Visitor Relationships and Customer Love - AdTech Unscripted Podcast with Admiral

The following is a transcript of the AdTech Unscripted podcast, hosted by Rob  Janes, Head of Product at AdButler, with guest Dan Rua, CEO of Admiral.

In addition to serving as Admiral's CEO, Dan's background and experience include degrees in computer engineering, law, and business, over a decade in venture capital, and experience from the publisher's perspective. 

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Rob: Hey everybody. It's Rob with AdButler here. Welcome back to another version of Ad Tech Unscripted.

Today I'm joined by Dan Rua. He's the founder and CEO of Admiral. Previously Dan, you spent decades in venture capital, mostly with media publishers, which I guess led you to create Admiral and help media publishers.

So, Dan, welcome, welcome. We're excited to have you.

Dan: Yeah, thank you.

Rob: Before we get into all of the questions, I'm going to throw at you, maybe you want to quickly introduce yourself and tell everybody about who you are. Give us the long story, who is Dan and how did you get to where you are today?

Dan: Sure, sure. So, you did a great summary there, but you know my background, early on in undergrad I was in computer engineering. Part of the Apple II generation, so just really fired up about startups and how Apple was created.

I ended up going, I guess, to work with one of Apple's arch enemies IBM, in the early days, and learned from a blue chip. Then I got excited about startups and venture capital, went to grad school, and  went into venture capital and launched a couple of funds.

There's a west coast fund called Draper Fisher Jurvetson that we launched on the east coast, two funds there about 30 companies. Then I built enough of a track record of my own to launch a third fund, focused mostly on the Southeast U.S. I did another 10 companies there.

Privacy & User Empowerment Wave Impacts Ad-Driven Publishers

In the process, we were backing a bunch of software and media companies, and one of the last companies I backed was called Grooveshark, in the music streaming space. It was a media publisher; it was ad-supported, subscription-supported, and a pioneer of music streaming.

But we stumbled onto something there because music enthusiasts were some of their earliest ad block adopters. Adblock was just the tip of the spear of this broader privacy and user empowerment wave that is bulldozing through the category.

When we sold off Grooveshark to the labels, we spun the product team out to create Admiral, to help all publishers build relationships with their visitors. And ultimately figure out the right value exchanges for a sustainable internet.

Rob: That's awesome. I was an avid fan of Grooveshark back in the day, so it's super interesting to see you on the show because I had no idea you were involved with it.

Dan: I really lucked into it. It's interesting; the music revolution is analogous to some of the stuff that's going on in media publishing.

So, I put the first money into Napster, which was like the first bookend of the music revolution, and then the other bookend was Grooveshark.

In between those two, it was almost a couple of decades of the music industry coming to terms with how users wanted to consume music. And, it took the labels a long time to figure that out and they lost revenue in the process.

Ultimately, they got back around to it with streaming and ultimately Spotify. Publishers, whether they realize it or not, are going through the same sort of cycle with users and privacy and ad blocking and kind of the revolution that users again are trying to take the internet where they want it to go, how they want to consume.

Publishers ultimately have to kind of get ahead of that curve instead of playing catch up. Hopefully, it doesn't take publishers a decade-plus, the way it took the music labels.

Rob: Yeah. Yeah. Hopefully not. Interestingly, you say that ad block is definitely, you know, AdButler being an ad server, it's something we deal with here all the time.

People bring that up to us and we're like, “40% of our users are getting blocked by ad blocker and we're charging CPM so we're losing revenue on things like that.” Right? And there are some technical workarounds that people can do with server-side ad injection and things like that.

But how does Admiral fit into the picture? What do you guys offer, in terms of being able to help publishers recapture some of that lost revenue that is lost to ad blockers?

How Does Admiral Help News and Media Publishers?

Dan: Yep. So, we started out like any good startup, we had kind of a fairly narrow MVP (minimum viable product) in the early days. That MVP product was just: size and solve ad block losses. Right?

Adblock is one of those things because it also blocks your data calls, it can screw up your Google analytics, and it can screw up ComScore and Nielsen and other things. And so, Step One was just to help people realize that their normal dashboards aren't even showing them an accurate picture of what's going on.

