It’s misses like this that have people thinking there’s nothing to fear from AI.
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It’s misses like this that have people thinking there’s nothing to fear from AI.
This is what greets me when I go to the Washington Post site from here in Germany:
Note that last item in the Premium EU Subscription column: “No on-site advertising or third-party tracking.”
Ponder for a moment how the Sunday (or any) edition of the Post‘s print edition would look with no on-paper advertising. It would be woefully thin and kind of worthless-looking. Two more value-adds for advertising in the print edition:
So here’s the message I want the Post to hear from me, and from every reader who values what they do:
That’s what I get from the print edition, and that’s what I want from the online edition as well.
So I want two things here.
One is an answer to this question: Are ANY publishers in the online world selling old-fashioned ads that aren’t based on tracking and therefore worth more than the tracking kind? (And are GDPR-compliant as well, since the ads aren’t aimed by collected personal data.)
The other is to subscribe to the Post as soon as they show me they’re willing to do what I ask: give me those real ads again. And stop assuming that all ads need to be the tracking-based kind.
Thanks in advance.
The term “fake news” was a casual phrase until it became clear to news media that a flood of it had been deployed during last year’s presidential election in the U.S. Starting in November 2016, fake news was the subject of strong and well-researched coverage by NPR (here and here), Buzzfeed, CBS (here and here), Wired, the BBC, Snopes, CNN (here and here), Rolling Stone and others. It thus became a thing…
And he hasn’t stopped. To Trump, any stick he can whup non-Fox mainstream media with is a good stick, and FAKE NEWS is the best.
So that pretty much took “fake news,” as a literal thing, off the table for everyone other than Trump and his amen chorus.
So, since we need a substitute, I suggest decoy news. Because that’s what we’re talking about: fabricated news meant to look like the real thing.
But the problem is bigger than news alone, because advertising-funded media have been in the decoy business since forever. The difference in today’s digital world is that it’s a lot easier to fabricate a decoy story than to research and produce a real one—and it pays just as well, or even better, because overhead in the decoy business rounds to nothing. Why hire a person to do an algorithm’s job?
In the content business the commercial Web has become, algorithms are now used to target both stories and the advertising that pays for them.
This is why, on what we used to call the editorial side of publishing (interesting trend here), journalism as a purpose has been displaced by content production.
We can see one tragic result in a New York Times story titled In New Jersey, Only a Few Media Watchdogs Are Left, by David Chen (@davidwchen). In it he reports that “The Star-Ledger, which almost halved its newsroom eight years ago, has mutated into a digital media company requiring most reporters to reach an ever-increasing quota of page views as part of their compensation.”
This calls to mind how Saturday Night Live in 1977 introduced the Blues Brothers in a skit where Paul Shaffer, playing rock impresario Don Kirshner, proudly said the Brothers were “no longer an authentic blues act, but have managed to become a viable commercial product.”
To be viably commercial today, all media need to be in the content production business, paid for by adtech, which is entirely driven by algorithms informed by surveillance-gathered personal data. The result looks like this:
To fully grok how we got here, it is essential to understand the difference between advertising and direct marketing, and how nearly all of online advertising is now the latter. I describe the shift from former to latter in Separating Advertising’s Wheat and Chaff:
Advertising used to be simple. You knew what it was, and where it came from.
Whether it was an ad you heard on the radio, saw in a magazine or spotted on a billboard, you knew it came straight from the advertiser through that medium. The only intermediary was an advertising agency, if the advertiser bothered with one.
Advertising also wasn’t personal. Two reasons for that.
First, it couldn’t be. A billboard was for everybody who drove past it. A TV ad was for everybody watching the show. Yes, there was targeting, but it was always to populations, not to individuals.
Second, the whole idea behind advertising was to send one message to lots of people, whether or not the people seeing or hearing the ad would ever use the product. The fact that lots of sports-watchers don’t drink beer or drive trucks was beside the point, which was making brands sponsoring a game familiar to everybody watching it.
In their landmark study, “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 does more than signal a product message; it also gives evidence that the parent company has worth and substance, because it can afford to spend the money. Thus branding is about sending a strong economic signal along with a strong creative one.
But advertising today is also digital. That fact makes advertising much more data-driven, tracking-based and personal. Nearly all the buzz and science in advertising today flies around the data-driven, tracking-based stuff generally called adtech. This form of digital advertising has turned into a massive industry, driven by an assumption that the best advertising is also the most targeted, the most real-time, the most data-driven, the most personal — and that old-fashioned brand advertising is hopelessly retro.
