Mozilla is in a tough spot.
Building a big ad business is key to the nonprofit's well-publicized revenue diversification strategy, but many targeting techniques that are considered table stakes in digital advertising – such as cookie matching, third-party ad serving and CRM onboarding – are off limits. The main issue is not that Firefox users value their privacy more highly than Chrome or Safari users (although they do), but that their browsing data is stored locally at the client and is not on Mozilla's servers.
Mozilla has partially overcome this hindrance, announcing plans to push ads – "Tiles," in its own parlance – to the browser where a data-driven ad match based on browser history can take place. This solution prevents user-level data from passing to Mozilla or its partners, but still allows a more relevant ad than Mozilla would otherwise be able to deliver.
The resulting ad is a good deal less customized than a retargeting cookie, but on the upside "it's completely privacy-focused," said Darren Herman, VP of content services for Mozilla. "What's different between this and all other suggestion engines across the Internet is it's completely transparent. There's very little data at all that comes back to Mozilla."
The new ads are called Suggested Tiles and will start appearing to users in the third quarter, after Mozilla pushes out its next Firefox release. They are an extension of Mozilla’s Directory Tiles, which debuted six months ago. The difference is that Directory Tiles are only displayed to new Firefox users and those who have recently cleared cookies, while Suggested Tiles will match ads to browser history in the manner described above.
How large an opportunity does Mozilla have? The volume of Tile impressions might come as a shock to those who would roll their eyes at Firefox as a relic of desktop era. Mozilla's Herman says Directory Tiles generate "tens of billions" of impressions monthly. After Mozilla changes the browser to display Tiles to all users, that figure will increase.
Later, Mozilla plans to expose those billions of ad impressions to more demand sources, and layer in new data. That will require plugging into demand partners, and so it's been talking to ad tech companies like PubMatic, Rubicon Project and IPONWEB to make that happen. The company has not named any specific partners yet.
Mozilla executives are always careful to articulate the company’s advertising ambitions in the larger context of privacy-first principles and content personalization, pointing out that most of the Tiles the company serves to users are not paid placements.
Denelle Dixon-Thayer, Mozilla's SVP of business and legal affairs, told AdExchanger, "We started in content services really to address what I consider a policy need, what I consider an education need. The proof of concept would be to put this out there to users first, and then to publishers and advertisers. You need both."
But Dixon-Thayer acknowledged Mozilla's challenges do not end with privacy compliance. The organization may face a larger existential threat in rapid consumer adoption of mobile, where the company has lost market share to Google's Chrome and Apple's Safari.
Mozilla has a mobile browser and OS too, but has struggled to drive installs and ramp up distribution through partnerships with wireless carriers and device makers. It sees emerging markets as its best bet to scale on mobile devices.
"Distribution is an issue," she said. "We've talked to partners, we've talked to operators. We think mobile is a crucial place for us to be. In terms of our mobile OS, we have continually been focused on emerging markets."
She cautioned against counting Mozilla out in the mobile browser race.
"Our mobile browser is one of the top-rated browsers in Google Play," Dixon Thayer said. "It's a fantastic product. I think it only has more and more market share gain. We're really focused on making that a great experience for the user."