So, we had this free tag. We said, “Listen, just stick this tag on your site and we'll immediately tell you how much you're losing to adblock. Whether you do anything with us or not, you should at least understand the implications. Then, if you want to get some of that revenue back, we can help you do it.”

But we kind of came at it a little differently than the rest of the market. As you mentioned, there’s definitely a group of players that were trying to sneak ads past the blockers. Or circumvent the blockers or what have you.

There's another group that was trying, in a different way, to sneak ads past the blockers, and essentially what they've done is put the Acceptable Ads moniker on it. But they essentially have put out ad blockers that by default opt you into seeing ads, which is kind of controversial in the category that you're marketing an ad blocker that by default, shows you ads. So, it's a different way of sneaking ads past the blockers.

We went a different direction, where we said, “What's the root cause of the problem here?” And what we came away with was as an industry, for a couple of decades, publishers didn't need any sort of relationship with their visitors, so they just attach ads to the content. If the content's good enough, they have a business.

As a result, you don't have a relationship. And so, each side can abuse the relationship, right? Publishers may abuse the relationship with a bad ad experience and users may abuse it with blockers and other things.

And so we say, wait a minute, this isn't just about adblocking. Adblocking is just a symptom of the lack of relationship between publisher and visitor.

When we look at it, whether it's adblockers or data blockers, or now what's coming with the death of the cookie and GDPR and CCPA, those are all the same wave.

And that same wave goes back to this idea that publishers that create relationships with their visitors are going to separate themselves from publishers that don't, over the next decade.

And so, we ultimately built a platform. First, at MVP, was size and solve adblock losses. But it's grown into this bigger thing that we call visitor relationship management, which is “How do you help publishers create one-to-one visitor relationships and first-party data and relationships with their visitors.”

Unpacking Adblock Recovery Goals - Check a box vs Maximize Revenue

Rob: Right, yeah. There's a lot to unpack there and I'm going to go back maybe four or five sentences to this idea of Acceptable Ads. It's always been one of these things in the back of my mind where certain ad blockers that exist in the market where you can essentially pay to get your ads still seen, right?

And it's always like, yeah, is that really ad blocking in the way that you expect ad blocking to work? Like yeah. Yeah. I can, I can get myself whitelisted and it's an Acceptable Ad and now it's getting past the adblockers.

So, at some point, I felt like certain ad blockers went from having a very good mission and a pure heart thing. That's like, “Hey, let's just stop ads and things like that,” and then they saw a revenue opportunity.

They were like, “Well, you know what? We can make money! We can make money on this by letting people whitelist themselves and paying us a bunch of money.”

What are your thoughts on that whole acceptable ads? Like I'm not, I'm not trying to trash talk it by any means. Yeah. Cause in, in some regards it works. Works really well. But what are your thoughts around Acceptable Ads and the ability for people to get past adblockers by paying the ad block company themselves? What are your thoughts on that?

Dan:  I think there's been an evolution, at least in the messaging of it. I think Eyeo, who's the largest ad block company out there kind of tried to get smarter at how they market what they're doing.

When they first came out with it, the IAB’s Randall Rothenberg was on the record saying, “This is an extortion business model,” right?

Rob: That's what I was referring to, I just didn't wanna say it, but yeah.

Dan: Yeah, yeah. You know, they tap the publisher on the shoulder and say, “Hey, if you cut us in on the action, we'll let some of your ads show.”

Take away all the marketing, and that's essentially what is happening. Okay. So Eyeo goes to market with that concept, and they get lambasted by publishers in the industry. And so what they did was they said, “We need to separate ourselves from that a little bit. And so they kind of hired, what you might call tax collectors, to like go out and do it for them under other brand names.

It's not Eyeo, but it is these other company names that are out there tapping people on the shoulder and saying, “Hey, cut us in on the action and we can let some of your ads through.”

Rob:  That's funny. The model still hasn't changed that much. It's just the messaging exactly, right?

Dan: So, I think they've gotten better at marketing it. The problem for publishers is that it ultimately is like remnant ad inventory. From an RPM standpoint, it’s just the bottom of the barrel.

And so, for someone who is kind of trying to like to check the box of like, “oh, I did something about ad block,” it's like, well, it's better than nothing. But you're still paying the blockers.

