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coins

Here’s the handy thing about cash: it gives customers scale. It does that by working the same way for everybody, everywhere it’s accepted. Cash has also been doing that for thousands of years. But we almost never talk about our “experience” with cash, because we don’t need to.

Marketers, however, love to talk about “the customer experience.” Search for customer+experience and you’ll get 35+ million results, nearly all pointing to stuff written by marketers and their suppliers. Even the Wikipedia entry for customer experience reads like an ad for a commercial “CX” supplier. That’s why a big warning box at the top of the article says it has “multiple issues” (four, to be exact), the oldest of which has persisted, uncorrected, since 2012. Try to read this, if you can:

In commerce, customer experience (CX) is the product of an interaction between an organization and a customer over the duration of their relationship.[1] This interaction includes a customer’s attraction, awareness, discovery, cultivation, advocacy and purchase and use of a service.[2][not in citation given] It is measured[by whom?] by the individual’s experience during all points of contact against the individual’s expectations. Gartner asserts the importance of managing the customer’s experience.[3]

Customer experience implies customer involvement at different levels – such as rational, emotional, sensorial, physical, and spiritual.[4][need quotation to verify] Customers respond diversely to direct and indirect contact with a company.[5] Direct contact usually occurs when the purchase or use is initiated by the customer. Indirect contact often involves advertising, news reports, unplanned encounters with sales representatives, word-of-mouth recommendations or criticisms.[6]

Customer experience can be defined[by whom?] as the internal and personal responses of the customers that might be line[clarification needed] with the company either directly or indirectly. Creating direct relationships in the place where customers buy, use and receive services by a business intended for customers such as instore or face to face contact with the customer which could be seen through interacting with the customer through the retail staff.[7][clarification needed] We then have indirect relationships which can take the form of unexpected interactions through a company’s product representative, certain services or brands and positive recommendations – or it could even take the form of “criticism, advertising, news, reports” [7] and many more along that line.[7]

Wholly shit. Do you—or anybody—have any idea what the fuck they’re talking about? Did you even try to read more than a few words of it?

Why would an industry big enough to put 35 million documents on the Web not have one comprehensible document in the only place where it would make full sense?

Here’s why: the industry is talking to itself. It’s one big all-BS echo chamber.

But let’s dig into it a bit, because (bear with me) we actually can fix this thing.

Basically, we have two problems with CX: complexity and perspective.

First, complexity.

Company promotions tend to be complex, because they’re gimmicks. Meaning they are a come-on to customers and not a persistent and predictable part of doing business.

Because promotional gimmicks are temporary and provisional, they also tend to have a bunch of moving parts. Even coupons, the simplest of promotional gimmicks, require that the company mint its own currency, for conditional uses, for limited periods of time, with restrictions on eligibility and lots of other forms of cognitive and operational overhead for everybody: the company, the customer, and whatever other partners that might be involved.

Here’s a good example.

This morning I got a promotional email from T-Mobile with a promo that looked interesting to me: an hour of free Wi-Fi from GoGo In-Flight, the next time I get on a plane. When I went to T-Mobile link for the promo, I found these instructions:

Before you board

  • Have a valid E911 address on file and a T-Mobile phone number.
  • To get your hour of FREE Wi-Fi and unlimited texting, make one Wi-Fi call before you board.
  • If you don’t have Wi-Fi calling, you can still get FREE Wi-Fi for one hour and use iMessage, Google Hangouts, WhatsApp, and Viber all flight long.”

Each of those bullet points contained deal-killing conditions:

  • I don’t know if I have a “valid E911 address.” In fact, I didn’t know what one was until I looked it up in Wikipedia, 30 seconds ago.
  • I think I know what they mean by a “Wi-Fi call,” but my experience of that (or what I think it is) with T-Mobile is with making normal calls on my T-Mobile phone over Wi-Fi where there is no T-Mobile cellular coverage. Would I have to look for a place at an airport where there’s no cell coverage but there is Wi-Fi? Am I making a Wi-Fi call when my phone says “T-Mobile Wi-Fi,” but I’m also getting a signal reading on my phone? I don’t know, and I don’t want to take the time to find out.
  • I have no interest in getting a free hour of Wi-Fi that limits me to four services I don’t use.

So I went on Twitter, tweeted what I hoped would be some good feedback to @T-Mobile and @GoGo. Here’s that tweet, with responses from both companies:

dsearls-tmobile-gogo-thread

Before we go forward with the lessons from this example, I want to make clear that I do appreciate what *NikosP, *RudyG and ^Joe are trying to do here. I am also clear that there are buildings full of other good people, all doing “social CRM,” or whatever its called this week, to care about customers and give them the best possible experience.

The problem for me, as a customer, is that getting this free hour of Wi-Fi on a plane isn’t worth the trouble. The problem for T-Mobile and GoGo In-Flight is that it’s probably not worth the trouble for them either.

