment for clients,” says Seth.

By February 2014, the likes of Google, Phillips and Samsung were  using this technology, which also attracted the attention of venture capital firms. In April 2014, IDG Ventures, Unilazer Ventures and Palaash Ventures together invested $1.5 million in SilverPush. Dave McClure, founder of 500 Startups; Krishnan Ganesh, founder of online tutoring company TutorVista; Fabrice Grinda, founder of OLX and Prashant Mehta, former CEO of Komli Media also participated in the funding.

The Next Big Level
Chawla, Seth and Modon used the funding to develop this technology further and include television within their ambit of devices for retargeting ads. When they proposed the idea to their existing clients, Phillips and USL, the latter jumped at it. The logic was simple. Advertising on TV costs several times that on digital platforms, but advertisers get no data on who is watching the ads. Of course, there is TRP, but it is only an estimated figure; it doesn’t give specific data about viewership.

“Having an existing portfolio of audio beacon technology for phones and desktop and developing it for TV makes sense because we are competing with digital ad-tech firms such as Komli Media and VServ for the customer’s digital budget,” says Chawla.
“Ad spend on TV is more than $150 billion worldwide and completely untapped,” says Mansi Matela, a senior associate with Palaash Ventures. “This is a potential market SilverPush’s technology can conquer.”

One of the innovations SilverPush has brought into audio beacon technology for TV is inserting different wavelengths of high frequency waves at the beginning and end of the advertisement. This helps track if the user has watched the complete ad or switched to another channel midway. Also, this can ascertain change in user behaviour, that is if they checked out the product’s website after watching the TV commercial.

Tracking user behaviour across devices seems like a breach of privacy, but Chawla insists that his company does not track personal information or phone numbers. “Our emphasis is on user behaviour,” he adds. 

SilverPush launched its audio beacon technology for TV in January this year and tested the product with clients Madhouse India, Nestle, Airtel and McDowell’s. Alap Ghosh, director at mobile marketing and communications firm Madhouse India, says: “Using GRPs to target audiences on TV is still ‘spray and pray’. Spillage is huge and there is practically no way of knowing how many in your target group you have reached. With audio beaconing, for the first time there is guaranteed opportunity: you not only know who saw your ad but also measure if they were from your target groups. This helps build frequency outside of TV with respect to your identified audience.”

“Also, based on who viewed your ad and who you have reached out to, you can retarget TV audiences on mobile phones using display and video. Audio beaconing and TV retargeting together give mobile and desktop a fighting chance to match up to TV,” Ghosh adds.

According to Seth, on an average the firm gets 20 queries for this technology. “But we want to test it for some more time,” he says. “If they continue to partner with the right people, maintain their leadership position in technology and speed up their presence around the world, SilverPush may well become the InMobi of India,” says Matela.

(This story was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 18-05-2015)