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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.
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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.

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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.

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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.

However…

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.

 

subway-speedtest

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.

onix subwooferSo I’ve got this Onix x-sub subwoofer that doesn’t work. It’s the bass side of a Sonos ZP-100 system driving a pair of Cambridge Soundworks Newton MC300 speakers in our living room. Together the system sounds great. (Consistent with Tom Andry‘s review, which influenced my purchase back in ’06.)

The little green light in the back went out, and the fuse is fine. So it’s… what? Bad switch? Whole power supply? Whatever it is, I’d rather get it fixed than replace it, because we (meaning my wife) like the way it looks.

Onix and the company I bought the speaker from, AV123, are out of business. I’ve made a bunch of calls to possible repair sources here in Santa Barbara. No help so far.

So consider this an intentcast for help. Any takers? Or advice?

[Two days later…] Nope. Guess I’ll just get a new one. Oh well.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

adblocker-vs-dnt

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

See/hear you there/then.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

wheat-chaff-division2

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

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

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

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

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

In my wheat & chaff post, I said,

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

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

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

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

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

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

no-ads-trackingHere is a list of pieces I’ve written on what has come to be known as the “adblock wars.” That term applies most to #22 (written August of ’15) those that follow. But the whole series works as a coherent whole that might make a good book if a publisher is interested.

  1. Why online advertising sucks, and is a bubble (31 October 2008)
  2. After the advertising bubble bursts (23 March 2009)
  3. The Data Bubble (31 July 2010)
  4. The Data Bubble II (30 October 2010)
  5. A sense of bewronging (2 April 2011)
  6. For personal data, use value beats sale value (13 February 2012)
  7. Stop making cows. Quit being calves. (21 February 2012)
  8. An olive branch to advertising (12 September 2012, on the ProjectVRM blog)
  9. What could/should advertising look like in 2020, and what do we need to do now for this future? (Wharton’s Future of Advertising project, 13 November 2012)
  10. Bringing manners to marketing (12 January 2013 in Customer Commons)
  11. Thoughts on Privacy (31 August 2013)
  12. What the ad biz needs is to evict direct marketing (6 October 2013)
  13. We are not fish and advertising is not food (23 January 2014 in Customer Commons)
  14. Earth to Mozilla: Come back home (12 April 2014)
  15. Why to avoid advertising as a business model (25 June 2014, re-running Open Letter to Meg Whitman, which ran on 15 October 2000 in my old blog)
  16. Time for digital emancipation (27 July 2014)
  17. Privacy is personal (2 July 2014 in Linux Journal)
  18. On marketing’s terminal addiction to data fracking and bad guesswork (10 January 2015)
  19. Thoughts on tracking based advertising (18 February 2015)
  20. Because freedom matters (26 March 2015)
  21. On taking personalized ads personally (27 March 2015)
  22. Captivity rules (29 March 2015)
  23. Separating advertising’s wheat and chaff (12 August 2015)
  24. Apple’s content blocking is chemo for the cancer of adtech (26 August 2015)
  25. Will content blocking push Apple into advertising’s wheat business? (29 August 2015)
  26. If marketing listened to markets, they’d hear what ad blocking is telling them (8 September 2015)
  27. Debugging adtext assumptions (18 September 2015)
  28. How adtech, not ad blocking, breaks the social contract (23 September 2015)
  29. A way to peace in the adblock war (21 September 2015, on the ProjectVRM blog)
  30. Beyond ad blocking — the biggest boycott in human history (28 Septemper 2015)
  31. Dealing with Boundary Issues (1 October 2015 in Linux Journal)
  32. Helping publishers and advertisers move past the ad blockade (11 October on the ProjectVRM blog)
  33. How #adblocking matures from #NoAds to #SafeAds (22 October 2015)
  34. How Will the Big Data Craze Play Out (1 November 2015 in Linux Journal)
  35. Ad Blockers and the Next Chapter of the Internet (5 November in Harvard Business Review)
  36. At last, Cluetrain’s time has come (5 December 2015)
  37. The End of Internet Advertising as We’ve Known It (11 December 2015 in MIT Technology Review)
  38. More thoughts on privacy (13 December 2015)
  39. Why ad blocking is good (17 December 2015 talk at the U. of Michigan)
  40. What we can do with ad blocking’s leverage (1 January 2016 in Linux Journal)
  41. Rethinking John Wanamaker (18 January 2016)

There are others, but those will do for now.

ripping up a contractLet’s reset our thinking to what a user’s expectations are, when operating a browser and interacting with pages and sites.

In my browser, when I visit a page, I am requesting that page. I am not requesting stuff other than that page itself. This is what the hypertext protocol (http) provides.

(Protocols are ritualized manners, like handshakes, bows and smiles. They also scaffold the social contract.)

Likewise, when I visit a site (such as a seller) with a service on the Web, I am not requesting stuff other than what that site presents to me in text and graphics.

So, for example, when I go to some-publisher.com, I expect the browser to display that page and its links, and nothing more. And when I go to seller.com, I expect the browser to display the index page of the site — and, if I have some kind of relationship with that site, recognition that I’m a returning visitor or customer.

