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symbiosis

Synopsis—Advertising supported publishing in the offline world by sponsoring it. In the online world, advertising has been body-snatched by adtech, which tracks eyeballs via files injected into apps and browsers, then shoots those eyeballs with “relevant” ads wherever the eyeballs show up. Adtech has with little or no interest in sponsoring a pub for the pub’s own worth. Worse, it encourages fake news (which is easier to produce than the real kind) and flooding the world with “content” rather than old-fashioned (and infinitely more worthwhile) editorial. When publishers agreed to funding by adtech, they sold their souls and their readers down a river full of fraud and malware, as well as indefensible manners. Fortunately, readers can bring both publishers and advertisers back into a soulful reunion. Helpfully, the GDPR makes it illegal not to, and that will be a huge issue as the deadline for compliance (next May 25th) approaches.


Yesterday Digiday published The GDPR will help or hurt publishers, depending on who you ask, by Ross Benes (@RossBenes). I was one of the people Ross asked, and the piece includes a quote from me. His question went this way:

I saw this blog you wrote about the topic.

http://blogs.harvard.edu/vrm/2017/09/03/good-news-for-publishers-and-advertisers-fearing-the-gdpr/

Do you think advertisers will pay enough for SafeAds to offset the losses publishers will have from selling fewer targeted ads due to privacy regs?

It’s a good question. (That’s what people say when they don’t have an answer, or can’t think of an easy one right away. But…) I thought about it, and replied with this:

Yes, and then some.

They’ll do it because there is more brand value to SafeAds.

The bigger question is for publishers: what business do they want to be in?

Do they want to operate barrels of “content” full of tracked fish baited there so adtech can shoot them with “interest-based” ads?

Or do they want to operate actual publications with good editorial that advertisers sponsor so their ads can be seen by readers who know those ads support the publication and are appropriate without being personal?

That’s the choice.

It helps that the second business — actual publishing — has been around for a couple hundred years, and even worked fine on the Web before publishers fell for the adtech sell.

Publishers sold a big piece of their soul when they consented to having their readers’ privacy violated, and with rampant impunity, by adtech. They also chose to ignore the fact that adtech is in the business of chasing eyeballs, not of sponsoring the good work publishers do, or of building brand reputation. (Which can’t be done by shooting people constantly with “interest-based” ads that mostly creep people out if they hit a bulls-eye.)

The GDPR, if it works like it should, will force publishers to fire adtech and normalize their relationship with readers. When that happens, publishers, advertisers, readers and agents for all three can start working out better business models than the creepy one we’ve had with adtech.

More of that in my People vs. Adtech series: http://j.mp/adbwars.

Ross quoted the first sentence of the second-to-last paragraph, which is probably the best one of the bunch he could have used. Most of the quotes he gathered from other folks in the biz were also very good. I study this topic a lot, and I still learned some new things. Hats off for that.

While I’m saluting what I just learned from Ross, however, I also want to visit some assumptions that surface in his piece. They aren’t his, but rather pretty much everybody’s, and that’s a problem. Here are four of them.

1) Consent can only go one way, meaning each of us should always be the ones consenting to terms proffered by sites and services. Here’s how Ross puts it:

The General Data Protection Regulation, which prevents brands from using a person’s data unless they have explicit permission to do so, could send more ad dollars to premium publishers that are more likely to obtain user consent than lower-quality publishers.

In fact consent can go the other way, meaning the publisher or advertiser can consent to our terms.

It is only because we made a Faustian bargain with client-server in 1995 that we remain stuck inside a model that assumes we “users” should always be second (and second-class) parties, with no choice but to agree as “clients” to terms proffered by server operators.

It helps that the Internet was designed so any one of us can be peers. This is an especially good design feature in the age that (at least I hope) begins with the GDPR.

One reason why I’m encouraged about the GDPR is that it says each of us can be “data controllers” as well as “data subjects.” (White & Case have a good unpacking of that, here.)

