Cluetrain

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The Cluetrain Manifesto went online for the world on March 26, 1999. “People of Earth,” it began. Nothing modest about it. 

Chris Locke and David Weinberger both had newsletters with real subscriber bases (Entropy Gradient Reversals and JOHO, respectively). I had a good-size list of email correspondents, and so did Rick Levine. So we put the word out, same day.

And it spread. Like: whoaTom Petzinger’s Cluetrain column The Wall Street Journal called the Manifesto “pretentious, strident and absolutely brilliant,” which threw gas on the fire. Instantly my email traffic jumped from dozens to hundreds a day, where it has remained ever since.

Interesting fact: the only reason I know Tom said that is because it was mentioned in a 2000 interview for Linux Journal that was too long to run at the time and remained buried like a time capsule until 2014, when it was exhumed and turned into this seven-part Cluetrain fifteenth anniversary piece. If you want to know lotsa shit about Cluetrain, including more of the origin story than I just told, that’s where to look.

There’s also deeper stuff in it. An example:

Part 2: The Red Pill Story

Linux Journal: What is “Business as Usual” and what’s killing it?

Doc Searls: Business as Usual is the Dilbert cartoon where too much of the world continues to work.

Linux Journal: The PHBs we love to hate.

Doc Searls: Yeah, but it’s more than that. It’s what gives all of us pointy hair.

Linux Journal: Which is?

Doc Searls: There’s a blue pill answer and a red one. The blue pill answer is that companies are clueless and need to start getting the clues from markets. The red pill answer is much deeper and more fundamental. I like The Matrix analogy because the movie’s premise is that reality is a screen saver for something much worse. In Cluetrain we’re saying that what we think about business and markets is actually driven by something much more deep and sinister than the absence of “best practices” or other management disciplines that CEOs neglect to apply. In fact, I’ve come to believe that the Matrix in the movie is a metaphor for marketing. It’s the pleasing but false reality where we live only to serve as batteries for business as usual.

Linux Journal: And that’s the red pill answer?

Doc Searls: That’s part of the answer. The deeper part is about the programming. Business as Usual depends on all of us agreeing to understand business in terms that make us slaves. We’re not conscious of this programming because it’s unconscious. The Industrial Age hasn’t ended, because it lives in our heads. Worse, a repurposed version of it drives much of what we call “the new economy.” We’re still in blue pill territory when we talk about markets as distant, abstract things. At the bottom of the rabbit hole is what markets really are — what we really are. When we go there we see what we forgot when Industry came along and substituted abstractions for reality.

Linux Journal: What are you saying isn’t real?

Doc Searls: Most of what we call “markets” are pure abstractions. We see markets as targets for advertising messages, as creatures like bulls and bears, as battlefields and sports arenas where companies fight like gladiators for territoriesspaces and shares of categories and slices of pies. We give the “market” label to geographies like New York and China, and to demographics like “Men 25-54.” We also give it to characterizations like “upscale suburban Volvo drivers.” Each of these abstractions actually expresses a metaphor that does our thinking and talking for us.

Linux Journal: Give us an example.

Doc Searls: The word “content.” It used to be an catch-all noun for anything that occupied a package. Now we apply it to anything you can distribute over the Net. Why is that? What happened here? Why did “content” suddenly get so big? As a writer, I used to write stories. Back when I was in radio, we ran programs. Bands used to make records. Now all those things are “content,” and every artist is a “content provider.” Like our craft is nothing more than a manufacturing job, and our goods are nothing more than cargo you strap to a skid and load onto trucks. Where did that word come from? Why did we choose it instead of something else, like “goods?”

Linux Journal: So, why?

Doc Searls: Because we conceive business in terms of shipping, even though we’re hardly aware of it. In linguistic terms, our business vocabulary is induced by the conceptual metaphor business is shipping. This has been going on for the better part of two hundred years, and it didn’t stop when the Net showed up. Suddenly here was this fabulous new medium, this shiny new shipping system for everything you can name that ever went through an old medium, plus lots of new stuff. Let’s re-conceive everything as content and carry on with Business as Usual, but with a great new way to move stuff from A to Z, including B to B, B to C and all the rest of it. Just like we did with Television, we can load our content into a channel and address it for delivery to end users through medium that serves as a distribution system or a value chain.

Linux Journal: So when you say somebody “adds value,” you’re using a shipping metaphor.

Doc Searls: Absolutely.

Linux Journal: What’s so bad about that?

Doc Searls: Nothing, as far as it goes. But it doesn’t go very far in a world built on relationships in which shipping stuff from X to X is more a technicality than a fundamental concept. In the industrial world, especially the commercial mass media part of that world, shipping was a very appropriate conceptual metaphor. It gave us a useful vocabulary for describing a world where a goods move great distances between a few producers and millions of consumers. The problem is, when you apply that metaphor in a networked world, with its networked markets, you make the mistake of treating in-your-face customers as distant consumers. They aren’t cattle. They fish-like gullets gulping down products that fall off the end of distribution’s conveyor belt. But we still conceive them that way, or we wouldn’t talk about “aggregating” and “capturing” them. We also wouldn’t talk about “moving content” through the Net as if it were just another medium, like TV, radio and newspapers.

Linux Journal: Is the Net really that different?

Doc Searls: It’s absolutely different because it’s infinitely more than a way to convey crap from producers to consumers. It’s the connected consciousness of the market itself. It makes markets smart by giving customers unprecedented powers, the most fundamental of which is each other — not just an immense choice among suppliers. Ir makes customers extraordinarily powerful, too. If they get pissed off, they can make life hell for the vendor by creating sites like Gapsucks.orgUntied.com, and Burnallgifs.org. One customer with a grudge can bring a hallowed brand to great embarrassment.

Linux Journal: So you’re saying there’s a limit to how far you can stretch the shipping metaphor, because shipping isn’t all that’s happening in the post-industrial world.

Doc Searls: Right.

Linux Journal: When does it end?

Doc Searls: When it fails. When it falls out of fashion. When it comes off as rude behavior, like belching in public or smoking in an elevator. The plain truth is that “content” insults the nature of what it labels. Expressions like “B2B” and ” B2C” — labels for “business-to-business” and “business-to-consumer” — insult the nature of business itself. Ask yourself, do you do business to people or with them? “B2B” might be a useful category, but it has a way of presupposing that all that happens in a B2B business is the moving of goods from B to B. The preposition “to” was chosen for us by the shipping metaphor, which conceives business as shipping, rather than as a relationship.