In neither of those cases do I expect tracking files, other than those required to remember state, which was the original purpose of Lou Montouli’s magic cookie, way back in ’94. Now known as just “the cookie,” it is in ubiquitous use today. In  Lou’s detailed history of that creation he writes, “The goal was to create a session identifier and general ‘memory’ mechanism for websites that didn’t allow for cross site tracking.”

Now let’s look at how we read a newspaper or a magazine here in the physical world. This time I’ll use my sister as an example of a typical reader. She’s a retired Commander in the U.S. Navy, and organized in the way she interacts with what we generally call “content.”

When a newspaper arrives, she “field strips” it. If it’s the Sunday paper, she pulls out all the advertising inserts and either throws them away or sets them aside, depending on whether or not they contain coupons that might interest her. Then she strips out sections that don’t interest her. The Travel section might go on one Sunday, the Sports section on another.

Then, when she reads the paper, she ignores most of the ads. One exception might be the magazine section, which tends to contain full-page brand ads by companies like Apple and Toyota. Those she might notice and like at some level. It all depends

My point is that she consciously blocks some ads and allows some others, some of which she pays attention to, but most of which she does not.

This kind of interaction is what the user expects the hypertext protocol (http) and good manners on the part of websites and services will provide. Websites that spy on users outside of their own domains (or use third parties to do the same) break the social contract when they do that. It’s that simple.

Yes, cases can be made for innocent forms of tracking, such as anonymized data gathering for analytics that improve what websites do. But they should be opt-in for users, not opt-out. Alas, that kind of tracking is a baby in the blocking bathwater. (The EFF’s Privacy Badger blocks many of these by default, and provides sliders for degrees of opting in or out of them.)

How did we get from the online world Lou Montouli sought to improve in ’94 and the one we have today? Check the metaphors for what we had and what we’ve lost.

Back in the mid-’90s we called the browser our car on the “information superhighway.” Cars, like clothing and shelter, are privacy technologies. They give us ways of operating in the world that conceal our most private spaces — ones where others are not welcome, except by invititation.

But, thanks to Zuboff’s Laws, our browsers became infected with spyware. Here is what those laws say:

  1. Everything that can be automated will be automated.
  2. Everything that can be informated will be informated.
  3. Every digital application that can be used for surveillance and control will be used for surveillance and control.

Sure, some of adtech’s surveillance is meant to give us a “better advertising experience” or whatever. Buy that’s beside the main point: it breaks the social contract in both the letter and the spirit of hypertext protocol. It gives us what none of us asked for and what most of us don’t want.

A few years ago, we tried to send a message to publishers and advertisers with Do Not Track, but it was fought, mocked and ignored by those to whom it spoke.

Fortunately, browsers support add-ons and extensions, so we took actions that can’t be ignored, by installing ad and tracking blockers. In doing so we acted as free and independent agents, just as we do in the everyday world with our clothing, our shelter and our cars.

What we need next are ways for us to engage constructively with publishers, in alignment with well-understood social contracts long established in the everyday world, and embodied in the hypertext protocol.

Engagement will also give us scale. As I explain in A Way to Peace in the Adblock War,

Some on the advertising side want to engage, and not to fight. In Dear Adblocking community, we need to talk, Chris Pedigo of Digital Content Next recognizes the legitimacy of ad blocking in response to bad acting by his industry, and outlines some good stuff they can do.

But they also need to see that it’s no longer up to just them. It’s up to us: the individual targets of advertising.

The only way engagement will work is through tools that are ours, and we control: tools that give us scale — like a handshake gives us scale. What engages us with the Washington Post should also engage us with Verge and Huffpo. What engages us with Mercedes should also engage us with a Ford dealer or a shoe store.

If we leave fixing things up to publishers and the adtech industry, all of us will be given different prosthetic hands, each of which will interact in different ways that are not of our choosing and give us no scale. In fact that is what we already get with the DAA’s Ad Choices and Ghostery’s massive opt-out list. We see how well that worked.

The road to personal independence and engagement scale is a long one.

In The Cluetrain Manifesto, we said,

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

Except in 1999, when we wrote that, we didn’t yet have the reach. We just knew we would, sooner or later, as a native entitlement of the Net.

In The Data Bubble, I said,

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.

In fact it the tide didn’t turn, because we didn’t yet have the tools to turn it. The Journal’s series, titled “What They Know,” is still at http://wsj.com/wtk. The last entry is in 2013. They should fire it up again.

Because now, in late 2015, we have the first of those tools, with ad and tracking blockers.

But we have to do better. And by “we” I mean us human beings — and the developers working on our side for the good of everybody.

Note: This is the sixth post in a series covering online advertising, starting on 12 August. Here are the first five:

  1. Separating advertising’s wheat and chaff
  2. Apple’s content blocking is chemo for the cancer of adtech
  3. Will content blocking push Apple into advertising’s wheat business?
  4. If marketing listened to markets, they’d hear what ad blocking is telling them
  5. Debugging adtext assumptions

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