If you think about anyone who focuses on yield optimization, that remnant is just like the baseline. What you really want to do is get your premium on top. And so that's where the stuff we do around relationships and talking to users and getting blockers off. When you get the blocker off, it unlocks the full ad stack, and so you get the full RPM.

So, you can think of ours as full-stack recovery versus limited-stack Acceptable Ads. And you can think of it as almost like multiple bidders for a blocker, for the inventory of a blocker. Anyone who knows yield optimization, there's value in having multiple bidders, as you'd never just run remnant inventory and not try to run some other bidders against it.

Rob: Right.

Dan: So, we just bring, you know, higher RPMs. We just ran some data on this. The last data we had was RPMs anywhere from 5X to 9X, from full-stack recovery versus Acceptable Ads.

Building Profitable Visitor Relationships with VRM Automation

Rob: That's awesome. Yeah. Yeah. That's super cool to hear. So, you have some other models, too. So beyond just like ad block recovery, what are some other ways publishers that you've worked with can help kind of... I really like the idea of fostering that relationship with the viewer and with the reader, right?

There's nothing more annoying than going to a website, and you're bombarded with ads as a poor user experience. You're just there to like to read some trash on the internet and that's it. And, honestly, I load up some pages and I get hit with so many ads. I'm like, I'm not going back to this page. No. It's just, just not happening, right?

What do you find publishers… Because I know that there are certain sites out there where they've got like subscription models, right? Where you can pay, even our local newspaper here.

Typically, I'm over in Atlantic Canada, and the media publisher over here, like our newspapers, you pay I think it's like $1.95 for a month and you can access all their articles and things like that. Even then you still see some ads, right? You still see ads. But it's not an overwhelming experience. I'm happy to pay the money for it.

My first job way back when was as a newspaper boy, right, delivering newspapers and knocking on doors. Right. I used to pay like a dollar a week for newspapers and things. So, I don't mind paying $1.95 to get access to read my local news every day.

But what do you find publishers, what's working for publishers, what's not working? Like if you had to give recommendations, what would you recommend?

Dan: Sure. So, again we really do start from this focus on their relationship. And so, it helps us not to get too stuck in any one fiefdom. Right?

Publishers get stuck with these fiefdoms. They've got their ad ops team, they got their subscriptions team, they got their email guy that has a list of 10,000 emails. And they're fighting for resources and we're a little more focused on the entire (visitor) relationship.

VRM Growth Tools

And so, just to list off some of the things that we think are part of relationships:  

  • Talking about adblock, that's a simple one, you get adblockers off that's immediate revenue.
  • But then, starting an email relationship with someone.
  • Turning that into a registration. Right? Then you can start to have an account that has first-party data attached to that account.
  • Moving into things like following on social
  • Downloading of mobile apps.
  • Donating, like Patreon sort-of. Donations.
  • Subscriptions. Right?
  • And then ultimately privacy consent, like GDPR and CCPA.

So all of those things are part of what it means to have a relationship. If you can talk to somebody about one of those things and they will opt into that, they're stepping into the relationship, leaning in a little bit. So, ultimately you want to do all of that.

One Step at a Time

But the reality is you only do it one step at a time. What we promote is (to) put our free tag on page. You'll immediately see what revenue opportunities exist across these various buckets. Then you can turn on any of them that you want to without writing a single line of code.

And so, you may turn on adblock recovery. And then you may say, oh, well, I'd love to get some email addresses as well. Let's flick on getting email addresses. And then ultimately let's turn on subscriptions and we can power all of that for them.

Depending upon the philosophy of the publisher, some of them might have a subscription mindset. And so, they want to launch that. And some of them may specifically not have a subscription mindset and they want to stay more in the kind of free access world.

We happen to feel that there is no one silver bullet on any of these. You have a diverse audience that is open to different value exchanges.

You could have the exact same site, the exact same article, but two different people show up and one of them is okay with an ad-supported experience and another one wants ad free and they're willing to pay for it.

And so, you need a platform that can allow you to meet people where they're at, and ultimately maximize…we focus on average revenue per user or ARPU. Right?

You need a platform that can allow you to meet people where they're at.


