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Zedo and the Art of Customer Maintenance

By Steven M. Zeitchik
July 11, 2001

The ad-technology startup polls Web surfers about the types of ads they want to see online. Is this a better approach to the banner?

It's easy to dismiss ad-technology startup Zedo as quaint. For one thing, the company hopes to build its business around the ad banner. For another, it polls Web surfers about the types of ads they want to see online, and it's raised only $2.5 million in funding.

But Zedo might be the first technology firm to realize that your mother was right: If you want something, even click-throughs for banner ads, you should ask for it politely. "The fundamental power of the Internet is that consumers are in control," says Zedo President and CEO Roy de Souza. "So rather than follow them around and find out they read CNN or they look at this and that, which is expensive and not terribly effective, we just ask them."

The 4-month-old service works like this: When a Web surfer visits a site served by Zedo, which has signed deals with Lycos and Excite, a menu drops down from the banner ad offering a range of product categories. After a user makes a selection, the site serves ads only from that category. Users can change channels any time, and if they don't, the system will prompt them to do so after 30 days.

The point of it all - apart from creating what Zedo hopes will be a more reliable targeting device - is to give Web users a sense of investment in the ads they see. "Advertisers don't really care whether a customer finds an ad hot," de Souza says. "They just want customers to feel involved."

Zedo isn't the first ad company to try to shuffle the deck; we've seen a number of variations on the standard banner ad, starting with the simple pop-up. Eventually, advertisers made the pop-up more nimble, moving it around the screen, so after closing the ad, users felt as if they'd just played a game of digital Whack-A-Mole. Advertisers then enlarged the ads and put them in the middle of a Web page, instead of at the top. And lately, companies like digital-camera outfit X10 have experimented with the pop-under, a sneakier version of the pop-up that opens another window below the Web browser.

Much of the experimentation is the result of the banner's failure to live up to what, in hindsight, seems like unrealistic expectations. Advertising has long relied on a kind of fuzzy logic. For years, nobody knew exactly how, or if, ads reached their targets. Then came the Web, and its attempt to quantify exactly how much attention was being paid to each ad. Needless to say, advertisers quickly became disappointed, which is where Zedo comes in.

The notion of asking people what they want to see doesn't abandon the Web's raison d'etre of personalization and targeted tracking. But by allowing a degree of murkiness, it's also a throwback to an earlier time. It doesn't claim to track with needlepoint accuracy, but rather just to get a general impression of what users prefer. It doesn't care much whether users like the ads; it just wants to create a vague sensation of "involvement." And, perhaps most importantly, it doesn't overtax users - Web surfers aren't forced to show a high degree of interest by clicking through to an ad; they're just asked to name their interests.

In these somewhat frigid economic climes, it's anyone's guess whether Zedo will survive. Its model certainly makes a lot of assumptions, not the least of which is that consumers care enough about ads to make conscious choices about them. But the company's attempt to customize without overreaching may be met warmly. It certainly seems wiser than popping windows under your Web browser.