I visit the possibilities in Good news for publishers and advertisers fearing the GDPR (3 September in ProjectVRM), How to plug the publishing revenue drain (9 June 2017 in Medium), Why #NoStalking is a good deal for publishers (11 May 2016, and in Medium), How customers can debug business with one line of code (19 April 2016 in ProjectVRM and in Medium) and An invitation to settle matters with @Forbes, @Wired and other publishers (15 April 2016 and in Medium).

2) The choice is between “acceptable” and “unacceptable” ads (as Adblock Plus believes) or between “intrusive” ads and those that aren’t.

In fact the real choice is between ads based on tracking and those that aren’t (which I call #SafeAds in Good news for publishers and advertisers fearing the GDPR, and which are what you see in all non-digital commercial media).

Tracking is the reason ad blocking, which has been around since 2003, didn’t hockey-stick toward the sky until 2012. That was when publishers and advertisers, led by the IAB, gave the middle finger to Do Not Track, which was merely a polite request not to be tracked that people could express in their browsers.

I wrote about this in Ad Blockers and the Next Chapter of the Internet (5 November in Harvard Business Review) and Beyond ad blocking — the biggest boycott in human history (28 Septemper 2015). Here’s a graphic showing what happened:

I also unpack the difference between SafeAds and tracking based ones (aka adtech) in Separating advertising’s wheat and chaff (12 August 2015, and on 2 July 2016 in an updated version in Medium).

3) The best advertising is the most measurable, and is looking for a response from an individual.

That’s not true for advertising, but it is for direct response marketing (the wheat and chaff I talk about in the last cited piece). Unfortunately, as I say in that piece, “Madison Avenue fell asleep, direct response marketing ate its brain, and it woke up as an alien replica of itself.”

The outlines of that alien replica can be seen in what Ross cites here:

Eric Berry, CEO of native ad platform TripleLift, said the GDPR could lead to a reduction in programmatic ad spend because ad buyers will struggle to measure whether their ads lead to purchases. There’s uncertainty about how the law will be enforced, but if users have to give consent to individual publishers, demand-side platforms and attribution vendors, the attribution companies won’t likely have enough data to make accurate measurements, which will lead ad buyers to shift their dollars to other marketing tactics. This would hurt publishers that rely on programmatic ad revenue, he said.

There is a reason perhaps a $trillion has been spent on adtech and not one worldwide brand everyone can name has been created by it, much less sustained or helped in any way.

As Don Marti says, only real advertising can carry the full economic and creative signals required to create and sustain a brand. And, as Bob Hoffman hammers home constantly (and very artfully) in The Ad Contrarian, the ad industry’s equation of “digital” with tracking is based entirely on bullshit. (His term, and the right one.)

Direct response marketing, which began as junk mail, and which looks to measure results for every message, wasn’t designed for that, and can’t do it.

Calling direct response marketing advertising was one of the biggest mistakes the ad industry ever made and masks the real problem the GDPR invites, which is that we risk throwing out the SafeAds baby with the FakeAds (adtech) bathwater.

If all the GDPR leads publishers to do is (as Ross says in his piece) “use intrusive messages — like pop-ups or interstitials — to get user consent,” and the EU fails to fine publishers and their adtech funders for violating the spirit as well as the letter of the GDPR, the GDPR will be as big a fail as the useless cookie consent notices people see on European sites.

4) There’s nothing really wrong with adtech.

Pretty much everything is wrong about adtech, but perhaps the wrongest of the wrong is the problem Siva Vaidhyanathan (@sivasaid) visits in a NY Times piece titled Facebook Wins, Democracy Loses. Here’s a pull quote:

A core principle in political advertising is transparency — political ads are supposed to be easily visible to everyone, and everyone is supposed to understand that they are political ads, and where they come from. And it’s expensive to run even one version of an ad in traditional outlets, let alone a dozen different versions. Moreover, in the case of federal campaigns in the United States, the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign-finance act requires candidates to state they approve of an ad and thus take responsibility for its content.

The bold-face is mine (or actually my wife’s, who found and highlighted it for me).

