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I just unsubscribed from Staples mailings, and got this:


WTF? Is the request traveling by boat somewhere? Does it need to be aged before it works?

We have computers now. We’re on the Internet. There is no reason why unsubscribing from anything should take longer than now.

Staples is not alone at this, by the way.. Many unsubscriptions are followed by promises to complete over some number of days. I don’t know why companies do that, but it smacks of marketing BS.

If you’re listening, Staples, give me a good reason. I am curious.

For what it’s worth, I unsubscribed because approximately all the mailings I get from Staples (and everybody else) are uninteresting to me. Un-cluttering my mailbox is far more valuable than getting bargains (e.g. “$220 off select laptops and desktops” and “UNBEATABLE Ink & Toner Prices”) I’ll never bother with.



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:


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.







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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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:


Some charts:





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:


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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[Update: 29 June 2016 — Forbes has backed off, but Wired hasn’t yet. So the invitation stands. So does a path forward.]


A few days ago, I followed this link at Digg to Forbes, where I was met by the message above.

Problem is, I don’t have an ad blocker installed. I have tracking protection. Three kinds, in fact. (Let me explain: my work requires experimenting with many different privacy protection tools. It just happens that right now I have these three working in Firefox, my default browser.) Here is what Ghostery sees:


Here is what Disconnect sees:


And here is what Privacy Badger sees:


So I’m guessing what blocked the ad was one of the two red sliders in Privacy Badger. I slid the b.scorecardresearch.com one to yellow and it seemed to load the desired page without a problem, but I don’t know if Forbes would have let me though anyway or not . I dunno how to tell what did what.

Then today I ran into the same thing at Wired, looking for some of my own words there. Here’s the roadblock Wired put in my path:


Again, I’m not blocking ads. I’m just trying to block tracking. I also just checked, and Disconnect, Ghostery and Privacy Badger are each doing nothing, far as I can tell, to block anything on Wired. They’re all green-lighting everything. That means they’ve already whitelisted it. Yet Wired thinks I’m blocking ads.

As it happens I‘ve been a Wired subscriber for the duration. But, when I log in (by clicking on the link above), it takes me to a billing page. There it wants to charge me $3.99 every four weeks, which comes to about $52 a year, on top of what I’m already paying for the print publication, which (I would hope) ought to give me access to the same thing online. Very confusing.

Thing is, I don’t mind ads. I even like some of them. Back in the last millennium, I was a partner in Hodskins Simone & Searls, one of Silicon Valley’s top advertising agencies.

And, like most readers, I want publishers to make money.

But I also believe publishers don’t need to do that by tracking me in ways I neither like nor approve. They can give me ads on their pages that are perfectly safe, just like the ads that have funded print magazines for the duration. Those were always respectful of people’s privacy, and don’t rely on a herd of third parties following people around while they go about their lives. They were also more valuable, because they sent clear creative and economic signals, both uncompromised by suspicions of surveillance and other forms of bad acting.

Here is what Joshua Bernstein (@JoshuaBernstein), sourcing Wired‘s Mark McClusky (@markmcc), reported in Bloomberg about what the magazine is trying to do here:

More than 1 in 5 people who visit Wired Magazine’s website use ad-blocking software. Starting in the next few weeks, the magazine will give those readers a choice: stop blocking ads, pay to look at a version of the site that is unsullied by advertisements, or go away…

Wired plans to charge $3.99 for four weeks of ad-free access to its website. In many places where ads appear, the site will simply feature more articles, said Mark McClusky, the magazine’s head of product and business development. The portion of his readership that uses ad blockers are likely to be receptive to a discussion about their responsibility to support the businesses they rely on for information online, McClusky said.

There are legitimate reasons that people use ad blockers, according to McClusky, like a desire to speed up web browsing or not wanting to be tracked online. But Wired has bills to pay. “I think people are ready to have that conversation in a straightforward way,” he said.

This post is part of that conversation. So is what I’ve been writing over the last eight years on what we’ve recently come to call the “adblock war.”

The reason this is a “war,” and it’s impossible for publishers on their own to make peace, is that the only solutions that can scale are the individual reader’s. Ad blockers and tracking protection in browsers all work for the individual, giving everybody scale. Roadblocks and tollbooths like Forbes’ and Wired’s piss readers off, drive them away, or both. Worse, every one of them is different, which is kind of an anti-scale way of doing things.

At this early stage, however, none of the solutions that scale for individuals also work in ways that are friendly to publishers. (Nor do what the browser makers are doing on their own—each differently, which is also anti-scale.)