Many years ago the great Jamie Zawinski uttered the best (and perhaps only worthy) critique, ever, of Linux. He said, “Linux is only free if your time has no value.” You can swap any promotion you like for “Linux” in that sentence. For example, “An hour of Wi-Fi on a GoGo equipped plane is only free if your time has no value.”

As Don Marti often puts it, customers are much better at applied behavioral economics than any of the companies trying to make customers fall for promotional come-ons.

So I’m wearing my applied behavioral economist hat when I decide that my time is worth more to me than whatever sum of it I might spend getting one hour of free wi-fi on a plane some day, even with all the help being tweeted to me.

I am also noticing that my time would be spent on this thing, and not invested. Worse, it would all be gone in one hour. Worse than that, it would be gone on a plane, where the working conditions are not ideal.

I have no idea how much time and money T-Mobile and GoGo In-Flight are spending on this promo, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the internal and external costs of it turn out to be far higher than whatever they would get out of investing the same amount of money and effort on simply making their services better.

So that’s complexity. Now lets look at perspective.

All of the CX perspective—100% of it—is anchored on the corporate side. Not the customer side. Worse, in every CX case the perspective is of one company, or a small collection of companies (e.g. T-Mobile and GoGo Inflight, or both plus the four other companies in the third of the first set of bullet points above).

See, each company is doing its own kind of CX to “deliver” an “experience” that is exclusive to them. In fact, that’s one way they compete. With this promo, T-Mobile is trying to do something Verizon, AT&T and Sprint aren’t doing.

The problem with this perspective is that it makes the customer’s experience different for every company she deals with. Worse, she has to spend non-recoverable time and effort trying to figure out what’s going on with each of the different companies imposing cognitive burdens along with promotional bargains. As the promos add up, the diminished returns are compounded, and the bargains add up to far less than $0.

If we take away the complexity, and take the customer’s perspective, you see  only two ways a company can “deliver” the best possible “experience” to customers:

  1. By making it as simple as possible to deal with the company; and
  2. By offering better products and services than competitors. That’s it.

For example, my wife and I have T-Mobile phones because we travel a lot outside the U.S. T-Mobile, alone among U.S. mobile phone carriers, provides free data and texting in something like 200 other countries, plus just 20¢/minute for phone calls. We also like not worrying about data usage, because T-Mobile has relatively high data allowances for that. So we don’t worry about going over. To obtain those simple graces, we put up with T-Mobile’s inferior coverage outside metro areas in the U.S. (though, to its credit, is catching up fast).

Our 19-year-old son, on the other hand, doesn’t travel much outside the country, so his phone is on Ting, which has outstanding customer service and the simplest possible usage pricing, with no promotional gimmicks. So both company and customer have low cognitive and cost overhead to deal with.

Which gets me back to cash.

Cash comes from the customer’s perspective. She can use the same cash with every company she deals with. She isn’t busy thinking, “Gee, I need to use Walmart’s money at Walmart and Burger King’s money at Burger King.” The cash in her purse gives her scale across every company that accepts it. Cash also gives her the same leverage across all her credit cards and other instruments of intermediation. It’s a great CX model.

So, is there hope we can wind down the BS in CX, and bring something with cash-like scale into the portfolio of tools customers have for dealing with many different companies?

Yes, there is.

A number of VRM developers are now working on CX, mostly by helping companies welcome help from customers, and learning from it. There are also some CRM companies starting to look toward VRM as a way of giving customers cash-like scale across many different companies as well. (The jlinc protocol, for example, has a lot of promise in that direction.)

That work, and other developments like it, give me hope that “Markets are conversations” will actually mean something—in less than two decades after marketers were first inspired to talk about it.

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shackles

Who Owns the Mobile Experience? is a report by Unlockd on mobile advertising in the U.K. To clarify the way toward an answer, the report adds, “mobile operators or advertisers?”

The correct answer is neither. Nobody’s experience is “owned” by somebody else.

True, somebody else may cause a person’s experience to happen. But causing isn’t the same as owning.

We own our selves. That includes our experiences.

This is an essential distinction. For lack of it, both mobile operators and advertisers are delusional about their customers and consumers. (That’s an important distinction too. Operators have customers. Advertisers have consumers. Customers pay, consumers may or may not. That the former also qualifies as the latter does not mean the distinction should not be made. Sellers are far more accountable to customers than advertisers are to consumers.)

It’s interesting that Unlockd’s survey shows almost identically high levels of delusion by advertisers and operators…

  • 85% of advertisers and 82% of operators “think the mobile ad experience is positive for end users”
  • 3% of advertisers and 1% of operators admit “it could be negative”
  • Of the 85% of advertisers who think the experience is positive, 50% “believe it’s because products advertised are relevant to the end user”
  • “the reasons for this opinion is driven from the belief that users are served detail around products that are relevant to them.”

