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An example of a native ad from the Microsoft Audience Network on MSN. (Microsoft Image)

Microsoft, which has quietly built a $6.9 billion/year advertising business through its Bing search engine, will attempt to expand its reach with a new advertising network that extends the Bing Ads platform beyond search results to other Microsoft properties such as MSN, Outlook.com, and the Microsoft Edge browser.

The new Microsoft Audience Network, announced this morning, will use artificial intelligence and data from Microsoft services including Bing, MSN, Outlook, Skype and LinkedIn to help advertisers target native ads to specific audiences based on what their online activities say about them.

Although the LinkedIn data is just one part of the picture, it’s a notable example of Microsoft seeking to leverage its $26 billion acquisition of the business-oriented social network. The system will use information including the companies and industries in which people work, as indicated by their LinkedIn profiles.

“The core of how we will understand these audiences will still come from our Bing data and our browse data, but this is our first foray into what can we do with an understanding of where someone works, on top of websites that they visit and the explicit search query that they input through Bing or through any one of our partner sites,” said Rob Wilk, a Microsoft vice president who leads the company’s North American Search ad sales business, in an interview this week.

Data in the “Microsoft Graph” helps target ads to specific audiences. (Microsoft Image)

Microsoft is making the move at a time of growing concern about user privacy and online marketing, highlighted by the unauthorized use of Facebook data by the Cambridge Analytica research firm in an attempt to influence U.S. voters in the 2016 elections.

Rik van der Kooi, Microsoft Search Advertising corporate vice president, addressed the issue in a post this morning announcing the new Microsoft Audience Network. “As the use of data increases in our day to day lives, we continue to be deeply committed to privacy and to earning the trust of our customers,” he wrote. “We anonymize and secure all data in our advertising systems, prioritize brand safety, and do not allow targeting based on any sensitive categories. This is core to who we are as a company.”

Microsoft is in a different position than Google, Facebook and others who rely heavily on advertising revenue. Even as its advertising business has grown, the Redmond company still gets the vast majority of its revenue from licensing and subscription fees from its operating systems, software applications and cloud services.

The new Microsoft Audience Network is part of a broader effort by the company to establish direct relationships with advertisers, since changing the terms of its Yahoo search partnership three years ago. Advertisers who have been testing the new Microsoft Audience Network include Kohls, Lending Tree and HomeAdvisor.

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