In terms of actual value to the marketplace, however, the old-fashioned stuff is wheat and the new-fashioned stuff is chaff. In fact, the chaff was only grafted on recently.
See, adtech did not spring from the loins of Madison Avenue. Instead its direct ancestor is what’s called direct response marketing. Before that, it was called direct mail, or junk mail. In metrics, methods and manners, it is little different from its closest relative, spam.
Direct response marketing has always wanted to get personal, has always been data-driven, has never attracted the creative talent for which Madison Avenue has been rightly famous. Look up best ads of all time and you’ll find nothing but wheat. No direct response or adtech postings, mailings or ad placements on phones or websites.
Yes, brand advertising has always been data-driven too, but the data that mattered was how many people were exposed to an ad, not how many clicked on one — or whether you, personally, did anything.
And yes, a lot of brand advertising is annoying. But at least we know it pays for the TV programs we watch and the publications we read. Wheat-producing advertisers are called “sponsors” for a reason.
So how did direct response marketing get to be called advertising ? By looking the same. Online it’s hard to tell the difference between a wheat ad and a chaff one.
Remember the movie “Invasion of the Body Snatchers?” (Or the remake by the same name?) Same thing here. Madison Avenue fell asleep, direct response marketing ate its brain, and it woke up as an alien replica of itself.
It is now an article of faith within today’s brain-snatched advertising business that the best ad is the most targeted and personalized ad. Worse, almost all the journalists covering the advertising business assume the same thing. And why wouldn’t they, given that this is how advertising is now done online, especially by the Facebook-Google duopoly.
And here is why those two platforms can’t fix it: both have AI machines built to give millions of advertising customers ways to target the well-studied eyeballs of billions of people, using countless characterizations of those eyeballs.In fact, the only (and highly ironic) way they can police bad acting on their platforms is by hiring people who do nothing but look for that bad acting.
One fix is regulation. We now have that, hugely, with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). It’s an EU law, but it protects the privacy of EU citizens everywhere—with potentially massive fines. In spirit, if not also in letter (which the platforms are struggling mightily to weasel around), the GDPR outlaws tracking people like tagged animals online. I’ve called the GDPR an extinction event for adtech, and the main reason brands (including the media kind) need to fire it.
The other main fixes begin on the personal side. Don Marti (@dmarti) tweets, “Build technologies to implement people’s norms on sharing their personal data, and you’ll get technologies to help high-reputation sites build ad-supported business models ABSOLUTELY FREE!” Those models are all advertising wheat, not adtech chaff.
Now here’s the key: what we need most are single and simple ways for each of us to manage all our dealings with other entities online. Having separate means, each provided by the dozens or hundreds of sites and services we each deal with, all with different UIs, login/password gauntlets, forms to fill out, meaningless privacy policies and for-lawyers-only terms of service, cannot work. All that shit may give those companies scale across many consumers, but every one of them only adds to those consumers’ relationship overhead. I explain how this will work in Giving Customers Scale, plus many other posts, columns and essays compiled in my People vs. Adtech series, which is on its way to becoming a book. I’d say more about all of it, but need to catch a plane. See you on the other coast.
Meanwhile, the least we can do is start talking about decoy news and the business model that pays for it.
[Later…] I’m on the other coast now, but preoccupied by the #ThomasFire threatening our home in Santa Barbara. Since this blog appears to be mostly down, I’m writing about it at doc.blog.
Journalism is in a world of hurt because it has been marginalized by a new business model that requires maximizing “content” instead. That model is called adtech.
We can see adtech’s effects in The New York Times’ In New Jersey, Only a Few Media Watchdogs Are Left, by David Chen. His prime example is the Newark Star-Ledger, “which almost halved its newsroom eight years ago,” and “has mutated into a digital media company requiring most reporters to reach an ever-increasing quota of page views as part of their compensation.”
That quota is to attract adtech placements.
While adtech is called advertising and looks like advertising, it’s actually a breed of direct marketing, which is a cousin of spam and descended from what we still call junk mail.
Like junk mail, adtech is driven by data, intrusively personal, looking for success in tiny-percentage responses, and oblivious to harms it causes, which include wanton and unwelcome surveillance, annoying the shit out of people and filling the world with crap.