… while:

  • 47% of consumers think “the mobile phone ad experience (for them) is positive”
  • 39% of consumers “think ads are irrelevant
  • 36% blame “poor or irritating format”
  • 40% “believe the volume of ads served to them are a main reason for the negative experience”

It’s amazing but not surprising to me that mobile operators apparently consider their business to be advertising more than connectivity. This mindset is also betrayed by AT&T charging a premium for privacy and Comcast wanting to do the same. (Advertising today, especially online, does not come with privacy. Quite the opposite, in fact. A great deal of it is based on tracking people. Shoshana Zuboff calls this surveillance capitalism.)

Years ago, when I consulted BT, JP Rangaswami (@jobsworth), then BT’s Chief Scientist, told me phone companies’ core competency was billing, not communications. Since those operators clearly wish to be in the “content” business now, and to make money the same way print and broadcast did for more than a century, it makes sense that they imagine themselves now to be one-way conduits for ad-fortified content, and not just a way people and things (including the ones called products and companies) can connect to each other.

The FCC and other regulators need to bear this in mind as they look at what operators are doing to the Internet. I mean, it’s good and necessary for regulators to care about neutrality and privacy of Internet services, but a category error is being made if regulators fail to recognize that the operators want to be “content distributors” on the models of commercial broadcasting (funded by advertising) and the post office (funded by junk mail, which is the legacy model of today’s personalized direct response advertising  online).

I also have to question how consumers were asked by this survey about their mobile ad experiences. Let me see a show of hands: how many here consider their mobile phone ad experience “positive?” Keep your hands down if you are associated in any way with advertising, phone companies or publishing. When I ask this question, or one like it (e.g. “Who here wants to see ads on their phone?”) in talks I give, the number of raised hands is usually zero. If it’s not, the few parties with raised hands offer qualified responses, such as, “I’d like to see coupons when I’m in a store using a shopping app.”

Another delusion of advertisers and operators is that all ads should be relevant. They don’t need to be. In fact, the most valuable ads are not targeted personally, but across populations, so large populations can become familiar with advertised products and services.

It’s a simple fact that branding wouldn’t exist without massive quantities of ads being shown to people for whom the ads are irrelevant. Few of us would know the brands of Procter & Gamble, Unilever, L’Oreal, Coca-Cola, Nestlé, General Motors, Volkswagen, Mars or McDonald’s (the current top ten brand advertisers worldwide) if not for the massive amounts of money those companies spend advertising to people who will never buy their products but will damn sure known those products’ names. (Don Marti explains this well.)

A hard fact that the advertising industry needs to face is that there is very little appetite for ads on the receiving end. People put up with it on TV and radio, and in print, but for the most part they don’t like it. (The notable exceptions are print ads in fashion magazines and other high-quality publications. And classifieds.)

Appetites for ads, and all forms of content, should be consumers’ own. This means consumers need to be able to specify the kind of advertising they’re looking for, if any.

Even then, the far more valuable signal coming from consumers is (or will be) an actual desire for certain products and services. In marketing lingo, these signals are qualified leads. In VRM lingo, these signals  are intentcasts. With intentcasting, the customers do the advertising, and are in full control of the process. And they are no longer mere consumers (which Jerry Michalski calls “gullets with wallets and eyeballs”).

It helps that there are dozens of companies in this business already.

So it would be far more leveraged for operators to work with those companies than with advertising systems so disconnected from reality that they’ve caused hundreds of millions of people to block ads on their mobile devices — and are in such deep denial of the market’s clear messages that they deny the legitimacy of a clear personal choice, misdirecting attention toward the makers of ad blocking tools, and away from what’s actually happening: people asserting power over their own lives and private spaces (e.g. their browsers) online.

If companies actually believe in free markets, they need to believe in free customers. Those are people who, at the very least, are in charge of their own experiences in the networked world.

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1-e10zgDdxrcJgNcp9Njr4GQ

I started calling online advertising a bubble in 2008.

I made “The Advertising Bubble” a chapter in The Intention Economy in 2012.

I’ve been unpacking what I figure ought to be obvious (but isn’t) in 52 posts and articles (so far) in the Adblock War Series. This will be the 53rd.

And it ain’t happened yet.

But, now comes this, from Kalkis Research:

kalkis-on-google

Some charts:

googlecpc

adblocking

change-in-advertising-vs-sales

costofadspace

And here is their downbeat conclusion:

We are living through the latest stages of the online advertising bubble, as available high-quality ad space is shrinking, leading to a decline ad space quality, and a decline of ad efficiency. Awareness for fraud is growing, and soon, clients will cut their online ad spending, and demand higher accountability. This will destroy the high-margin market of automated reselling worthless ad space, and will force advertisers to focus only on prime publishers, with expensive ad space.