So we need to take another step, again from the individual’s side, this time with an olive branch.

And that’s what we’ll do at VRM Day (25 April) and IIW(26–28 April), both at the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley. I invite Forbes, Wired, and all publishers, advertisers, agencies, browser makers and other parties interested in peace to come join us there.

On the table is an easy solution: simple publisher-friendly preference a reader can assert and a publisher can agree to. It says, “Just show me ads not based on tracking me” — or words to that effect, which we’ll work out. (Update: we’ve dubbed this the #NoStalking offer.)

This term will be standard and enabled by code on both the client and server side. The standard and code will live at Customer Commons, which is built for that purpose, on the Creative Commons mode, which has worked well for many years. (And, like ProjectVRM, was hatched at the Berkman Center.) Some of the code already exists. We’ll start writing the rest at IIW next week.

Both VRM Day and IIW are unconferences. No keynotes, no panels, no sponsor exhibits. Everything happens at breakouts, all of which are topics chosen and led by participants. VRM Day is for presenting and planning the work we’ll be doing over the next three days at IIW. We do two IIWs per year, and this is our 22nd. I don’t know any gathering that is more leveraged for getting stuff done. Register here.

For more background on the peace we can forge together, see here and here.



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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In my last post I said all printers suck — at least in my experience. YMMV, as they say.

The most recent suckage at our place was produced by a Brother laser printer and an Epson ink-jet that co-died while I was elsewhere (coincidentally dealing with an Epson printer that refused to print anything from my wife’s laptop, which is the same model as mine, running the same OS, with the same printer drivers).

So I bought the Samsung M2830DW Xpress Monochrome Laser Printer on the Staples website. The price is currently $59.99, which could hardly be better, since Consumer Reports top-rates it over Canons, Brothers and HPs, all of which cost more.

It works well. I gave it five stars on the Staples and Consumer Reports sites.


In case you buy this thing, I also want to share the caveats I put in my reviews at the two sites:

  1. It comes with no manual and cryptic pictorial multi-lingual instructions. You’ll need patience. Getting the toner out and removing various strips is the hardest job. But it can be done. (Here’s a link to the manual.)
  2. Wireless operation requires a software install by an enclosed CD, followed by initial wireless set-up by a computer over an enclosed USB cable. This is a one-time thing. That’s so the unit can know, for example, the wi-fi access point security code. (Though it might be more than one-time if you change access points or codes, so don’t lose that CD.) This is a pain if your computer doesn’t have a CD/DVD drive. Neither my MacBook Air nor my wife’s can play CDs or DVDs. (In fact most small new laptops don’t have that feature, since CDs and DVDs are terribly retro now.) So we had to fire up an old laptop and install though that. (Really, Samsung should have the same installer downloadable from the Web. Far as I can tell, they don’t, but I may not have dug deep enough on their website.)
  3. There is no clue to how much toner comes standard with the unit. The Brother this one replaces printed about a dozen sheets then wanted a replacement. The Staples where we picked this up did not stock the toner. In any case, you’ll need spare toner anyway, so get some, if you can, when you buy the thing.
  4. The cost of this unit on the Staples site was $79.99, discounted from $159.99. This is far below Consumer Reports’ reported prices of $127 – $199 (both, oddly, at Walmart). So I was happy with that until I got an email from Staples asking me to rate the unit. The Email sent me to me to the page where I am writing this — and the price now is $59.99. Great price, but I feel a bit cheated.
  5. At the store where I picked up the printer, I was pitched a three-year protection plan for $4.99, but when the guy behind the counter tried to make that work with “the system,” it came up as $30, so I declined. But now I notice this on the page for the printer: “3-yr Printer Protection Plan ($30-59.99) $4.99.”

I also notice that it’s also $59.99 at Amazon, for what it’s worth. Guess they’re trying to blow it off the shelves.

So here’s hoping it doesn’t start sucking soon.

[Later…] I contacted Staples through the chat agent on the printer’s page, and the agent quickly adjusted the price I paid to $59.99. So that was nice. Unfortunately, the agent couldn’t retroactively give me the $4.99 protection plan.



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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He didn't say it, but let's look at why it's wrong anyway.

He didn’t say it, but let’s look at why it’s wrong anyway.

This is an improved edit of a post I made to a list I’m on. Rather than let it scroll off to oblivion, I decided to put it here as well. The other parties are in italics. I’m in plain text.

If you work in advertising or marketing, kill yourself – Bill Hicks

Brilliant bit. Watch it here. The dude was also deep.