Linux Journal: But what about the fact that, from the vendor’s perspective, we really do ship a lot of stuff to a lot of customers who buy stuff from us on the Web?

Doc Searls: It’s a fact. But it’s not the only fact. Nor is it the defining fact. What we need to understand — in our bones — is that the Net is not just a few-to-many system. Sure, it supports shipping. Where would Amazon be without it? But shipping is not all that happens. Suddenly the first source and the final customer are one click apart. “Consumers” aren’t a zillion plankton any more. They have names, personal Web pages and email addresses. Supply and demand can talk to each other. They can engage, just like they did for ten thousand years in real markets. That’s why it’s now good business for savvy producers to talk with their markets at every level, and with real human voices, not the robotic “thank you for calling” voice from phone mail hell.

Linux Journal: In the book you make the point that the Industrial Age is only two hundred years old, while markets have been around for thousands of years — and that the Net brings us back into the kind of world we had when markets were tents gathered at crossroads. What’s relevant about those ancient markets today? Isn’t the modern world too radically different?

Doc Searls: It’s not radically different. Two things are relevant about ancient markets. First, they never went away. The real world is full of them. Every farmer’s market reminds us of them. Second, the Net multiplies the power of all their virtues. As a result, markets themselves are much more powerful and smart than ever before. Our business-is-shipping vocabulary forces us to describe a world that excludes or discounts countless new facts of market life. As producers we assume we retain the power to create and organize demand, just as we did a decade or more ago. That just isn’t the case — at least not by traditional means.

Linux Journal: We notice that you created quite a bit of demand for the Cluetrain book.

Doc Searls: Yeah, but we didn’t do it by mass media methods. We did it by hacker’s methods. We wrote something we thought was good and put it out for review. Lots of people agreed that it was good and word spread from there. One reason they agreed was because we spoke for the masses of people who don’t want to be treated like fish in a tank any more. Not for Business. Not for Marketing.

Linux Journal: It also isn’t just producers who are stuck in the shipping metaphor.

Doc Searls: Right. Exactly. As consumers we often still feel powerless in the face of producer insults — just like we did back when all we could do was call a “customer support” 800 number and plead our case to a minimum wage worker who was paid to get rid of us. We’re in a world now that’s very much like that ancient market, that mess of stalls and tents at crossroads in the third world. In markets like those, reputation is extremely important. If the weaver’s cloth falls apart in a few days, or if he’s too big a jerk to deal with, customers spread word in the market, and the effects follow quickly. It’s the same today on the Net.

Linux Journal: What else have we forgotten about ancient markets?

Doc Searls: Mostly their importance. As a social institution, the market was far more important than the church, the government, the military, you name it. For evidence, look at your own surname. There’s a good chance it labels an ancestor’s role in his market. Hunter, Potter, Shoemaker, Mason, Miller, Smith, Tanner, Mason, Cobbler, Fisher, Weaver, Brewer… those names were earned by craft. Those crafts’ contexts were in the marketplace. Mr. Baker baked bread. Mr. Tanner tanned hide, and probably sold leather goods that he made himself. Mrs. Weaver probably wove rugs or garments on a loom she and her family built themselves. Mr. Carpenter was in the furniture or the construction business. All those craftspeople knew their customers by name. The forces that make a market — supply and demand, vendors and customers, producers and consumers — were a handshake apart.

Linux Journal: And the Industrial Revolution put an end to all that.

Doc Searls: Yes. It turned farmers and bakers into die-makers and loom operators: interchangeable parts of corporate machines. As Chris Locke puts it, Industry invented the job. In the Cluetrain book, Rick Levine talks very movingly about craft, and what it really means. Today the word suggests an avocation: a hobby. But our ancestors made their livings with their crafts, and they sold what they made in real-world markets. Rick starts his chapter, “I’m a potter’s son.” And it shows. Rick grew up identifying himself, like his father, with his work, which is programming — even though he now runs a company. Programming is his pottery, his personal craft.

Linux Journal: You call the Industrial Revolution an “interruption.”

Doc Searls: Yes. Industry had few uses for our crafts, but lots of uses for our labor. The social and psychological disruption must have been huge. Many generations have passed since our ancestors left their farms and shops and went to work in factories, mines and offices. We’ve long forgotten the demeaning and dehumanizing changes that Industry caused to whole societies when it melted us down to fuel the labor pool.

The great irony of Cluetrain is that today—

—yet things are worse. You know that, of course, but to grok how fully bleak things have become, read Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism and/or Brett Frischmann and Evan Selinger’s Re-Engineering Humanity.

Yet I remain optimistic. Because Cluetrain was early by (it turns out) at least two decades. And mainstream media are starting to get the clues. I know that because last week I heard from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, AP and an HBO show. I normally hear from none of those (or maybe one, a time or two per year).

Something is in the water. It’s us, and the water is still the Internet.

Bonus link.

I came up with that law in the last millennium and it applied until Chevy discontinued the Cavalier in 2005. Now it should say, “You’re going to get whatever they’ve got.”

The difference is that every car rental agency in days of yore tended to get their cars from a single car maker, and now they don’t. Back then, if an agency’s relationship was with General Motors, which most of them seemed to be, the lot would have more of GM’s worst car than of any other kind of car. Now the car you rent truly is whatever. In the last year we’ve rented at least one Kia, Hyundai, Chevy, Nissan, Volkswagen, Ford and Toyota, and that’s just off the top of my head. (By far the best was a Chevy Impala. I actually loved it. So, naturally, it’s being discontinued.)

All of that, of course, applies only in the U.S. I know less about car rental verities in Europe, since I haven’t rented a car there since (let’s see…) 2011.

Anyway, when I looked up doc searls chevy cavalier to find whatever I’d written about my felicitous Fourth Law, the results included this, from my blog in 2004…

Five years later, the train pulls into Madison Avenue

ADJUSTING TO THE REALITY OF A CONSUMER-CONTROLLED MARKET, by Scott Donathon in Advertising Age. An excerpt:

Larry Light, global chief marketing officer at McDonald’s, once again publicly declared the death of the broadcast-centric ad model: “Mass marketing today is a mass mistake.” McDonald’s used to spend two-thirds of its ad budget on network prime time; that figure is now down to less than one-third.