This is a re-run of the online advertising crash of the early 2000s, when the proliferation of banners and pop- ups destroyed any value these ads had (and led people to install pop-up killers, just like with ad blockers today)…

We estimate that the online advertising market has been artificially inflated since the end of 2013, and is much more mature than its pundits are claiming. 90% of Google’s revenues come from advertising. We expect Alphabet’s share price to go down by 75%…

A larger number of companies will be impacted, as a growing number of third-party tech giants are involved in the advertising play (Oracle, Amazon, Salesforce), and we expect the whole tech sector to be hard hit by the unwinding of the bubble…

Currently, January 2018 Alphabet puts with a strike of $400 are trading at around $8, for a 20x return should our scenario materialize.

There are other signs. For example, a falling ping-pong table index:

pingpongtable

GroupM, the “world’s largest media investment group,” also just published Interaction 2016, which is also bearish on adtech:

Advertisers and the entities that place their ads have always sought relevance and engagement; the consumer has chosen to set a higher bar. Advertisers and the buyers of media have a further responsibility.

Until now, we have assumed almost all data are worth having. But however much he gathers, no advertiser commands complete, continuous data. This creates a risk that the advertiser’s left hand may not know what his right hand is doing. A customer who has already made a purchase may be bombarded with redundant repeat ads wherever he roams: what we might call the phenomenon of “repetitive irrelevance.” Even worse, several advertisers may be sharing the same data and using performance-oriented media, multiplying the “repetitive irrelevance.” Tracking and targeting intended to make advertising welcome makes it a nuisance. It is dysfunctional. The advertiser damages his reputation and pays to do so.

This brief analysis suggests that a partial solution to adblocking is a combination of design, technology, common sense and the ability to establish the point, across channels and vendors, at which the application of a particular data point becomes the poison of marketing rather than the antidote to ineffectiveness.

The emphasis is mine. (Hey, I know boldface tends to get read and blockquotes don’t.)

There are other signs. Last May Business Insider said The ad tech sector looks an awful lot like a bubble that just popped. In June, The Wall Street Journal said adtech investment dollars are running dry. “These companies are struggling to even get meetings,” they said. In December Ad Exchanger called 2015 a “reality check” year for adtech.

Clearly the end isn’t near for Facebook or Google. Tony Haile, founding CEO of Chartbeat — and to me the reigning king of adtech moneyball — compares Facebook to the Sun, and everybody else to planets and other debris orbiting around it. One pull-quote: “It is Facebook that curates and distributes. It owns the relationship with the user, and decides what content the user sees and how many see it.” Meanwhile Google, which places a huge percentage of online ads (for itself and countless others), is said by Digiday to be exploring an “acceptable ads” policy obviously modeled on the one launched by Adblock Plus. And while ad fraud has been bad, AdAge reports that it’s down, dramatically: “analytics firm Integral Ad Science found a 20.9% decrease in both overall and programmatic ad fraud last quarter compared to the fourth quarter of 2015.”

Still, I’ve been told by one (big) adtech exec that his business is “a walking zombie” and that he’s looking toward “the next paradigm.” One of the biggest online advertisers told me late last year that they yanked $100 million/year out of adtech and put it into traditional advertising for one simple reason: “It didn’t work.” I have a sense that they are not alone.

Got any more examples? I want us to get as clear a picture as we can of the adtech edifice as it starts crumbling to the ground. Or not. Yet.

(Later…) Okay we have some:

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A photo readers find among the most interesting among the 13,000+ aerial photos I've put on Flickr

This photo of the San Juan River in Utah is among dozens of thousands I’ve put on Flickr. it might be collateral damage if Yahoo dies or fails to sell the service to a worthy buyer.

Flickr is far from perfect, but it is also by far the best online service for serious photographers. At a time when the center of photographic gravity is drifting form arts & archives to selfies & social, Flickr remains both retro and contemporary in the best possible ways: a museum-grade treasure it would hurt terribly to lose.

Alas, it is owned by Yahoo, which is, despite Marissa Mayer’s best efforts, circling the drain.

Flickr was created and lovingly nurtured by Stewart Butterfield and Caterina Fake, from its creation in 2004 through its acquisition by Yahoo in 2005 and until their departure in 2008. Since then it’s had ups and downs. The latest down was the departure of Bernardo Hernandez in 2015.

I don’t even know who, if anybody, runs it now. It’s sinking in the ratings. According to Petapixel, it’s probably up for sale. Writes Michael Zhang, “In the hands of a good owner, Flickr could thrive and live on as a dominant photo sharing option. In the hands of a bad one, it could go the way of MySpace and other once-powerful Internet services that have withered away from neglect and lack of innovation.”

Naturally, the natives are restless. (Me too. I currently have 62,527 photos parked and curated there. They’ve had over ten million views and run about 5,000 views per day. I suppose it’s possible that nobody is more exposed in this thing than I am.)

So I’m hoping a big and successful photography-loving company will pick it up. I volunteer Adobe. It has the photo editing tools most used by Flickr contributors, and I expect it would do a better job of taking care of both the service and its customers than would Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft or other possible candidates.

Less likely, but more desirable, is some kind of community ownership. Anybody up for a kickstarter?