But adtech is far worse, because it also funds hyper-partisan news flows, including vast rivers of fake news, much of it from pop-up publishers that are as fake as the clickbait they maximize. Without adtech, fake news would be marginalized to the digital equivalent of supermarket tabloids.
Here’s one way to tell the difference between real advertising and adtech:
Here’s one way to tell the difference between journalism and content:
Companies advertising in the old publishing world were flattered to appear in publications like the Star-Ledger. They were also considered sponsors of those publications.
As I wrote in Separating Advertising’s Wheat and Chaff, in the new publishing world “Madison Avenue fell asleep, direct response marketing ate its brain, and it woke up as an alien replica of itself.”
That’s also why, to operate in publishing’s new alien-built economy, journalists need to meet that “ever-increasing quota of page views.” Better to “generate content” than to do the best journalism we can, the proposition goes. It’s still a losing one.
See, adtech doesn’t care about journalism, because its economy incentives maximizing the sum of content in the world, so it has as many places as possible to chase followed eyeballs with ads. Case in point, from @WaltMossberg:
About a week after our launch, I was seated at a dinner next to a major advertising executive. He complimented me on our new site’s quality and on that of a predecessor site we had created and run, AllThingsD.com. 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.
If Recode insisted on real ads, rather than coming to depend on surveillance-based adtech, its advertisers would have valued the publication, and not just the eyeballs of its readers, wherever it could find them.
It’s no easy task to either make money online as a publisher or to advertise your product in a world where attention is so fleeting and divided. But the current system of ad-supported web content isn’t working for readers and viewers. It needs to be reset.
The ad business is too brain-snatched to do that reset alone. It needs help from readers and brave publishers willing to stop participating in the adtech game.
As I explain in How customers can debug business with one line of code (hashtag: #NoStalking), each of us can come to publishers with a simple term that says “Just show me ads not based on tracking me.” In other words, “Give us real advertising. We can live with that.”
#NoStalking is not only in the works at Customer Commons, but saying yes to it will be an ideal move by companies wishing to obey the General Data Protection Regulation (aka GDPR), which will start punishing stalking severely, starting in 2018.
While the GDPR will blow up adtech as we’ve known it, #NoStalking will save real advertising, and the best of ad-supported publishing along with it, because it will bring economic incentives back into alignment with journalism. We had that in the old ad-and-subscription supported world of offline journalism, and we can get it back in the new world of online journalism. As I explain in Why #NoStalking is a good deal for publishers,
Individuals issuing the offer get guilt-free use of the goods they come to the publisher for, and the publisher gets to stay in business — and improve that business by running advertising that is actually valued by its recipients.
So, if you want to save journalism, the best of publishing and civil discourse that depends on both, bring back real advertising and cure the cancer of adtech.
For more help with that, go back and read Don Marti’s Targeting failure: legit sites lose, intermediaries win. You might also visit the Adblock War Series at my blog.
Two bonus links:
The original version of this post was published in Medium on 23 January 2017. This is an experiment in publishing first in Medium and second here. We’ll see how it goes.
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.
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:
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:
Yesterday @davidweinberger and I were guests on screen at a @commongroundmcr session in Manchester, hosted by Julian Tait (@) and Ian Forrester (@cubicgarden). We talked for a long time about a lot of stuff (here’s a #cmngrnd search featuring some of it); but what seems to have struck the Chord of Controversy was something I blabbed: “Tracking-based advertising is creepy and wrong… and needs to be wiped out.” Martin Bryant (@MartinSFP) tweeted a video clip and a series of other tweets followed. Here’s a copy/paste, which loses a little between Twitter and WordPress):
So, while Cyrus awaits his copy of the book, I thought I’d share a few links on the topic, before I hit the sack, jet-lagged, here in London.
Second, dig pretty much everything that Don Marti has been writing about business, starting with Targeted Advertising Considered Harmful. My case — the one people who like personalized advertising might want to argue with — is Don’s. He became my thought leader on the subject back when he was helping me with research for The Intention Economy, and he’s been adding value to his own insights steadily in the years since. (BTW, I’m not a stranger to the business, having been a founder and creative director for Hodskins Simone & Searls, one of Silicon Valley’s leading ad agencies back in the last millennium.)
When I get a chance I’ll write more on the topic, but for now I need some sleep.,