General Motors’ Roger Adams, noting the automaker’s experimentation with less-intrusive forms of marketing, said, “The consumer wants to be in control, and we want to put them in control.” Echoed Saatchi & Saatchi chief Kevin Roberts, “The consumer now has absolute power.”

“It is not your goddamn brand,” he told marketers.

This consumer empowerment is at the heart of everything. End users are now in control of how, whether and where they consume information and entertainment. Whatever they don’t want to interact with is gone. That upends the intrusive model the advertising business has been sustained by for decades.

This is still fucked, of course. Advertising is one thing. Customer relationships are another.

“Consumer empowerment” is an oxymoron. Try telling McDonalds you want a hamburger that doesn’t taste like a horse hoof. Or try telling General Motors that nobody other than rental car agencies wants to buy a Chevy Cavalier or a Chevy Classic; or that it’s time, after 60 years of making crap fixtures and upholstery, to put an extra ten bucks (or whatever it costs) into trunk rugs that don’t seem like the company works to make them look and feel like shit. Feel that “absolute power?” Or like you’re yelling at the pyramids?

Real demand-side empowerment will come when it’s possible for any customer to have a meaningful — and truly valued — conversation with people in actual power on the supply side. And those conversations turn into relationships. And those relationships guide the company.

I’ll believe it when I see it.

Meanwhile the decline of old-fashioned brand advertising on network TV (which now amounts to a smaller percentage of all TV in any case) sounds more to me like budget rationalization than meaningful change where it counts.

Thanks to Terry for the pointer.

Three things about that.

First, my original blog (which ran from 1999 to 2007) is still up, thanks to Jake Savin and Dave Winer, at http://weblog.searls.com. (Adjust your pointers. It’ll help Google and Bing forget the old address.)

Second, I’ve been told by rental car people that the big American car makers actually got tired of hurting their brands by making shitty cars and scraping them off on rental agencies. So now the agencies mostly populate their lots surplus cars that don’t make it to dealers for various reasons. They also let their cars pile up 50k miles or more before selling them off. Also, the quality of cars in general is much higher than it used to be, and the experience of operating them is much more uniform—meaning blah in nearly identical ways.

Third, I’ve changed my mind on brand advertising since I wrote that. Two reasons. One is that brand advertising sponsors the media it runs on, which is a valuable thing. The other is that brand advertising really does make a brand familiar, which is transcendently valuable to the brand itself. There is no way personalized and/or behavioral advertising can do the same. Perhaps as much as $2trillion has been spent on tracking-based digital advertising, and not one brand known to the world has been made by it.

And one more thing: since we don’t commute, and we don’t need a car most of the time, we now favor renting cars over owning them. Much simpler and much cheaper. And the cars we rent tend to be nicer than the used cars we’ve owned and mostly driven into the ground. You never know what you’re going to get, but generally they’re not bad, and not our problem if something goes wrong with one, which almost never happens.

 

In The Big Short, investor Michael Burry says “One hallmark of mania is the rapid rise in the incidence and complexity of fraud.” (Burry shorted the mania- and fraud-filled subprime mortgage market and made a mint in the process.)

One would be equally smart to bet against the mania for the tracking-based form of advertising called adtech.

Since tracking people took off in the late ’00s, adtech has grown to become a four-dimensional shell game played by hundreds (or, if you include martech, thousands) of companies, none of which can see the whole mess, or can control the fraud, malware and other forms of bad acting that thrive in the midst of it.

And that’s on top of the main problem: tracking people without their knowledge, approval or a court order is just flat-out wrong. The fact that it can be done is no excuse. Nor is the monstrous sum of money made by it.

Without adtech, the EU’s GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) would never have happened. But the GDPR did happen, and as a result websites all over the world are suddenly posting notices about their changed privacy policies, use of cookies, and opt-in choices for “relevant” or “interest-based” (translation: tracking-based) advertising. Email lists are doing the same kinds of things.

“Sunrise day” for the GDPR is 25 May. That’s when the EU can start smacking fines on violators.

Simply put, your site or service is a violator if it extracts or processes personal data without personal permission. Real permission, that is. You know, where you specifically say “Hell yeah, I wanna be tracked everywhere.”

Of course what I just said greatly simplifies what the GDPR actually utters, in bureaucratic legalese. The GDPR is also full of loopholes only snakes can thread; but the spirit of the law is clear, and the snakes will be easy to shame, even if they don’t get fined. (And legitimate interest—an actual loophole in the GDPR, may prove hard to claim.)

Toward the aftermath, the main question is What will be left of advertising—and what it supports—after the adtech bubble pops?

Answers require knowing the differences between advertising and adtech, which I liken to wheat and chaff.

First, advertising:

    1. Advertising isn’t personal, and doesn’t have to be. In fact, knowing it’s not personal is an advantage for advertisers. Consumers don’t wonder what the hell an ad is doing where it is, who put it there, or why.
    2. Advertising makes brands. Nearly all the brands you know were burned into your brain by advertising. In fact the term branding was borrowed by advertising from the cattle business. (Specifically by Procter and Gamble in the early 1930s.)
    3. Advertising carries an economic signal. Meaning that it shows a company can afford to advertise. Tracking-based advertising can’t do that. (For more on this, read Don Marti, starting here.)
    4. Advertising sponsors media, and those paid by media. All the big pro sports salaries are paid by advertising that sponsors game broadcasts. For lack of sponsorship, media—especially publishers—are hurting. @WaltMossberg learned why on a conference stage when an ad agency guy said the agency’s ads wouldn’t sponsor Walt’s new publication, recode. Walt: “I asked him if that meant he’d be placing ads on our fledgling site. He said yes, he’d do that for a little while. And then, after the cookies he placed on Recode helped him to track our desirable audience around the web, his agency would begin removing the ads and placing them on cheaper sites our readers also happened to visit. In other words, our quality journalism was, to him, nothing more than a lead generator for target-rich readers, and would ultimately benefit sites that might care less about quality.” With friends like that, who needs enemies?