[Later…] I’m trying out 500px. Seems better than Flickr in some respects so far. Hmm… Is it possible to suck every one of my photos, including metadata, out of Flickr by its API and bring it over to 500px?

I also like Thomas Hawk‘s excellent defense of Flickr, here.

 

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2016-05-02berkman

This event is now in the past and can be seen in its entirety here.

Stop now and go to TimeWellSpent.io, where @TristanHarris, the guy on the left above, has produced and gathered much wisdom about a subject most of us think little about and all of us cannot value more: our time.

Both of us will be co-investing some time tomorrow afternoon at the @BerkmanCenter, talking about Tristan’s work and visiting the question he raises above with guidance from S.J. Klein.

(Shortlink for the event: http://j.mp/8thix. And a caution: it’s a small room.)

So, to help us get started, here’s a quick story, and a context in the dimension of time…


Many years ago a reporter told me a certain corporate marketing chief “abuses the principle of instrumentality.”

Totally knocked me out. I mean, nobody in marketing talked much about “influencers” then. Instead it was “contacts.” This reporter was one of those. And he was exposing something icky about the way influence works in journalism.

At different times in my life I have both spun as a marketer and been spun as a reporter. So hearing that word — instrumentality — put the influence business in perspective and knocked it down a notch on the moral scale. I had to admit there was a principle at work: you had to be a tool if you were using somebody as as one.

Look back through The Secret Diary of Steve Jobs, and you’ll see what I mean. Nobody was better than Ole’ Steve at using journalists. (Example: Walt Mossberg.) And nobody was better at exposing the difference between sausage and shit than Dan Lyons, who wrote that blog as Fake Steve. (Right: you didn’t want to see either being made. Beyond that the metaphor fails.)

Anyway, visiting the influence thing is a good idea right now because of this:

googletrends-influencer

And this:

googletrends-influencer-marketing

I call it a bubble and blame data. But that’s just to get the conversation started.

See (some of) you there.

(For a more positive spin, see this this bonus link and look for “We are all authors of each other.”)

 

 

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drunk-driving

Today AdAge gives us Clinton and Sanders Using Addressable Advertising in New York Market: Precision Targeting Is Especially Relevant in NYC, Say Political Media Observers, by @LowBrowKate. Here’s how it works:

In order to aim addressable TV spots to those voters, the campaigns provide a list of the individual voters they want to target to Cablevision or satellite providers DirecTV and Dish. That list is matched against each provider’s customer database and ads are served to the matching households. Because voter data includes actual names and addresses, the same information the TV providers have for billing purposes, they readily can match up the lists.

Speaking as a Dish Network customer—and as a sovereign human being—I don’t want to be an “addressable target” of any advertising—and I already feel betrayed.

I don’t care what measurable results “addressable” or “precision” targeting gets for those who practice it. The result that matters is that I’m pissed to know that my provider has sold me out to advertisers putting crosshairs on me and my family. Same goes for other viewers who get creeped out when they see that an ad on TV is just for them and not for everybody watching the show.

It should be obvious by now that people hate being tracked like animals and shot with digital blow-guns by advertisers. The feedback has been loud and clear.

First the market responded with Do Not Track, which the ad industry mocked and ignored. Then the market installed ad blockers and tracking protection in numbers massive enough to comprise the largest boycott in human history. (More than 200 million doing ad blocking alone, by last June.) Again, the industry didn’t listen, and instead went to war with its own consumers and mocked the their choice as a “fad.”

Here is a fact: people value their privacy, safety and time infinitely more than whatever they might get from commercial messages packed around the content they actually demand.

Here is another: anonymity is a form of privacy. One of the graces of watching TV is being anonymous, as both a private individual and part of a crowd.

Advertising respected both those facts before it got body-snatched by direct marketing. Now is the time to respect the difference again, and separate the wheat of respectful advertising from the chaff of disrespectful “addressable targeting” and other junk mail methods that were alien to Madison Avenue before it got drunk on “digital.”

Make no mistake: addressable targeting is disrespectful to both its targets and the very media respectful advertising has supported for the duration. For a gut-check on that, ask if anybody wants it. Make it opt-in. Don’t just take advantage of whatever data collection has been done, surely without express permission from individual customers.

Here is another fact the industry needs to face: people have tools for safeguarding their privacy now, and they’ll get more, whether the industry likes it or not. In fact, the more precisely advertising invades and violates people’s personal spaces, the faster people will acquire the protections they need.

What’s at stake now for the industry is the survival of whatever remains of advertising’s value as a contribution to business and culture. The only reason the industry can’t see that fact, which ought to be obvious, is that it’s driving drunk on digital kool-aid.

Time to sober up.

Bonus reading: Bob Hoffman, Don Marti, Jason Kint, Dave Carroll, yours truly.

Bonus opportunity to participate in moving from blocking all advertising to welcoming the respectful kind: VRM Day and IIW, the week after next, at the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley.