The economic signaling value of an ad comes from what it costs. Only a brand with a lot of heft can afford to sponsor a publication or a mainstream broadcaster. But it’s super-cheap to run ads that narrowcast to just a few people. Or to put up a fake news site. (Both are big reasons why journalism is now drowning in a sea of contentAdtech is what paid publishing to trade journalism for “content generation.” This is a cancer on advertising, publishing and journalism, and makes adtech the Agent Smith of digital.)

What’s more, adtech has created environments where micro-targeted ads and adtech-funded fake news can work very effectively to destroy brands.

Consider this possibility: Trump and his sympathizers succeeded in destroying Hillary Clinton’s brand, and there wasn’t a damn thing any of her own big-budget and big-media branding efforts (#SafeAds all) could do about it. (And try, if you are a Trump sympathizer, to ignore whatever you think about how much Hillary brought it on herself or deserved it. In badness of the smear-worthy sort, she has plenty of company, especially Trump. In using modern adtech and fake news methods, the Trump campaign and those helping it were very smart and effective.)

As Siva says in his Times piece,

Ads on [Facebook] meant for, say, 20- to 30-year-old home-owning Latino men in Northern Virginia would not be viewed by anyone else, and would run only briefly before vanishing. The potential for abuse is vast. An ad could falsely accuse a candidate of the worst malfeasance a day before Election Day, and the victim would have no way of even knowing it happened. Ads could stoke ethnic hatred and no one could prepare or respond before serious harm occurs.

Can the GDPR address that problem?

Yes, by supporting individuals (not mere “users” or “consumers”) operating as first parties, getting the good publishers to agree not to run ads like the ones Siva describes, and to open the floodgates to brand ads that actually sponsor those publications, rather than regarding them as bait for shooting tracked eyeballs.

I explain how this will work in What if businesses agreed to customers’ terms and conditions? (28 April 2017 in Medium) as well as in a number of posts in my People vs. Adtech series.

In the long run only the targets of advertising can stop advertisers and publishers from driving drunk on digital, and to start respecting the very people they’ve been abusing.

If that fails, we’ll finally get one answer to the question I asked in January of last year: What if we don’t need advertising at all?

crysalisIn The Adpocalypse: What it MeansVlogbrother Hank Green issues a humorous lament on the impending demise of online advertising. Please devote the next 3:54 of your life to watching that video, so you catch all his points and I don’t need to repeat them here.

Got them? Good.

All of Hank’s points are well-argued and make complete sense. They are also valid mostly inside the bowels of the Google beast where his video work has thrived for the duration, as well as inside the broadcast model that Google sort-of emulates. (That’s the one where “content creators” and “brands” live in some kind of partly-real and partly-imagined symbiosis.)

While I like and respect what the brothers are trying to do commercially inside Google’s belly, I also expect them, and countless other “content creators” will get partly or completely expelled after Google finishes digesting that market, and obeys its appetite for lucrative new markets that obsolesce its current one.

We can see that appetite at work now that Google Contributor screams agreement with ad blockers (which Google is also joining) and their half-billion human operators that advertising has negative value. This is at odds with the business model that has long sustained both YouTube and “content creators” who make money there.

So it now appears that being a B2B creature that sells eyeballs to advertisers is Google’s larval stage, and that Google intends to emerge from its chrysalis as a B2C creature that sells content directly to human customers. (And stays hedged with search advertising, which is really more about query-based notifications than advertising, and doesn’t require unwelcome surveillance that will get whacked by the GDPR anyway a year from now.) 

Google will do this two ways: 1) through Contributor (an “ad removal pass” you buy) and 2) through subscriptions to YouTube TV (a $35/month cable TV replacement) and/or YouTube Red ($9.99/month for “uninterrupted music, ad-free videos, and more”).

Contributor is a way for Google to raise its share of the adtech duopoly it comprises with Facebook. The two paid video offerings are ways for Google to maximize its wedge of a subscription pie also sliced up by Apple, Amazon, Netflix, HBO, ShowTime, all the ISPs and every publication you can name—and to do that before we all hit Peak Subscription. (Which I’m sure most of us can see coming. I haven’t written about it yet, but I have touched hard on it here and here.)