Second, Adtech:

    1. Adtech is built to undermine the brand value of all the media it uses, because it cares about eyeballs more than media, and it causes negative associations with brands. Consider this: perhaps a $trillion or more has been spent on adtech, and not one brand known to the world has been made by it. (Bob Hoffman, aka the Ad Contrarian, is required reading on this.)
    2. Adtech wants to be personal. That’s why it’s tracking-based. Though its enthusiasts call it “interest-based,” “relevant” and other harmless-sounding euphemisms, it relies on tracking people. In fact it can’t exist without tracking people. (Note: while all adtech is programmatic, not all programmatic advertising is adtech. In other words, programmatic advertising doesn’t have to be based on tracking people. Same goes for interactive. Programmatic and interactive advertising will both survive the adtech crash.)
    3. Adtech spies on people and violates their privacy. By design. Never mind that you and your browser or app are anonymized. The ads are still for your eyeballs, and correlations can be made.
    4. Adtech is full of fraud and a vector for malware. @ACFou is required reading on this.
    5. Adtech incentivizes publications to prioritize “content generation” over journalism. More here and here.
    6. Intermediators take most of what’s spent on adtech. Bob Hoffman does a great job showing how as little as 3¢ of a dollar spent on adtech actually makes an “impression. The most generous number I’ve seen is 12¢. (When I was in the ad agency business, back in the last millennium, clients complained about our 15% take. Media our clients bought got 85%.)
    7. Adtech gives fake news a business model, because fake news is easier to produce than the real kind, and adtech will pay anybody a bounty for hauling in eyeballs.
    8. Adtech incentivizes hate speech and tribalism by giving both—and the platforms that host them—a business model too.
    9. Adtech relies on misdirection. See, adtech looks like advertising, and is called advertising; but it’s really direct marketing, which is descended from junk mail and a cousin of spam. Because of that misdirection, brands think they’re placing ads in media, while the systems they hire are actually chasing eyeballs to anywhere. (Pro tip: if somebody says every ad needs to “perform,” or that the purpose of advertising is “to get the right message to the right person at the right time,” they’re actually talking about direct marketing, not advertising. For more on this, read Rethinking John Wanamaker.)
    10. Compared to advertising, adtech is ugly. Look up best ads of all time. One of the top results is for the American Advertising Awards. The latest winners they’ve posted are the Best in Show for 2016. Tops there is an Allstate “Interactive/Online” ad pranking a couple at a ball game. Over-exposure of their lives online leads that well-branded “Mayhem” guy to invade and trash their house. In other words, it’s a brand ad about online surveillance.
    11. Adtech has caused the largest boycott in human history. By more than a year ago, 1.7+ billion human beings were already blocking ads online.

To get a sense of what will be left of adtech after GDPR Sunrise Day, start by reading a pair of articles in AdExchanger by @JamesHercher. The first reports on the Transparency and Consent Framework published by IAB Europe. The second reports on how Google is pretty much ignoring that framework and going direct with their own way of obtaining consent to tracking:

Google’s and other consent-gathering solutions are basically a series of pop-up notifications that provide a mechanism for publishers to provide clear disclosure and consent in accordance with data regulations.

Specifically,

The Google consent interface greets site visitors with a request to use data to tailor advertising, with equally prominent “no” and “yes” buttons. If a reader declines to be tracked, he or she sees a notice saying the ads will be less relevant and asking to “agree” or go back to the previous page. According to a source, one research study on this type of opt-out mechanism led to opt-out rates of more than 70%.

Meaning only 30% of site visitors will consent to being tracked. So, say goodbye to 70% of adtech’s eyeball targets right there.

Google’s consent gathering system, dubbed “Funding Choices,” also screws most of the hundreds of other adtech intermediaries fighting for a hunk of what’s left of their market. Writes James, “It restricts the number of supply chain partners a publisher can share consent with to just 12 vendors, sources with knowledge of the product tell AdExchanger.”

And that’s not all:

Last week, Google alerted advertisers it would sharply limit use of the DoubleClick advertising ID, which brands and agencies used to pull log files from DoubleClick so campaigns could be cohesively measured across other ad servers, incentivizing buyers to consolidate spend on the Google stack.

Google also raised eyebrows last month with a new policy insisting that all DFP publishers grant it status as a data controller, giving Google the right to collect and use site data, whereas other online tech companies – mere data processors – can only receive limited data assigned to them by the publisher, i.e., the data controller.

This is also Google’s way of scraping off GDPR liability on publishers.

Publishers and adtech intermediaries can attempt to avoid Google by using Consent Management Platforms (CMPs), a new category of intermediary defined and described by IAB Europe’s Consent Management Framework. Writes James,

The IAB Europe and and IAB Tech Lab framework includes a list of registered vendors that publishers can pass consent to for data-driven advertising. The tech companies pay a one-time fee between $1,000 and $2,000 to join the vendor list, according to executives from three participating companies…Although now that the framework is live, the barriers to adoption are painfully real as well.

The CMP category is pretty bare at the moment, and it may be greeted with suspicion by some publishers.There are eight initial CMPs: two publisher tech companies with roots in ad-blocker solutions, Sourcepoint and Admiral, as well as the ad tech companies Quantcast and Conversant and a few blockchain-based advertising startups…

Digital Content Next, a trade group representing online news publishers, is advising publishers to reject the framework, which CEO Jason Kint said “doesn’t meet the letter or spirit of GDPR.” Only two publishers have publicly adopted the Consent and Transparency Framework, but they’re heavy hitters with blue-chip value in the market: Axel Springer, Europe’s largest digital media company, and the 180-year-old Schibsted Media, a respected newspaper publisher in Sweden and Norway.

In other words, good luck with that.

[Later, 26 May…] Well, Google caved on this one, so apparently Google is coming to IAB Europe’s table.

[And on 30 May…] Axel Springer is also going its own way.

One big upside for IAB Europe is that its Framework contains open source code and an SDK. For a full unpacking of what’s there see the Consent String and Vendor List Format: Transparency & Consent Framework on GitHub and IAB Europe’s own FAQ. More about this shortly.

Meanwhile, the adtech business surely knows the sky is falling. The main question is how far.