The original draft of this post was my comment under the AdAge piece.

It didn't happen in 2010, but it will in 2016.

It didn’t happen in 2010, but it will in 2016.

This Post ran on my blog almost six years ago. I was wrong about the timing, but not about the turning: because it’s about to happen this month at the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley. More about that below the post.
_________________

The tide turned today. Mark it: 31 July 2010.

That’s when The Wall Street Journal published The Web’s Gold Mine: Your Secrets, subtitled A Journal investigation finds that one of the fastest-growing businesses on the Internet is the business of spying on consumers. First in a series. It has ten links to other sections of today’s report.

It’s pretty freaking amazing — and amazingly freaky, when you dig down to the business assumptions behind it. Here’s the gist:

The Journal conducted a comprehensive study that assesses and analyzes the broad array of cookies and other surveillance technology that companies are deploying on Internet users. It reveals that the tracking of consumers has grown both far more pervasive and far more intrusive than is realized by all but a handful of people in the vanguard of the industry.

It gets worse:

In between the Internet user and the advertiser, the Journal identified more than 100 middlemen — tracking companies, data brokers and advertising networks — competing to meet the growing demand for data on individual behavior and interests.The data on Ms. Hayes-Beaty’s film-watching habits, for instance, is being offered to advertisers on BlueKai Inc., one of the new data exchanges. “It is a sea change in the way the industry works,” says Omar Tawakol, CEO of BlueKai. “Advertisers want to buy access to people, not Web pages.” The Journal examined the 50 most popular U.S. websites, which account for about 40% of the Web pages viewed by Americans. (The Journal also tested its own site, WSJ.com.) It then analyzed the tracking files and programs these sites downloaded onto a test computer. As a group, the top 50 sites placed 3,180 tracking files in total on the Journal’s test computer. Nearly a third of these were innocuous, deployed to remember the password to a favorite site or tally most-popular articles. But over two-thirds — 2,224 — were installed by 131 companies, many of which are in the business of tracking Web users to create rich databases of consumer profiles that can be sold.

Here’s what’s delusional about all this: There is no demand for tracking by individual customers. All the demand comes from advertisers — or from companies selling to advertisers. For now.

Here is the difference between an advertiser and an ordinary company just trying to sell stuff to customers: nothing. If a better way to sell stuff comes along — especially if customers like it better than this crap the Journal is reporting on — advertising is in trouble.

Here is the difference between an active customer who wants to buy stuff and a consumer targeted by secretive tracking bullshit: everything.

Two things are going to happen here. One is that we’ll stop putting up with it. The other is that we’ll find better ways for demand and supply to meet — ways that don’t involve tracking or the guesswork called advertising.

Improving a pain in the ass doesn’t make it a kiss. The frontier here is on the demand side, not the supply side.

Advertising may pay for lots of great stuff (such as search) that we take for granted, but advertising even at its best is guesswork. It flourishes in the absence of more efficient and direct demand-supply interactions.

The idea of making advertising perfectly personal has been a holy grail of the business since Day Alpha. Now that Day Omega is approaching, thanks to creepy shit like this, the advertsing business is going to crash up against a harsh fact: “consumers” are real people, and most real people are creeped out by this stuff.

Rough impersonal guesswork is tolerable. Totally personalized guesswork is not.

Trust me, if I had exposed every possible action in my life this past week, including every word I wrote, every click I made, everything I ate and smelled and heard and looked at, the guesswork engine has not been built that can tell any seller the next thing I’ll actually want. (Even Amazon, widely regarded as the best at this stuff, sucks to some degree.)

Meanwhile I have money ready to spend on about eight things, right now, that I’d be glad to let the right sellers know, provided that information is confined to my relationship with those sellers, and that it doesn’t feed into anybody’s guesswork mill. I’m ready to share that information on exactly those conditions.

Tools to do that will be far more leveraged in the ready-to-spend economy than any guesswork system. (And we’re working on those tools.) Chris Locke put it best in Cluetrain eleven years ago. He said, if you only have time for one clue this year, this is the one to get…

Thanks to the Wall Street Journal, that dealing may finally come in 2010.

[Later…] Jeff Jarvis thinks the Journal is being silly. I love Jeff, and I agree that the Journal may be blurring some concerns, off-base on some of the tech and even a bit breathless; but I also think they’re on to something, and I’m glad they’re on it.

Most people don’t know how much they’re being followed, and I think what the Journal’s doing here really does mark a turning point.

I also think, as I said, that the deeper story is the market for advertising, which is actually threatened by absolute personalization. (The future market for real engagement, however, is enormous. But that’s a different business than advertising — and it’s no less thick with data… just data that’s voluntarily shared with trusted limits to use by others.)