Avoiding Subscription Tunnel Vision Results in More Subscribers

Rob: Right. Okay.

Dan: You asked specifically about subscriptions, there are some folks that kind of have blinders on about subscriptions. And so, everything they do is ultimately about how they try to get a subscriber.

But in reality, at best you're going to hit 5% of your users that subscribe, or if you absolutely blew it out of the water, top tier, at best 10% are paying subscribers.

That means 90 to 95% of your visitors are not paying subscribers. If you have blinders on about turning everyone into a subscriber, you're going to screw some things up with the other 90 to 95%. Versus figuring out how to grow relationships, and grow ARPU, across the entire spectrum.

(If) someone goes from not being an email subscriber to being an email subscriber, which causes them to read an extra article per week, which doubles their page views with you. You just doubled the ARPU for that visitor and they didn't have to pull a credit card out.

You didn't have to make that level of an ask, but over time, if they're an email subscriber and they turn off their blocker and they're a social follower, there's a decent chance they'll become a paid subscriber. So, you just have to grow the relationship one step at a time.

The Value of Building First-Party Data Pre - and Post-Cookie Death

Rob: Yeah. And it's interesting what you said there about the first-party data aspect too. Is there anything that you found is the most profitable in the first-party data world? If I come to a page and I give consent and yes, or there's a sign-up process and I'm signing up and I'm filling in my email address, or maybe my date of birth and location and things.

Is there anything that you would recommend as the best for targeting, you know, options? So, if you're running an ad campaign, and relying on first-party data. Is there anything that works best; do you find geo is more profitable than say contextual?

You might not have insight into this. I'm just really curious, but, in terms of first-party data and what the publisher shares along that supply chain as it were, are there sets of data that you find is trending right now that publishers should look at that maybe they aren't considering?

Dan:  I don't know if the top ones would be a surprise to everyone. There are about eight; we've done some work with some of our publishers and analyzed all the bidding that's happening against their stack and therefore, and what are the top data points that are used for campaigns.

And there's about eight that we could all kind of guess on, right? It's geo it's gender, it's household income, you know, those sorts of things.

That's for broad-based, but then, if and when you have direct sales capabilities, it can be very narrow specific to the advertiser you're thinking about. Right?

And so, to the degree it's an auto advertiser, and you could pick up via a first party form or survey, someone's preferences in cars, or whether they're interested in fast cars versus family cars or what have you. That data point is then really valuable in a direct sales atmosphere or PMP atmosphere that's then going to push up your CPMs on those campaigns.

So yes, there may be a top eight of just the core that everyone's bidding against. But, depending upon your niche, there's a bunch of additional first-party data that you can get that really pushes up your CPMs.

Rob: Yeah. One of the ones I've seen here kind of frequently is in the real estate market, like the number of bedrooms in a house or the number of bathrooms and things like that, where the advertiser pays to get premium ad space for people looking for expensive houses.

So, it's really cool that that level of granularity can be used to drive RPM and in this case ARPU, that's, that's super cool.

Dan: Yeah. And, I'd say that there's a near-term piece of this, and then there's the longer-term piece of this.

So, when I talk about direct or PMP, that's the near-term piece because programmatic and cookies are still taking care of you on third-party programmatic targeting. Right? But when we get to the deprecation of third-party cookies and we get into a world of Seller Defined Audiences or some sort of grouping of audiences, publishers need to have their own data set.

To date, they've been able to rely on the fact that if I come to a news site, but I happen to have previously visited a running site, then it knows to show me a running shoe ad, and the news publisher benefits from that CPM.

But to the degree that third-party connection gets severed, it's really up to that news publisher to start to understand who their visitors are. This comes back to first-party data. In addition to the explicit or declared first-party data, like filling out forms or surveys, you also have the implied first-party data.

One of the things we're doing we've got a big ML (machine learning) project on is the immediate classification of content consumption. Is somebody a Tampa Bay Bucs fan or are they a hockey fan or what have you, so that out of the box you have a first-party representation of your visitor set.

Rob:  Yeah, that's super intriguing. We don't quite have the same use case over here, in the AdButler platform, but we have a contextual management platform that we have in AdButler where when a visitor comes to the page, we read and we identify each page and we learn what that page is about, and we fit it all into the IAB taxonomy for categories and keywords.