One possibility is 95% of the way to zero. That outcome is suggested by results published in PageFair last October by Dr. Johnny Ryan (@JohnnyRyan) there. Here’s the most revealing graphic in the bunch:

Note that this wasn’t a survey of the general population. It was a survey of ad industry people: “300+ publishers, adtech, brands, and various others…” Pause for a moment and look at that chart again. Nearly all those proffesionals in the business would not accept what their businesses do to other human beings.

“However,” Johnny adds, “almost a third believe that users will consent if forced to do so by ‘tracking walls’, that deny access to a website unless a visitor agrees to be tracked. Tracking walls, however, are prohibited under Article 7 of the GDPR…”

Pretty cynical, no?

The good news for both advertising and publishing is that neither needs adtech. What’s more, people can signal what they want out of the sites they visit—and from the whole marketplace. In fact the Internet itself was designed for exactly that. The GDPR just made the market a lot more willing to start hearing clues from customers that have been laying in plain sight for almost twenty years.

The first clues that fully matter are the ones we—the individuals they’ve been calling “users,” will deliver. Look for details on that in another post.

Meanwhile::::

Pro tip #1: don’t bet against Google, except maybe in the short term, when sunrise will darken the whole adtech business.

Instead, bet against companies that stake their lives on tracking people, and doing that without the clear and explicit consent of the tracked. That’s most of the adtech “ecosystem” not called Google or Facebook.

Google can say it already has consent, and that it is also has a legitimate interest (one of the six “lawful bases” for tracking) in the personal data it harvests from us.

Google can also live without the tracking. Most of its income comes from AdWords—its search advertising business—which is far more guided by what visitors are searching for than by whatever Google knows about those visitors.

Google is also also relatively trusted, as tech companies go. Its parent, Alphabet, is also increasingly diversified. Facebook, on the other hand, does stake its life on tracking people. (I say more about Facebook’s odds here.)

Pro tip #2: do bet on any business working for customers rather than sellers. Because signals of personal intent will produce many more positive outcomes in the digital marketplace than surveillance-fed guesswork by sellers ever could, even with the most advanced AI behind it.

For more on how that will work, read The Intention Economy: When Customers Take Charge. Six years after Harvard Business Review Press published that book, what it says will start to come true. Thank you, GDPR.

Pro tip #3: do bet on developers building tools that give each of us scale in dealing with the world’s companies and governments, because those are the tools businesses working for customers will rely on to scale up their successes as well.

What it comes down to is the need for better signaling between customers and companies than can ever be possible in today’s doomed tracking-fed guesswork system. (All the AI and ML in the world won’t be worth much if the whole point of it is to sell us shit.)

Think about what customers and companies want and need about each other: interests, intentions, competencies, locations, availabilities, reputations—and boundaries.

When customers can operate both privately and independently, we’ll get far better markets than today’s ethically bankrupt advertising and marketing system could ever give us.

Pro tip #4: do bet on publishers getting back to what worked since forever offline and hardly got a chance online: plain old brand advertising that carries both an economic and a creative signal, and actually sponsors the publication rather than using the publication as a way to gather eyeballs that can be advertised at anywhere. The oeuvres of Don Marti (@dmarti) and Bob Hoffman (the @AdContrarian) are thick with good advice about this. I’ve also written about it extensively in the list compiled at People vs. Adtech. Some samples, going back through time:

  1. An easy fix for a broken advertising system (12 October 2017 in Medium and in my blog)
  2. Without aligning incentives, we can’t kill fake news or save journalism (15 September 2017 in Medium)
  3. Let’s get some things straight about publishing and advertising (9 September 2017 and the same day in Medium)
  4. Good news for publishers and advertisers fearing the GDPR (3 September 2017 in ProjectVRM and 7 October in Medium).
  5. Markets are about more than marketing (2 September 2017 in Medium).
  6. Publishers’ and advertisers’ rights end at a browser’s front door (17 June 2017 in Medium). It updates one of the 2015 blog posts below.
  7. How to plug the publishing revenue drain (9 June 2017 in Medium). It expands on the opening (#publishing) section of my Daily Tab for that date.
  8. How True Advertising Can Save Journalism From Drowning in a Sea of Content (22 January 2017 in Medium and 26 January 2017 in my blog.)It’s People vs. Advertising, not Publishers vs. Adblockers (26 August 2016 in ProjectVRM and 27 August 2016 in Medium)
  9. Why #NoStalking is a good deal for publishers (11 May 2016, and in Medium)
  10. How customers can debug business with one line of code (19 April 2016 in ProjectVRM and in Medium)
  11. An invitation to settle matters with @Forbes, @Wired and other publishers (15 April 2016 and in Medium)
  12. TV Viewers to Madison Avenue: Please quit driving drunk on digital (14 Aprl 2016, and in Medium)
  13. The End of Internet Advertising as We’ve Known It(11 December 2015 in MIT Technology Review)
  14. Ad Blockers and the Next Chapter of the Internet (5 November in Harvard Business Review)
  15. How #adblocking matures from #NoAds to #SafeAds (22 October 2015)
  16. Helping publishers and advertisers move past the ad blockade (11 October 2015 on the ProjectVRM blog)
  17. Beyond ad blocking — the biggest boycott in human history (28 Septemper 2015)
  18. A way to peace in the adblock war (21 September 2015, on the ProjectVRM blog)
  19. How adtech, not ad blocking, breaks the social contract (23 September 2015)
  20. If marketing listened to markets, they’d hear what ad blocking is telling them (8 September 2015)
  21. Apple’s content blocking is chemo for the cancer of adtech (26 August 2015)
  22. Separating advertising’s wheat and chaff (12 August 2015, and on 2 July 2016 in an updated version in Medium)
  23. Thoughts on tracking based advertising (18 February 2015)
  24. On marketing’s terminal addiction to data fracking and bad guesswork (10 January 2015)
  25. Why to avoid advertising as a business model (25 June 2014, re-running Open Letter to Meg Whitman, which ran on 15 October 2000 in my old blog)
  26. What the ad biz needs is to exorcize direct marketing (6 October 2013)
  27. Bringing manners to marketing (12 January 2013 in Customer Commons)
  28. What could/should advertising look like in 2020, and what do we need to do now for this future?(Wharton’s Future of Advertising project, 13 November 2012)
  29. An olive branch to advertising (12 September 2012, on the ProjectVRM blog)

I expect, once the GDPR gets enforced, I can start writing about People + Publishing and even People + Advertising. (I have long histories in both publishing and advertising, by the way. So all of this is close to home.)