I hope the Vlogbrothers make money from YouTube Red once they’re behind that paywall. Or that they can sell their inventory outside all the silos, like some other creators do. Maybe they’ll luck out if EmanciPay or some other new and open customer-based way of paying for creative goods works out. Whether or not that happens, one or more of the new blockchain/distributed ledger/token systems will provide countless new ways that stuff will get offered and paid for in the world’s markets. Brave Payments is already pioneering in that space. (Get the Brave browser and give it a try.)

It helps to recognize that the larger context (in fact the largest one) is the Internet, not the Web (which sits on top of the Net), and not apps (which are all basically on loan from their makers and the distribution systems of Apple and Google). The Internet cannot be contained in, or reduced to, the feudal castles of Facebook and Google, which mostly live on the Web. Those are all provisional and temporary. Money made by and within them is an evanescent grace.

All the Net does is connect end points and pass data between them through any available path. This locates us on a second world alongside the physical one, where the distance between everything it connects rounds to zero. This is new to human experience and at least as transformative as language, writing, printing and electricity—and no less essential than any of those, meaning it isn’t going to go away, no matter how well the ISPs, governments and corporate giants succeed in gobbling up and spinctering business and populations inside their digestive tracts.

The Net is any-to-any, by any means, by design of its base protocols. This opens countless possibilities we have barely begun to explore, much less build out. It is also an experience for humanity that is not going to get un-experienced if some other base protocols replace the ones we have now.

I am convinced that we will find new ways in our connected environment to pay for goods and services, and to signal each other much more securely, efficiently and effectively than we do now. I am also convinced we will do all that in a two-party way rather than in the three-party ways that require platforms and bureaucracies. If this sounds like anarchy, well, maybe: yeah. I dunno. We already have something like that in many disrupted industries. (Some wise stuff got written about this by David Graeber in The Utopia of Rules.)

Not a day goes by that my mind isn’t blown by the new things happening that have not yet cohered into an ecosystem but still look like they can create and sustain many forms of economic and social life, new and old. I haven’t seen anything like this in tech since the late ’90s. And if that sounds like another bubble starting to form, yes it is. You see it clearly in the ICO market right now. (Look at what’s lined up so far. Wholly shit.)

But this one is bigger. It’s also going to bring down everybody whose business is guesswork filled with fraud and malware.

If you’re betting on which giants survive, hold Amazon and Apple. Short those other two.

allthenewsthatfitsintabs

#Publishing

When I heard that Backchannel would be moving to Wired while Google’s Contributor service (“buy an ad removal pass for the web”) was not only rolling out, but already deployed by some publishers (e.g. by Business Insider UK)—and while Wired (with the rest of Condé Nast) was still mistaking tracking protection for ad blocking (and hitting readers with the same lame interruptive shakedown popover I wrote about over a year ago)— I copied and pasted this section of the Daily Tab into Medium and expanded it into a piece titled How To Plug the Publishing Revenue Drain. I also wanted to get it up in advance of the Gillmor Gang webcast/podcast I’d be on that afternoon.

The (not so great) state of UK print advertising in 4 charts (Lucinda Southern @Lucy28Southern in DigiDay) Here they are:

uknewspaperevenue

Publishers can reverse that. Here’s how:

  1. Follow their customers’ lead. That means they should—
  2. Fire adtech (tracking-based advertising), which is full of fraud and malware, clogs data pipes, spies on people (which will soon be illegal in the EU thanks to the GDPR), and carries enormous operational and cognitive overhead for everybody. This will—
  3. Save journalism from drowning in a sea of content. (The problem with content is that it’s not editorial. It’s eyeball bait.) To do this publishers should—
  4. Agree to readers’ terms and conditions. These will live at Customer Commons (much as individuals’ copyright terms live at Creative Commons) and can be expressed in one line of code in the reader’s browser. The first and simplest term is called #NoStalking and says “just give me ads not based on tracking me.” These ads—simple brand ads—are far more valuable, and brand-supporting, than anything adtech has ever done, or ever can do. They also sponsor the publisher, which adtech also can’t do, because its actual business is chasing eyeballs. With #NoStalking, publishers will—
  5. Get cleaner, better and more supportive sponsorship from advertisers than they ever got from adtech. Agreeing not to stalk readers will also pave a way off the cattle ranches of Facebook and Google while also getting out of adtech’s bubble before it bursts. It will also respect The Castle Doctrine—for everybody involved, including readers, publishers, advertisers and intermediaries.