[Later still…] TechCrunch had some fun throwing Eric Clemons and Danny Sullivan together. Steel Cage Debate On The Future Of Online Advertising: Danny Sullivan Vs. Eric Clemons, says the headline. Eric’s original is Why Advertising is Failing on the Internet. Danny’s reply is at that first link. As you might guess, I lean toward Eric on this one. But this post is a kind of corollary to Eric’s case, which is compressed here (at the first link again):

I stand by my earlier points:

  • Users don’t trust ads
  • Users don’t want to view ads
  • Users don’t need ads
  • Ads cannot be the sole source of funding for the internet
  • Ad revenue will diminish because of brutal competition brought on by an oversupply of inventory, and it will be replaced in many instances by micropayments and subscription payments for content.
  • There are numerous other business models that will work on the net, that will be tried, and that will succeed.

The last point, actually, seemed to be the most important. It was really the intent of the article, and the original title was “Business Models for Monetizing the Internet: Surely There Must Be Something Other Than Advertising.” This point got lost in the fury over the title of the article and in rage over the idea that online advertising might lose its importance.

My case is that advertisers themselves will tire of the guesswork business when something better comes along. Whether or not that “something better” funds Web sites and services is beside the points I am making, though it could hardly be a more important topic.

For what it’s worth, I believe that the Googles of the world are well positioned to take advantage of a new economy in which demand drives supply at least as well as supply drives demand. So, in fact, are some of those back-end data companies. (Disclosure: I currently consult one of them.)

Look at it this way…

  • What if all that collected data were yours and not just theirs?
  • What if you could improve that data voluntarily?
  • What if there were standard ways you could get that data back, and use it in your own ways?
  • What if those same companies were in the business of helping you buy stuff, and not just helping sellers target you?

Those questions are all on the table now.

___________________

9 April 2016 — The What They Know series ran in The Wall Street Journal until 2012. Since then the tracking economy has grown into a monster that Shoshana Zuboff calls The Big Other, and Surveillance Capitalism.

The tide against surveillance began to turn with the adoption of ad blockers and tracking blockers. But, while those provide a measure of relief, they don’t fix the problem. For that we need tools that engage the publishers and advertisers of the world, in ways that work for them as well.

They might think it’s working for them today; but it’s clearly not, and this has been apparent for a long time.

In Identity and the Independent Web, published in October 2010, John Battelle said “the fact is, the choices provided to us as we navigate are increasingly driven by algorithms modeled on the service’s understanding of our identity. We know this, and we’re cool with the deal.”

In The Data Bubble II (also in October 2010) I replied,

In fact we don’t know, we’re not cool with it, and it isn’t a deal.

If we knew, The Wall Street Journal wouldn’t have a reason to clue us in at such length.

We’re cool with it only to the degree that we are uncomplaining about it — so far.

And it isn’t a “deal” because nothing was ever negotiated.

To have a deal, both parties need to come to the table with terms the other can understand and accept. For example, we could come with a term that says, Just show me ads that aren’t based on tracking me. (In other words, Just show me the kind of advertising we’ve always had in the offline world — and in the online one before the surveillance-based “interactive” kind gave brain cancer to Madison Avenue.)

And that’s how we turn the tide. This month. We’ll prepare the work on VRM Day (25 April), and then hammer it into code at IIW (26–28 April). By the end of that week we’ll post the term and the code at Customer Commons (which was designed for that purpose, on the Creative Commons model).

Having this term (which needs a name — help us think of one) is a good deal for advertisers because non-tracking based ads are not only perfectly understood and good at doing what they’ve always done, but because they are actually worth more (thank you, Don Marti) than the tracking-based kind.

It’s a good deal for high-reputation publishers, because it gets them out of a shitty business that tracks their readers to low reputation sites where placing ads is cheaper. And it lets them keep publishing ads that readers can appreciate because the ads clearly support the publication. (Bet they can charge more for the ads too, simply because they are worth more.)

It’s even good for the “interactive” advertising business because it allows the next round of terms to support advertising based on tracking that the reader actually welcomes. If there is such a thing, however, it needs to be on terms the reader asserts, and not on labor-intensive industry-run opt-out systems such as Ad Choices.

If you have a stake in these outcomes, come to VRM Day and IIW and help us make it happen. VRM Day is free, and IIW is very cheap compared to most other conferences. It is also an unconference. That means it has no keynotes or panels. Instead it’s about getting stuff done, over three days of breakouts, all on topics chosen by you, me and anybody else who shows up.

When we’re done, the Data Bubble will start bursting for real. It won’t mean that data goes away, however. It will just mean that data gets put to better uses than the icky ones we’ve put up with for at least six years too long.

_________________

This post also appears in Medium.

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horsdoeuvres

Yesterday morning, while I was making curtados in the kitchen, I was also trying to listen to the radio. The station was WNYC, New York’s main public radio station. The program at the time was This American Life. Since the espresso machine is noisy when extracting coffee or steaming milk, I kept looking for the pause button on the radio—out of habit. That’s because pausing is a feature present on the radio and podcasting apps on my phone and other mobile devices scattered around the house, all of which I tend to use for radio listening more than I use an actual radio.