…or, from The Economist in 2013, a wonderful article which draws attention to research which counters the common view about search engine advertising

(which says, among other things…)

…search ads appear to solve a puzzle that has preoccupied advertisers since John Wanamaker, the 19th-century founding father of marketing, reportedly declared: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.”

Two problems with that oft-quoted one-liner. One is that Wanamaker didn’t say it. From The Intention Economy:

While this line is customarily attributed to John Wanamaker, he was neither the first nor the only source. In The Quote Verifier: Who Said What, Where, and When (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2006), Ralph Keys writes, ‘In the United States this business truism is most often attributed to department store magnate John Wanamaker (1838–1922), in England to Lord Leverhulme (William H. Lever, founder of Lever Brothers, 1851–1925). The maxim has also been ascribed to chewing gum magnate William Wrigley, adman George Washington Hill, and adman David Ogilvy. In Confessions of an Advertising Man (1963), Ogilvy himself gave the nod to his fellow Englishman Lord Leverhulme (Lever Brothers was an Ogilvy client), adding that John Wanamaker later made the same observation. Since Wanamaker founded his first department store in 1861, when Lever was ten, this seems unlikely. Fortune magazine thought Wanamaker expressed the famous adage in 1885, but it gave no context. While researching John Wanamaker, King of Merchants (1993), biographer William Allen Zulker found the adage typed on a sheet of paper in Wanamaker’s archives, but without a name or source. Wanamaker usually wrote his own material longhand. Verdict: A maxim of obscure origins, put in famous mouths.’

The other is that it isn’t true. In terms of direct effects (what direct response marketing wants, and the Economist piece concerns itself with), 99.x% of advertising is wasted. In terms of indirect effects (which old fashioned brand advertising wants), 100% might be effective.

In “The Waste in Advertising is the Part That Works,” (Journal of Advertising Research, December, 2004, pp. 375-390.), Tim Ambler and E. Ann Hollier say brand advertising has the effect of making a company familiar, whether the audience likes it or not, and that this is a requirement for any large company selling to a large market. You may never buy a Ford F-150 truck, but you’re damn sure going to know about it if you watch football on TV (and don’t skip the ads). In other words, it doesn’t hurt to have everybody know who you are and what you sell.

In terms of signaling theory in economics (for which Michael Spence won a Nobel prize), “the firm signals the quality of its product to consumers by its willingness to spend money on advertising.” (N. Gregory Mankiw: Principles of Economics, p. 401.)

This was taken for granted in the advertising business for generations. But today it’s being forgotten because advertising is also now digital, and leading the digital craze is the four dimensional shell game called adtech, which is thick with fraud, malware and world-class rudeness — such as planting tracking beacons on your digital person to follow you around the Net and report your activities to parties unknown, all the better to plant crosshairs on your eyeballs as you go about your private business.

The biggest problem with advertising today is that something that wasn’t advertising in the first place — direct response marketing, which includes both junk mail and spam — is now called advertising, because it looks the part. You don’t know whether the GMC ad you see on Huffington Post is there for every reader or just for you (because some tracking-based targeting mechanism has put it there for you).

Lately individuals have been putting a stop to all forms of advertising, with ad and tracking blockers. According to PageFair and Adobe, the number of people blocking ads passed 200 million worldwide last June, with increase rates in the prior year of 41% worldwide, 48% in the U.S. and 82% in the U.K. If this be a boycott, it’s the biggest in human history.

Most of the whining about ad blocking has been from those directly affected: publishers and ad agencies, since ad blocking costs them exposure and therefore income. Approximately no whining is coming from actual advertisers. (Who don’t call themselves that, by the way. They call themselves retailers, car makers, brewers and bankers.) For them advertising is just a line item on the expense side of the balance sheet. They can cut it or re-deploy it in other ways. For example, they can spend on the kind of old-fashioned non-tracking-based advertising they did before direct response marketing (best known as junk mail) body-snatched Madison Avenue, making it “digital” at all costs, including the good will of advertising’s consumers, who now have a valve to shut it off. (Or just to shut off the tracking. The valves are getting better every day.)

Naturally this has caused a “war” to break out. (FWIW, I’ve been covering this for some time. Here’s a list of posts and articles. Three of the most recent are in HBR, MIT Technology Review and Linux Journal.)

This conflation of direct response marketing with old fashioned Madison Avenue brand advertising has too many of us judging the latter by the metrics of the former. Among those is the author of this Economist piece. Let’s continue…

But new research shows that the simple measures often used to assess the impact of search ads may be exaggerating their effectiveness.