Meanwhile, you can get a jump on the GDPR by blocking third party cookies in your browsers, which will stop most of today’s tracking by adtech. Customer Commons explains how.

Power of the People is a great grabber of a headline, at least for me. But it’s a pitch for a report that requires filling out the form here on the right:

You see a lot of these: invitations to put one’s digital ass on mailing list, just to get a report that should have been public in the first place, but isn’t so personal data can be harvested and sold or given away to God knows who.

And you do more than just “agree to join” a mailing list. You are now what marketers call a “qualified lead” for countless other parties you’re sure to be hearing from.

And how can you be sure? Read the privacy policy,. This one (for Viantinc.com) begins,

If you choose to submit content to any public area of our websites or services, your content will be considered “public” and will be accessible by anyone, including us, and will not be subject to the privacy protections set forth in this Privacy Policy unless otherwise required by law. We encourage you to exercise caution when making decisions about what information you disclose in such public areas.

Is the form above one of those “public areas”? Of course. What wouldn’t be? And are they are not discouraging caution by requiring you to fill out all the personal data fields marked with a *? You betcha. See here:

III. How we use and share your information

A. To deliver services

In order to facilitate our delivery of advertising, analytics and other services, we may use and/or share the information we collect, including interest-based segments and user interest profiles containing demographic information, location information, gender, age, interest information and information about your computer, device, or group of devices, including your IP address, with our affiliates and third parties, such as our service providers, data processors, business partners and other third parties.

B. With third party clients and partners

Our online advertising services are used by advertisers, websites, applications and other companies providing online or internet connected advertising services. We may share information, including the information described in section III.A. above, with our clients and partners to enable them to deliver or facilitate the delivery of online advertising. We strive to ensure that these parties act in accordance with applicable law and industry standards, but we do not have control over these third parties. When you opt-out of our services, we stop sharing your interest-based data with these third parties. Click here for more information on opting out.

No need to bother opting out, by the way, because there’s this loophole too:

D. To complete a merger or sale of assets

If we sell all or part of our business or make a sale or transfer of our assets or are otherwise involved in a merger or transfer of all or a material part of our business, or participate in any other similar business combination (including, without limitation, in connection with any bankruptcy or similar proceeding), we may transfer all or part of our data to the party or parties involved in the transaction as part of that transaction. You acknowledge that such transfers may occur, and that we and any purchaser of our business or assets may continue to collect, use and disclose your information in compliance with this Privacy Policy.

Okay, let’s be fair: this is boilerplate. Every marketing company—hell, every company period—puts jive like this in their privacy policies.

And Viant isn’t one of marketing’s bad guys. Or at least that’s not how they see themselves. They do mean well, kinda, if you forget they see no alternative to tracking people.

If you want to see what’s in that report without leaking your ID info to the world, the short cut is New survey by people-based marketer Viant promotes marketing to identified users in @Martech_Today.

What you’ll see there is a company trying to be good to users in a world where those users have no more power than marketers give them. And giving marketers that ability is what Viant does.

Curious… will Viant’s business persist after the GDPR trains heavy ordnance on it?

See, the GDPR  forbids gathering personal data about an EU citizen without that person’s clear permission—no matter where that citizen goes in the digital world, meaning to any site or service anywhere. It arrives in full force, with fines of up to 4% of global revenues in the prior fiscal year, on 25 May of this year: about three months from now.

In case you’ve missed it, I’m not idle here.

To help give individuals fresh GDPR-fortified leverage, and to save the asses of companies like Viant (which probably has lawyers working overtime on GDPR compliance), I’m working with Customer Commons (on the board of which I serve) on terms individuals can proffer and companies can agree to, giving them a form of protection, and agreeable companies a path toward GDPR compliance. And companies should like to agree, because those terms will align everyone’s interests from the start.

I’m also working with Linux Journal (where I’ve recently been elevated to editor-in-chief) to make it one of the first publishers to agree to friendly terms its readers proffer. That’s why I posted Every User a Neo there. Other metaphors: turning everyone on the Net into an Archimedes, with levers to move the world, and turning the whole marketplace in to a Marvel-like universe where all of us are enhanced.

If you want to help with any of that, talk to me.

 

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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doc036cThe NYTimes says the Mandarins of language are demoting the Internet to a common noun. It is to be just “internet” from now on. Reasons:

Thomas Kent, The A.P.’s standards editor, said the change mirrored the way the word was used in dictionaries, newspapers, tech publications and everyday life.

In our view, it’s become wholly generic, like ‘electricity or the ‘telephone,’ ” he said. “It was never trademarked. It’s not based on any proper noun. The best reason for capitalizing it in the past may have been that the word was new. But at one point, I’ve heard, ‘phonograph’ was capitalized.”

But we never called electricity “the Electricity.” And “the telephone” referred to a single thing of which there billions of individual examples.

What was it about “the Internet” that made us want to capitalize it in the first place? Is usage alone reason enough to stop respecting that?

Some of my tech friends say the “Internet” we’ve had for all these years is just one prototype: the first and best-known of many other possible ones.

All due respect, but: bah.

There is only one Internet just like there is only one Universe. There are other examples of neither.

Formalizing the lower-case “internet,” for whatever reason, dismisses what’s transcendent and singular about the Internet we have: a whole that is more, and other, than a sum of parts.

I know it looks like the Net is devolving into many separate systems, isolated and silo’d to some degree. We see that with messaging, for example. Hundreds of different ones, most of them incompatible, on purpose. We have specialized mobile systems that provide variously open vs. sphinctered access (such as T-Mobile’s “binge” allowance for some content sources but not others), zero-rated not-quite-internets (such as Facebook’s Free Basics) and countries such as China, where many domains and uses are locked out.

Some questions…

Would we enjoy a common network by any name today if the Internet had been lower-case from the start?

Would makers or operators of any of the parts that comprise the Internet’s whole feel any fealty to what at least ought to be the common properties of that whole? Or would they have made sure that their parts only got along, at most, with partners’ parts? Would the first considerations by those operators not have been billing and tariffs agreed to by national regulators?