So I decided to open TuneIn on my phone. TuneIn has been around for almost as long as we’ve had iPhones and Androids. It started as a way to play radio stations from all over the world, but has since broadened into “100,000+ live radio stations, plus on-demand content like podcasts & shows.” These are listed on its home screen in what I gather is something between a reverse chronological order list of stations I’ve listened to in the past, and the app’s best (yet wrong) guess of what I might want, or what that they want to promote… or I dunno. It’s hard to tell.

In other words, the app is now something of a pain, because if you want to listen to a radio station that’s not on its home page list, your easiest choice is to look it up, which takes time. Even if you “favorite” it, the best-guesswork (or whatever it is) system on the Home page buries what you want down the list somewhere among on-demand shows and podcasts (I’m guessing that’s what it is), none of which I have listened to once through the app.

Anyway, I found WNYC after awhile, and continued listening on the phone’s little speaker, hitting pause with my wet fingers while going through cutado-making routines.

While I was doing that, and thinking about how TuneIn is still the best of its breed (of tunes-every-station apps), and how all apps are works-in-progress, changing countless times over their life spans—and nearly all seem to be trying to do too much—this metaphor came to mind:

Mobile devices are just hors d’oeuvre trays, and apps are just hors d’oeuvres. Appetizers, not dinner. And nobody knows how to make dinner yet. Or even a dining room table.

So the kitchen just keeps serving up variations on the same old things. With radio it’s a mix of live stations, shows on their own, “on demand” shows or segments, podcasts and appeals to subscribe to a premium service. Weather, transit, fitness, news, photography, social… most of them evolve along similar broadening paths, trying along the way to lock you into their system.

The competition is good to have, and lots of good things happen on the platforms (or we wouldn’t use them so much), but the whole mess is also getting stale. Walled-garden platforms and apps from garden-run stores are now the box nobody seems to be thinking outside of.

We need something else for dinner. We also need a table to set it on, and utensils to eat it with. And none of those, I sense, are more than barely implicit in the hors d’oeuvres we’re chowing down now, or the trays they come on.

Bonus link.

nc_cash_banner2015_740bI’d like to find a way to say “You may be owed money!” that doesn’t sound like spam. But I that’s the message, and it’s true, so here you go.

A few days ago a cousin-in-law told the extended family’s mail list about the North Carolina State Treasurer’s Claim Your Cash! program for recovering unclaimed property people don’t know about. That’s its graphic, above.

Since I lived for two decades in North Carolina, I filled out the very simple form on the site and found that I wasn’t owed any money, but that other relatives with the same surname were.

So then my wife found California’s Unclaimed Property Search page, run by the state Controller’s office:

banner

Since I’ve been a California citizen since 1985, she thought we might strike some gold by filling out the form there. And we did: six unclaimed property results. Four of them were easily handled by filling out online forms. After a few minutes of that, checks from the state totaling about $840 were on their way to my mailbox. Of the remaining two, one was for $0, and the other (for about $50) required the added labor of printing out and mailing in a form.

Since I also grew up in New Jersey and lived there for awhile after graduating from college, I checked with that state’s treasurer’s office as well. They sent me to MissingMoney.com, which covers all states. It found nothing in New Jersey and “less than $100” in Massachusetts, where I also lived for a few years. That one has a smaller form. Like all the others it warns you to be absolutely sure about how you filled it out, because you can’t go back. In my case it told me my social security number was wrong, and then jumped me to a page that said “Your information has been sent to the state” before I could go back and re-try. (It either wants or doesn’t want dashes in the social security number. Dunno which.) So I don’t know what will happen there.

Still, if you’ve been an adult long enough to pay a lot of bills (especially to doctors and hospitals), or to hold an insurance policy, you may be owed money that has come into the possession of a state.

So check it out and see how you do.

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subway-speedtest

At the uptown end of the 59th Street/Columbus Circle subway platform there hangs from the ceiling a box with three disks on fat stalks, connected by thick black cables that run to something unseen in the downtown direction. Knowing a few things about radio and how it works, I saw that and thought, Hmm… That has to be a cell. I wonder whose? So I looked at my phone and saw my T-Mobile connection had five dots (that’s iPhone for bars), and said LTE as well. So I ran @Ookla‘s Speedtest app and got the results above.

Pretty good, no?

Sure, you’re not going to binge-watch anything there, or upload piles of pictures to some cloud, but you can at tug on your e-tether to everywhere for a few minutes. Nice to have.

So I’m wondering, @TMobile… Are those speeds the max one should expect from LTE when your local cell is almost as close as your hat?

And how long before you put these along the rest of the A/B/C/D Train routes? (The only other one I know is at 72nd, a B/C stop.) Or the rest of the subway system? In Boston too? BART? (Gotta hit all my cities.)

Meanwhile, thanks for taking care of my Main Stop in midtown.

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