Again, while search ads are called ads, they’re really direct marketing. They are data-driven, want to get personal, and are looking for a direct response. Brand advertising is also data-driven, but the data is always in aggregate form, because the targets are populations, not individuals. Brand advertising doesn’t want to get personal. That would be too expensive, might creep people out, and isn’t the idea anyway, because brand advertising isn’t looking for a direct response. All it wants is to make an impression. Not a sale.

Establishing cause and effect in offline advertising is hard. Ads are difficult to target: space on billboards and in newspapers is seen by lots of shoppers. Some of these eyeballs are worth spending money on; others, either because they belong to existing customers or to people who never will be, are not.

But the whole point of billboards is to be “the waste that works.” If you’re McDonalds (the biggest outdoor advertiser in the U.S.), you want every driver to know they serve more kinds of coffee now. If you’re Geico, you want to maintain top-of-mind consideration when people (not just you) get around to buying insurance again (something nobody does every day).

And even when big ad campaigns are followed by strong conclusion—that rising sales are the result of good budgets often rise in good times so that spending and sales grow together, even if the advertisements are useless. The ads and the sales have a common cause—strong demand—but may have no causal link.

Right. And that is not a problem if you’re McDonalds or Geico.

Internet advertising seems to offer a solution to both these problems.

Again, for brand advertising those aren’t problems.

First, internet search ads are targeted: the links that search engines show are based on a combination of the search term a user has typed in and his browsing history. Second, because firms can track whether visitors to their websites come from search-engine links they have paid for, they can work out whether ads convert into sales…

The most tendentious adtech assumption is that everybody is buying something all the time. Most of the time we are not. When I looked up the Bill Hicks videos above, I wasn’t buying anything. In fact when I look through my browsing history over the past week, I find only one shopping example, and that was the exercise in futility that led me to post my buying intentions on my blog. So far the response has been nil. Nobody wants to fix a ten-year-old subwoofer, least of all from a company that’s out of business.

Now here’s what matters about brand advertising in my one little case, and why the waste in it is the part that works: when I replace my busted subwoofer, I am far more likely to be attracted to brands I know than to be swayed by advertising targeted at me because robots that follow me suspect I’m looking for a subwoofer at this moment in time. (None do, by the way. I’m seeing no ads anywhere for subwoofers.)

Another false adtech assumption is that “big data” can “know us better than we know ourselves.” This is worse than wrong: it is delusional, and an insult to our sovereign humanity. All of us are not only different from each other, but from how we were ten minutes ago. To be fully human is to learn and change constantly. “I know this orbit of mine cannot be swept by a carpenter’s compass,” Whitman writes. “I do not trouble my spirit to vindicate itself or be understood… I was never measured, and never will be measured… The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me. He complains of my gab and my loitering. I too am not a bit tamed. I too am untranslatable. I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.”

No direct response advertising system, no big data algorithms, can begin to comprehend the wild, free, untamed, barbaric and untranslatable spotted hawk in each of us. But brand ads can still make us aware that Geico will save you 15% in 15 minutes.

(The next paragraph refers back to an earlier one I snipped.)

To test this problem of “activity bias”, the authors recruited volunteers online and split them into two groups. The first group watched a video promoting Yahoo, and the other group watched a political broadcast. The first group used Yahoo around three times more after seeing the ad, giving the impression it was very influential. But the control group—those subjected to a bout of politics but no Yahoo promotion—also used Yahoo a lot more. Both groups happened to be in an active period of internet use. This is why they were recruited in the first place and why they used Yahoo sense of advertising impact…

Three years ago I was invited to a Yahoo offsite in the Caribbean to give a talk to their biggest advertisers, plus a bunch of celebrities who came along for the junket. I told them the future was one of liberated individuals who would only increase their agency (the power to act with full effect in the world), and that they should place their bets on the side of those individuals, rather than only on adtech, which was all the rage at the time (and still is, although now it’s looking more like a cancer). I also pointed to the rise in ad blocking and its inevitable effect on Yahoo’s business. There was a lot of agreement, but no action. They kept investing in adtech, and we see where they are now.

Bosses should still take Wanamaker’s fear seriously: a rise in sales after an ad campaign does not automatically mean that the ads worked. But it also shows how the online world is getting closer to solving the conundrum he posed. Far from being an industry where cause and effect remain murky, online advertising may yet become one area where the dismal science can predict how to get costs down and profits up.

It would have helped this piece if the signaling corner of the dismal science were sourced as well. So I advise The Economist and others covering advertising to look for signaling in the jewel case that is Don Marti’s blog. On the subject of advertising, there’s none better.

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