Hell, would the four of us have written The Cluetrain Manifesto? Would David Weinberger and I have written World of Ends or New Clues if the Internet had lacked upper-case qualities?

Would the world experience absent distance and cost across a The Giant Zero in its midst were it not for the Internet’s founding design, which left out billing proprietary routing on purpose?

Would we have anything resembling the Internet of today if designing and building it had been left up to phone and cable companies? Or to governments (even respecting the roles government activities did play in creating the Net we do have)?

I think the answer to all of those would be no.

In The Compuserve of Things, Phil Windley begins, “On the Net today we face a choice between freedom and captivity, independence and dependence. How we build the Internet of Things has far-reaching consequences for the humans who will use—or be used by—it. Will we push forward, connecting things using forests of silos that are reminiscent the online services of the 1980’s, or will we learn the lessons of the Internet and build a true Internet of Things?”

Would he, or anybody, ask such questions, or aspire to such purposes, were it not for the respect many of us pay to the upper-cased-ness of “the Internet?”

How does demoting Internet from proper to common noun not risk (or perhaps even assure) its continued devolution to a collection of closed and isolated parts that lack properties (e.g. openness and commonality) possessed only by the whole?

I don’t know. But I think these kinds of questions are important to ask, now that the keepers of usage standards have demoted what the Net’s creators made — and ignore why they made it.

If you care at all about this, please dig Archive.org‘s Locking the Web open: a Call for a Distributed Web, Brewster Kahle’s post by the same title, covering more ground, and the Decentralized Web Summit, taking place on June 8-9. (I’ll be there in spirit. Alas, I have other commitments on the East Coast.)

While The Cluetrain Manifesto is best known for its 95 theses (especially its first, “Markets are conversations”), the clue that matters most is this one, which runs above the whole list:

we are not seats or eyeballs or end users or consumers.
we are human beings and our reach exceeds your grasp. deal with it.

 

That was the first clue we wrote. And by “we” I mean Christopher Locke (aka RageBoy), who sent it to the other three authors in early 1999. At that time we were barely focused on what we wanted to do, other than to put something up on the Web.

But that ur-clue, addressed to marketers on behalf of markets, energized and focused everything we wrote on Cluetrain site, and then in the book.

But it failed. Are you hearing me, folks? It failed. For a decade and a half, Cluetrain succeeded as a book and as a meme, but it failed to make its founding clue true. Deal with this:

our reach did not exceed marketers’ grasp.
instead, marketers grasped more than ever, starting with our privacy.

 

As heedless of manners as a mosh pit on Ecstasy, the online advertising business went nuts with surveillance, planting cookies and beacons in people’s browsers and tracking them like animals, harvesting and shipping off personal data to who-knows-where, all for the dubious purpose of spamming them with advertising based on algorithmic guesswork about what people might want to buy. All this in spite of two simple facts:

  1. Nobody comes to a webstite for advertising. At most they just tolerate it.
  2. Most of the time people aren’t buying anything. That’s why people don’t click on ads at a rate that rounds to 100%.

For years we played nice, quietly purging cookies from our browsers’ innards, or just putting up with the abuse. For few years (2007-2012, specifically — see below), we put some hope in Do Not Track.

Then, when that failed (most dramatically in 2012), we started blocking ads, en masse:

adblocker-vs-dnt

More than 200 million of us are blocking ads now, and (in many or most cases) blocking tracking as well. This is great news for Cluetrain fans, because:::

blocking ads and tracking
are great ways to deal with marketers’ grasp.

 

Depending on marketers to stop bad acting on their own is putting responsibility in the wrong place. It’s our job to stop them. Besides, asking the online advertising business to reform is like asking Versailles to start the French Revolution. Writes Jessica Davies,

I was recently in front of about 400 advertisers talking to them about fraud, and they all nodded their heads and listened, but there was apathy. Behind the scenes I ask them what they’re doing about it and some of them shrug their shoulders…

The funniest conversation I’ve ever had with an agency was when I told them a campaign they had run was 90 percent fraudulent, and their reply was: ‘Oh, I know, but it really performed well. The click-through rates were phenomenal.’ I re-emphasized that those click-throughs were fraudulent; the ads weren’t seen by humans, and their response was ‘The client is happy. We’re renewing the contract.’

Here’s a fact about those clients: They don’t call themselves advertisers, and they don’t have to advertise. To them advertising is overhead. A discretionary expense. They can spend it other ways. I know this, because I was a partner in one of Silicon Valley’s top advertising agencies for the better part of two decades. And, because of that, I also know how well old-fashioned Madison Avenue advertising — the uncomplicated kind not based on tracking — can actually work, while sponsoring publishers and broadcasters of all kinds.

That kind of advertising, aka #SafeAds, is the best hope the online advertising industry and its dependents in publishing and broadcasting actually have — especially if future ad and tracking blockers permit those through while saying #NoAds to the rest.

Now let’s go back to dealing. What else, besides #SafeAds, can we get with leverage from blocking ads and tracking? Clue: it has to be good for both sides. That’s how business works at its best. Both sides win. We don’t need to reach for their privates just because they grasped our privacy.

How about this deal: better signaling between customers and companies than marketing alone can provide— especially when marketing today is mostly about grabbing for “net new” and flushing customers into “the pipeline” through “the funnel.”

We can help companies (and ourselves) a lot more if we have standard ways to connect with sales, service and product and service development functions — and they with us. Then “Markets are conversations” will finally mean what it’s failed to mean for the last sixteen years.

Bonus link: VRM development projects, many of which are already working on this.

 

I’ll be on a webinar this morning talking with folks about The Intention Economy and the Rise in Customer Power. That link goes to my recent post about it on the blog of Modria, the VRM company hosting the event.

It’s at 9:30am Pacific time. Read more about it and register to attend here. There it also says “As a bonus, all registered attendees will receive a free copy of Doc’s latest book, The Intention Economy: How Customers Are Taking Charge in either printed or Kindle format.”

See/hear you there/then.

 

 

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reader-publisher-advertiser-safeadsTake a look at any ad, for anything, online.

Do you know whether or not it’s meant for you personally — meaning that you’ve been tracked somehow, and that tracking has been used to aim the ad at you? Chances are you don’t, and that’s a problem.