So, a publisher can go in and get a real-time view of how ads are doing based on specific IAB categories and things like that. So, they can say, you know what, our users right now are digesting a lot of news related, or money and finance related and things like that.

So, I found the really cool thing there is that you can marry that data to first-party data that you have as well. So, you can say like, great, Finance is currently doing well on the east coast, so let's focus a lot of our content creation on finance articles targeted to specific geos and things like that. Right? It's cool to see all of these different working pieces come together.

And then, there's a soft spot in my heart for publishers. So it's cool to see publishers taking all of this kind of curated content or curated information and then building content for their viewers that’s relevant to what they want to read. I love that. I love it.

Dan: Yeah. You touched on the contextual aspect, but you're going to see this shift to where you need to be able to tie it to an authenticated user.

Rob: Exactly.

Dan: Again, on top of an authenticated user, look alike audiences to that user.

Admiral's Customer Love DNA and Mission to Help Publishers Thrive

So, we're just trying to help as much as we can. Our mission is: Saving the free internet, one publisher at a time.

This wave of privacy and user empowerment is going to challenge publishers for a long while.

Rob: I love it. Saving the free internet, one publisher at a time. I 100% love that. Because I think we have the same mentality here. I love that idea.

Shifting gears just slightly. I know we only have a little bit of time left, but I recently found out that your customer success team calls themselves the Customer Love team.

Dan: Yeah!


If you talk to our customers, the term customer love will come up sometime in that conversation.

So, I've talked to other companies, you know, they called them Success Gurus and things like that. Or, there was another one that had like, Customer Ninjas and things along those lines.

The Customer Love team. What's your story behind that? I love that idea. What made you come up with the customer love or how did that happen?

Dan: It was a little organic. I mean, it came out of the mentality of our company. Right? So, when you try to analyze what are the core values of your company and what are things that you're doing naturally versus artificially, right? Like what's the DNA of your people? And customer love just shone through on that.

If you talk to our customers, the term customer love will come up sometime in that conversation.

It starts with our mission, saving the free internet, one publisher at a time. And then, how are we doing that? Well, one of the ways we're doing that is just absolute care and love for our customers' success.

One neat thing that we saw. So, we started that years ago, but then just in the last year, we stumbled onto this book. I don't know if you've been exposed to it or not. It's called Winning on Purpose. By Fred Reichheld, and he was the guy who created the net promoter score.

He was at, I believe, Bain for a long while and created net promoter score. He’s continued to refine it. He writes this book, and the subtitle of the book is the unbeatable strategy of loving customers. And he even uses the phrase “customer love”.

So we got all excited that he's putting some science around what we feel. And the whole message of it is that your happiness, your feeling of progress is defined by whether you are progressing the customer. Is the customer better off?

Both at a company level, but also with the individual champion that you're working with. Are they a hero in their organization? Because you're going overboard to try to make sure they're a hero in their organization.

Vendor & Solution Transparency Empowers Champions and Heroes

Rob: Yeah, I, I love that. So, I come from a bit of a sales background before I stepped into the product and the podcast role here at Ad Butler. From the sales point of view, it was always that in the buying process, people are always coming in and they're looking at pricing, etc.

But at the end of the day, there’s something very satisfying for that user to go back to stakeholders and say, “Hey, I closed the deal with AdButler or I closed the deal with ad Admiral. I closed the deal with Google or whoever, by the way, I got us a 30% discount, or I got us X, Y, and Z bonus.”

They feel like a hero. They look like a hero. So, empowering that one individual user or customer or whoever it is, the customer at that point, right? I, I love that you just said that because that's kind of exactly what I've learned in my experience.

And I've gone through some sales processes with our vendors where it's not like that at all. And you just kind of feel like you're almost a burden or you're just a number to them as opposed to they're trying to make you successful.

Dan: Well, I think, back to how it started, now that you say that it reminds me that one of the reasons it started, again, at Grooveshark, we're a media publisher, and so we had vendors coming to us all the time. And you had the vendors that would say, “Hey, we'll promise you a $5 CPM”, but it's all smoke and mirrors because as soon as you put their thing on, they do like 0.5% fill. And they're like, “See, I got you the CPM I was (promising)”.

