Nobody else owns our experiences


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

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

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

We own our selves. That includes our experiences.

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

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

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

… while:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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  1. Hanan Cohen’s avatar

    Rich Ziade and Paul Ford say that this is exactly why Verizon bought Yahoo.

    Listen to the whole thing here

    Also, subscribe. Good stuff there.

  2. Leslie Purchase’s avatar

    Excellent piece. Here is an article that proposes a solution to the troubled ad ecosystem that is innovative and balanced. You might find it interesting.

  3. David Mackey’s avatar


    The advertising industry’s nirvana of an always connected “consumer” is not real.

    However, there’s not much evidence that shows customers are winning the war to force better market conversations.

    I guess the epic battle will continue for some time to come.

  4. Doc Searls’s avatar

    They’re at least in the fight that will make better market conversations possible.

  5. David Mackey’s avatar

    True. High demand for Ad-blocking s/w is evidence of a desire for a better experience.

    However, winning the Ad-blocking war might lead to a state where the market conversation ends. We will own the experience, but the experience will lack interesting content.

    Sorry, I’m just thinking out loud about where the middle ground exists for market conversations and digital experiences. Thanks for your years of leadership on this topic.

  6. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Demand for ad blocking is like demand for umbrellas. Nobody gets one to have a better “rain experience.” They just want to stay dry.

    The question for me is whether or not ad blocking kills nearly all ads in the long run, or if it works just as chemo for tracking-based adtech, which is the biggest offender. (Growth in ad blocking tracks with growth in obvious forms of tracking-based advertising, notably retargeting. Without tracking, ad blocking would be far less prevalent.)

    I also question whether or not advertising is part of “the market conversation.” Even a clicked-on direct response ad isn’t especially conversational. The simple fact of the matter is that advertising is ignored or disliked. The percentage that’s truly “interactive” rounds to zero.

    There was also plenty of interesting content on the Net before adtech showed up. And there will still be plenty if non-tracking based advertising survives. The notion that the entire Net is funded by tracking-based ads is intellectual exhaust only the industry smokes. The rest of us are choking on it.

  7. David Mackey’s avatar

    Metaphors are great. They can be used for humor, education, and sometimes they are a great mechanism to provoke new ways of thinking.

    Let me try to extend the rain metaphor without straying too far from the topic …

    Rain may annoy people in the short term, but it’s necessary for plants to grow and for animals to eat. It’s only when pollutants (e.g. sulfur or tracking codes?) are added to the rain that the environment turns toxic. Of course, too much rain will also turn people off, but I think that’s a self-regulating system.

    I have a healthy suspicion of tracking s/w, but I don’t mind the old magazine business model of “subscriptions & ads” when I use the website, for example.

    I can’t wait for your next blog post. Thanks for the conversation!

  8. Tim Walters’s avatar

    Great piece as always, Doc.

    The concept and phenomenon of experience is not well understood. The best analysis I’m aware of is in a 2011 dissertation called “For the Love of Experience,” by a woman named J.M.C. Snel.

    She explains that experience consists of three registers or vectors:

    1. The environment: This is the thing that is experienced – e.g., Disneyland, a city park, a meal, a movie, a mobile web page.
    2. The encounter: This is the interaction of an individual with the environment.
    3. The effect: This is the result of the encounter, a judgment or attitude held by the individual. (Which is significantly influenced by prior expectations.)

    In short, I have (i.e., form) an experience (in the third sense) when I experience (in the second sense) an experience (in the first sense).

    Snel stresses that all three elements are necessary for a full understanding of (an) experience – and also that most parties in the so-called “experience economy” over-emphasize one element at the expense (or even the complete ignorance) of the others.

    So it would be justified to say that the operators/advertisers “own” the mobile experience – in the first sense. The combination of content and ads displayed on the screen makes up the environmental vector of the experience. (This is assuming that the operator is not just a dumb pipe delivering content from Facebook,, etc.)

    The problem exposed by the report is that operators/advertisers (like most companies trying to do “customer experience management”) think that they own – and, worse, control – the mobile ad experience in the third sense. They (absurdly) state with confidence that the consumer’s attitude is “positive” after the encounter with the environment the operators/advertisers have created. But of course the mental state of the consumer is the last thing that can be owned or controlled. (This is one of the reasons that I say customer experience management is impossible.)

    Companies build environments while pretending to control effects – and largely ignore the encounter, which is where the experience actually “happens.” (The environment is built in anticipation of a future; the encounter is the present; the effect concerns the past.) In my view, the encounter is only marginally more manageable than the effect – but companies can increase the likelihood of a positive outcome by understanding the consumers needs, desires, and expectations.

    There are many ways to chase such an understanding, most of which are invasive by nature (Zuboff’s surveillance capitalism), and which deliver weak and ineffective correlations. (Witness Procter and Gamble’s retreat from targeted advertising on Facebook.) The good and reliable way to achieve it (and the one that provides a causal foundation for an exchange) is to have the consumer tell you what they want and expect – intentcasting and VRM.

  9. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Thanks, David.

    Interesting thing about metaphors: they’re all wrong. Time is not money. (We don’t really save, waste, lose or invest it.) Life is not a journey. (Birth is not arrival. Death is not departure. Choices are not crossroads.) Yet we can’t make full sense of the world without them. The whole science of cognitive linguistics is devoted to unpacking the many ways we cannot think except metaphorically — and all the ways we do that.

    As you say, the rain metaphor is good in many ways. And people, on the whole, do appreciate much of the good advertising does: funding journalism, contributing to the economy as a whole — even though it does clutter the world and there has always been much to dislike about it.

    With digital advertising, however, it is finally possible for people to put up a shield, at least in some places, such as in their browsers.

    In The End of Internet Advertising as We’ve Known It, in MIT Technology Review, I use my sister’s metaphor, of stopping advertising at the door by “field-stripping” out the unwanted stuff. This metaphor applies well to advertising in online publications, because when we request the contents of a website through our browsers, we want what we get with print pubs: good editorial, and some advertising along with it. But that’s not all we get. Even though we don’t ask for it, we get tracking files that report on our activities to third parties of many kinds.

    It is fully legitimate to block that stuff, because it’s not what we ask for. Instead it’s stuff the publishers sneak in, because they can.

    The “interactive” advertising business and publishers together have taken great and unfair advantage of our long-standing grace toward advertising, not only by tracking us, but by abusing us with many kinds of advertising (e.g. popovers) for which there is no equivalent in the offline world. To leverage your angle on the rain metaphor, they give us monsoons and floods — and then complain when we shelter ourselves from it. Hey, they created the market for that shelter.

    The question for me, as more and more advertising becomes “interactive,” and we block all of it as a matter of course, is whether old-fashioned high-reuputation brand advertising will survive—and how. Especially since creative types are also being driven out of the ad business as well. After all, “creatives” like to show off, and win awards. Adtech doesn’t provide much room for that.

    Don Marti sees tracking protection, rather than ad blocking, as the general answer. As that picks up, much chaff will be threshed from wheat.

  10. David Mackey’s avatar

    Thanks for your very thoughtful reply. I agree with everything you said.

    I especially agree with the statement “It is fully legitimate to block that stuff, because it’s not what we ask for. Instead it’s stuff the publishers sneak in, because they can.”.

    This brings me back to my original comment … “However, there’s not much evidence that shows customers are winning the war to force better market conversations.”

    I’m looking for specific action (other than just ad-blocking) that can be taken to improve the situation. Metaphors only take us so far. Action in the form of delivering real code is more powerful.

    I came across The Cluetrain Manifesto in 2009, but VRM is new to me. I guess it’s time for me to learn more about your latest movement.


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