Sometimes the tracking is obvious, especially with retargeted ads. (Those are the shoes or hats or fishing poles that follow you to sites B, C and D after you looked at something like them at site A.) But most of the time it’s not.

Being followed around the Web is not among the things most of us want when we visit a website. Nor is it what we expect from most advertising.

Yet much of today’s advertising online comes with privacy-invading tracking files that slows page loads, drives up data use on our mobile devices and sometimes carries a bonus payload of malware.

So we block ads — in droves so large that ad blocking now comprises the largest boycott of anything in human history.

Reduced to a hashtag, what we say with our ad blockers is #NoAds. But even AdBlock Plus (the top ad blocker and the most popular* add-on overall), whitelists what its community calls “acceptable ads” by default.

So there is some market acceptance, if not demand, for some advertising. Specifically, Adblock Plus’s Acceptable Ads Manifesto whitelists ads that:

  1. are not annoying.
  2. do not disrupt or distort the page content we’re trying to read.
  3. are transparent with us about being an ad.
  4. are effective without shouting at us.
  5. are appropriate to the site that we are on.

Those are all fine, but none of them yet draws a line between what you, or anybody, knows is safe, and what isn’t.

In Separating advertising’s wheat and chaff, I draw that line between ads aimed at populations and ads aimed at you (because you’re being tracked). Here’s one way of illustrating the difference:

wheat-chaff-division2

As Don Marti puts it in Targeted Advertising Considered Harmful, #SafeAds carry a signal that personally targeted ads do not. For one thing, they don’t carry the burden of requiring that every ad perform in some way, preferably with an action by you. He explains,

Richard E. Kihlstrom and Michael H. Riordan explained the signaling logic behind advertising in a 1984 paper.

When a firm signals by advertising, it demonstrates to consumers that its production costs and the demand for its product are such that advertising costs can be recovered. In order for advertising to be an effective signal, high-quality firms must be able to recover advertising costs while low-quality firms cannot.

Kevin Simler writes, in Ads Don’t Work that Way,

Knowing (or sensing) how much money a company has thrown down for an ad campaign helps consumers distinguish between big, stable companies and smaller, struggling ones, or between products with a lot of internal support (from their parent companies) and products without such support. And this, in turn, gives the consumer confidence that the product is likely to be around for a while and to be well-supported. This is critical for complex products like software, electronics, and cars, which require ongoing support and maintenance, as well as for anything that requires a big ecosystem (e.g. Xbox).

In my wheat & chaff post, I said,

Let’s fix the problem ourselves, by working with the browser and ad and tracking blockers to create simple means for labeling the wheat and restricting our advertising diet to it.

So this is my concrete suggestion: label every ad not aimed by tracking with the hashtag “#SafeAd.”

It shouldn’t be hard. The adtech industry has AdChoices, a complicated program that supposedly puts you “in control of your Internet experience with interest-based advertising—ads that are intended for you, based on what you do online.”

Credit where due: at least it shows that advertisers are willing to label their ads. A #SafeAd hashtag (and/or some simple code that speaks to ad and tracking blockers) would do the same thing, with less overhead, with a nice clear signal that users can appreciate.

#SafeAds is the only trail I know beyond the pure-prophylaxis #NoAds signal that ad blocking sends to publishers and advertisers today. So let’s blaze it.

* That’s for Firefox. I can’t find an equivalent list for other browsers. Help with that is welcome.

dsbabyI was born sixty-eight years ago today, in Jersey City‘s Christ Hospital, at around eleven in the morning. I would have been born earlier, but the hospital staff tied Mom’s legs together so I wouldn’t come out before the doctor showed up. You know Poe’s story, The Premature Burial? Mine was like that, only going the other way: a Postmature Birth. It wasn’t fun.

When they finally took the straps off Mom, I was already there, face-first, with my head bent back so far that, when the doctor yanked me out with a forceps, the back of my C5 vertebra was flattened. The bruise that rose on the back of my neck was nearly the size of my head.

Mom wasn’t happy either, but you didn’t complain in those days. Whatever the shitty new status quo was, it beat the hell out of the Depression and the War. And, to be fair, the postwar Baby Boom was also at high ebb, stripping the gears of all kinds of systems: medicine, government, transport, education, whatever.

So we built a new postwar industrial system, and watched it all happen on TV.

All my life I’ve watched that system closely and looked for ways to have fun with it, to break it, and to fix it. I didn’t realize at first that fixing it was what I was here for, but eventually it dawned on me.

Specifically, it happened at Esther Dyson’s PC Forum, in March 1994. John Gage showed off the World Wide Web, projecting Mosaic (the Ur graphical browser) from a flaky Macintosh Duo. I already knew about the Web, but seeing it at work, all over the world, blew my mind and changed my life.

What I saw in the future were near-infinite computing and communications powers on our laps and in our pockets, projecting our very lives into a second digital world that would coexist with our physical one. In this second world we would all be a functional distance apart of zero, at a cost that leaned toward the same. The digital genie had been loosed from the physical bottle, and both would rule our species henceforth.

The question What am I doing here? — which had haunted me all my life, now had an answer. I had to help the world make the most of its new situation. “Your choice is always to help or to hurt,” Mom used to say. I wanted to help.

That’s why I started writing for Linux Journal in 1996, involving myself in the free software and open source movements. It’s why I co-wrote The Cluetrain Manifesto in 1999. And it’s why I started ProjectVRM in 2006.

The simple idea with VRM (vendor relationship management) is to fix business from the customer side, by providing tools that make each of us both independent of businesses yet better able to engage with them. The mass market industrial model is to give businesses “scale”: the ability deliver the same products and services to countless customers. In the VRM model, the customer gets scale too, across all the businesses she deals with. (Imagine, for example, being able to change your address for every business you deal with, in one move, using a tool of your own. Or to set your own privacy boundaries, or terms of engagement.)

It’s a long-term ambition, and success may take longer than it does for me to complete my tour of the planet. But there are now lots of developers on the case, around the world.

I have absolute faith that fully empowered customers will prove good for business. Or, in other words, that free customers prove more valuable — to themselves and to business — than captive ones.

Making that happen is what I’m doing here. Sure, I do lots of other stuff too. But that’s the main thing.

Bonus link: The Final Demographic.

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