And all it did was just take from another. I didn't gain any revenue in the process as a whole.

We were coming into a category that had some smoke and mirrors in it. Right? And publishers have been hardened from the smoke and mirrors in the martech space.

Rob: Oh man, no joke!

Dan: And so, we just said, “Listen, we want to be completely transparent on the customer's side, trying to solve their problems. And if we do that, we're going to be alright, and they're gonna be alright.

Relationship Focus as Foundation Across Publishers, Visitors, and VRM

So, yeah, that was a bit of the origin that’s served us well. The other thing, you know we talk about we're the visitor relationship management company. It puts relationships front and center for us as a company, but more than a tagline.

Relationships we can think about as publisher-to-visitor relationships. Right? Our product does that. But also, our relationship with the publisher really matters. Right? That's customer love. Our relationship with visitors matters because our software is interacting with visitors and, you know, are we doing it right? Are we doing it well?

And then lastly, the relationship between our employees and Admiral as a company all matters.

So, relationships are this awesome four-circle, Venn diagram. If we deliver on caring about relationships, we're going to be okay.

Rob: Yep. That's awesome. I love it. I love it.

We're up on the 30-minute mark, so we try to keep the unscripted chats around this time.

Dan: This is fun!

Rob: Yeah. We go into this, and we have a rough idea of what we want to talk about, and then we completely go off track, and here we are now. But I love it.

This whole conversation is great. You know, the whole purpose of these unscripted podcasts is to bring in thought leaders from the ad tech industry, the martech industry, and just get everybody kind of on the same page. Share thoughts and feelings about what's working and what's not working.

So this was absolutely awesome. We might have to get you back for another one, for sure. Because I'm sure we have a ton more to talk about.

How to Find out More about Admiral Visitor Relationship Management (VRM)

But in the last couple of minutes here, I'm going to kind of roll out the red carpet for you. Where can people find Admiral? Where can they find you? Are there any events that are upcoming?

If somebody wanted to learn more about Admiral and get onboarded and started with you guys, where would they go?

Dan: Sure. So, if you go to you'll learn all about visitor relationship management and how we can deliver revenue.

As I said, it starts with a free tag. You should at least put that on your site and see what kind of revenue potential is sitting there. And then everything we do is performance-based. So, it's guaranteed net ROI for the publishers.

Our platform is like a Swiss army knife of new revenue.


I would comment about the macro environment that we're in right now. Having been in venture, I went through multiple market crashes, etcetera.

There's this looming recession out there that publishers are talking to us about, and the beauty is our platform is like a Swiss army knife of new revenue. Right? You can pick up lost adblock revenue that you were just burning up every single day. You can pick up email ad revenue, you can pick up donations and subscriptions, everything along that journey

When COVID first hit, the same sort of thing happened, and publishers were scrambling for revenue continuity. Our ability to just turn on revenue without writing a single line of code was really valuable.

So, as we look forward over the next 6, 12, or 18 months, we're looking to try to help publishers just turn on revenue as quickly and easily as possible to weather the storm.

Rob: Yeah, that's good to hear. Coming from a publisher and ad server specifically, I know there's a big appetite in the market right now for exactly that. And especially you mentioned a looming recession, I think the writing's kind of on the wall.

We've seen this in the tech industry layoffs happening. There's just been this downtick in consumption and so forth. So, I think you're absolutely right, ways to empower publishers now to open up new revenue streams that maybe they didn't have before, or to just grow what they already have in place, I think is exactly the right direction.

So, yeah. Hopefully anybody that's listening and if they've been intrigued by it, go check it out. Dan was an absolute pleasure to have you, I'm sure we'll have you back because this was great. I appreciate your time today and we'll hopefully talk to you very soon.

Dan: Thanks, Rob. I love it. I'd love to come back.

Rob: See-ya, perfect. Take care.


Inc_5000_Admiral_400pAdmiral is recognized as one of the fastest growing private companies in the US per the Inc 5000 list, and a top-ranked marketing automation platform for media publishers.
(both a 2022 and 2023 Inc 5000 selection)

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