Bonus link: After Peak Marketing. And everything by Bob Hoffman (@adcontrarian), Don Marti (@dmarti), Augustine Fou, aka Ad Fraud Researcher (@acfou), WhiteOps (@WhiteOps), Dave Carroll (@profcarroll) and @MikkoKotila.

#Advertising vs. #Adtech

As Apple and Google take aim at ads, publishers tremble (Lucia Moses @lmoses in DigiDay)

De-blurring Lines Between ‘Ad Tech’ and Advertising (Daniel Meehan @MeehanDaniel in Martech Series). I’m kindly sourced: “…Doc Searls dug into what on earth brands are doing — and have been doing for years. He’s just as confused by this shift of advertisers effectively offloading their jobs to algorithms. Searls also calls for an end to ad tech, in favor of a return to “traditional” advertising approaches. The state of ad tech’s been killing media, too. And he wants to save it before we venture too far.”

Also by Daniel, this time in Martech TodayStop Calling ‘Ad Tech’ Advertising. Bonus link: Separating Advertising’s Wheat and Chaff.

Not listening to either Daniel or me:

#Random

Saturn is amazing. (Time)

Introducing FilterBubbler: A WebExtension built using React/Redux. Based on this idea by @dmarti. (Ean Schuessler in Mozilla Hacks) “The idea was to turn the tables on the kinds of sophisticated analysis that advertisers do with the everyday browsing activities we take for granted.”

 

 

archimedes120

On a mailing list that obsesses about All Things Networking, another member cited what he called “the Doc Searls approach” to something. Since it was a little off (though kind and well-intended), I responded with this (lightly edited):

The Doc Searls approach is to put as much agency as possible in the hands of individuals first, and self-organized groups of individuals second. In other words, equip demand to engage and drive supply on customers’ own terms and in their own ways.

This is supported by the wide-open design of TCP/IP in the first place, which at least models (even if providers don’t fully give us) an Archimedean place to stand, and a wide-open market for levers that help us move the world—one in which the practical distance between everyone and everything rounds to zero.

To me this is a greenfield that has been mostly fallow for the duration. There are exceptions (and encouraging those is my personal mission), but mostly what we live with are industrial age models that assume from the start that the most leveraged agency is central, and that all the most useful intelligence (lately with AI and ML being the most hyper-focused on and fantasized about) should naturally be isolated inside corporate giants with immense data holdings and compute factories.

Government oversight of these giants and what they do is nigh unthinkable, much less do-able. While regulators aplenty know and investigate the workings of oil refineries and nuclear power plants, there are no equivalents for Google’s, Facebook’s or Amazon’s vast refineries of data and plants doing AI, ML and much more. All the expertise is working for those companies or selling their skills in the marketplace. (The public minded work in universities, I suppose.) I don’t lament this, by the way. I just note that it pretty much can’t happen.

More importantly, we have seen, over and over, that compute powers of many kinds will be far more leveraged for all when individuals can apply them. We saw that when computing got personal, when the Internet gave everybody a place to operate on a common network that spanned the world, and when both could fit in a hand-held rectangle.

The ability for each of us to not only drive prices individually, but to retrieve the virtues of the bazaar to the networked marketplace, will eventually win out. In the meantime it appears the best we can do is imagine that the full graces of computing and networks are what only big companies can do for (and to) us.

Bonus link: a talk I gave last week in Munich.

So I thought it might be good to surface that here. At least it partly explains why I’ve been working more and blogging less lately.