The Importance Of Canary Ads For Social Media Analytics

Getty Images.

Twitter has become one of the most heavily used datasets for social media analytics due to its widespread availability as both a free sampled stream and paid firehose. Almost every available social analytics platform supports Twitter as a data source, making analyses as simple as point-and-click. While few Twitter analyses normalize their results, the ability to search the complete Twitter firehose means major platform shifts are discoverable and advertisers can conduct population-scale searches on Twitter to better understand whether shifts in their ad returns are based on genuine customer shifts or whether they merely reflect changes in Twitter’s baseline. In contrast, understanding whether ad shifts on other platforms are due to changing selector definitions, changing usage or genuinely reflect a business shift is far harder. Canary ads can offer some respite.

Businesses today increasingly incorporate advanced analytics in the production and execution of their ad campaigns. While the most sophisticated ad campaigns may be entirely automated affairs, with algorithms making real-time tweaks as the campaign progresses, even the most basic of campaigns today will likely rely on preliminary baselines to determine the best ad selectors to use.

One of the challenges is that these selectors may subtly shift on some platforms, with the definition of a category adjusting ever so slightly over time as the underlying data sources that feed that definition evolve. In some cases, an ad selector might even exhibit a sudden hard break as the data source or algorithm used to define it is upgraded.

Even if the selectors remain unchanged, the platforms themselves are in a state of constant flux, with their underlying demographics, user behaviors and usage patterns constantly evolving. This means that a key demographic driving a company’s ad campaign might be evolving their behavior on that platform, leading to a different set of ad selectors needed to reach them.

Monitoring for these kinds of existential changes is not always trivial. A gradual shift in the sentiment towards a company’s products could represent changing consumer preferences. Alternatively, it could simply suggest changing user behavior on the platform on which the ad is run. Similarly, a sharp increase in the number of users discussing a product could represent a major story involving that brand or could reflect merely that the data broker providing that ad selector just implemented a major refinement to their data collection process that fixed a previous bug.

How then is a company to divine whether the changes they see reflected in their ad campaigns represent legitimate business-impacting trends or merely the changing landscape of social media?

One approach is the use of canary advertisements.

Long favored by government intelligence services and foreign ministries as a way to covertly recover in real-time social platforms’ rich demographic, interest and behavioral indicators, canary ads are essentially simplistic advertising campaigns designed to extract information from platforms rather than to provide information to users.

Canary ads are typically carefully constructed advertising campaigns designed to monitor advertising selectors that should rarely change. Any substantive change to the engagement and viewership rates of these ads indicates a changing baseline that requires recalibration of the selectors that are actually of interest to the organization.

In a corporate context, imagine a publisher that is interested in reaching French-speaking book lovers in the US who have previously spent substantial time in the UK and have a proclivity for murder mysteries. Creating an ad campaign targeting these users is relatively trivial with most of today’s targeted ad systems.

The problem is that it can often be unclear how precisely a “book lover” or “murder mystery lover” is defined and just how much time in the UK counts as “substantial.” Worse, the source of that travel and book consumption data might easily change over time, leading to drastic changes in the performance of the campaign.

Such a publisher might run separate canary campaigns for each of those selectors individually once a quarter and plot any substantive changes in their response rates. If, for example, the UK travel selector drops to nearly zero over the course of a month, that could suggest either a drastic change in travel patterns or a shift in that selector, helping to narrow down which selectors should be adjusted to reinvigorate the campaign.

A broadly focused book publisher might simply run a single canary ad once every other month for “book lovers” in each country in which it does business to flag major changes in such an important selector upon which all of its campaigns rely.

Canary ads can also be used to provide early warning of anticipated industry changes. If murder mysteries are not currently popular in a particular country, but the book publisher believes they soon will be, it could create an ad campaign targeting murder mystery lovers living there and rerun it monthly. Each month the campaign would show little engagement, confirming that interest remains low. However, when the campaign begins to steadily or rapidly increase, the publisher will know the time has arrived to launch their titles there.

These “early warning canary ads” have a considerable following in the intelligence community as a way to monitor for anticipated changes in public sentiment or unexpected or impossible shifts as a way of sounding alarm. Coupled with baseline deviation canary ads that show shifts in the ordinary rhythm of a society, they can provide considerable insight into the latent shifts within societies.

Putting this all together, advertisers today typically focus narrowly on designing and executing campaigns. Few give much thought to better understanding the broader social environment and context in which those ads are being run and the ways in which that environment may be changing that could undermine or adversely affect their campaigns. Canary ads can help businesses understand baseline shifts and gain awareness of evolving trends before their competitors.

In the end, as companies become increasingly sophisticated with their use of advertising campaigns, canary ads offer a powerful tool for both assessing the environment in which their campaigns run and collecting powerful insights into the future of their industries and consumer preferences.