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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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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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wheat+apple

[Update on 3 January 2016: Buzzfeed reports that Apple is killing iAd and getting out of that business, ending the conflict I detail below. For a look at what I am sure is behind that decision, scroll down to “Sacrificing its adtech business…”.]

A couple weeks ago, I posted Separating advertising’s wheat and chaff, contrasting privacy-respecting brand advertising (the wheat) with privacy-offending tracking-based advertising (the chaff), better known in the industry as “adtech.”

Apple pushes both, through its own advertising business, called iAd. The company is also taking sides against both — especially adtech — by supporting Content Blocking in a new breed of mobile phone apps we can expect to see in iOS 9, Apple’s next mobile operating system, due next month.

In Apple’s Content Blocking is chemo for the cancer of adtech, which I posted a few days ago, I visited the likely effects of content blocking. Since then a number of readers have pointed to posts about iAd and the opt-out choices Apple provides for advertising on iPhones and iPads.

Both iAd and the opt-outs reveal that Apple is as much in the adtech business as any other company that tracks people around the Net and blasts personalized advertising at them.

Apple also appears to be taking sides against adtech with its privacy policy, which has lately become more public and positioned clearly against the big tracking-based advertising companies (notably Google and Facebook). In September of last year, for example, Apple put up a new pageapple.com/privacy — that contained this paragraph:

Our business model is very straightforward: We sell great products. We don’t build a profile based on your email content or web browsing habits to sell to advertisers. We don’t “monetize” the information you store on your iPhone or in iCloud. And we don’t read your email or your messages to get information to market to you. Our software and services are designed to make our devices better. Plain and simple.

What we have here, then, is Apple’s massive B2C business in conflict with one of its B2B businesses. Since there is a lot of history here, let’s review it.

On 8 July 2010, Engadget published iAds uses iTunes history, location information to target advertising. It begins,

We’ve heard about this before, but now that it’s up and running, this is probably worth a revisit. Apple’s iAds system actually uses lots of your information, including your iTunes purchasing history, location data, and any other download or library information it can suss out about you, to determine what ads you see. So say a few marketing firms working with the large companies now buying and selling iAds.

A recent series of ads for soap was able to target “married men who are in their late 30s and have children.” That’s very specific, and when Apple rolls out the full program, it’ll even be able to use things like iBooks purchases and iTunes movie and TV downloads to target you with advertising.

On 15 October 2014, Digiday published Apple revamps mobile ads with retargeting options. It begins,

Apple’s release of its new mobile operating system last month came with an overlooked gift for marketers: the ability to retarget ads based on users’ in-app browsing behaviors.

According to ad agencies, Apple is actively pitching the new capability as a way to effectively solve the mobile cookie problem.

Say, for example, a visitor to a retailer’s iPhone app adds a pair of shoes to his cart but ultimately decide not to buy it. In this scenario, the retailer will now be able to retarget that user with an ad for that exact pair — even in another app on his iPad. When tapped, the ad would direct him back to his abandoned checkout page and automatically add the shoes to his online shopping cart.

That was when iAd was new. Since then it has come to be regarded, at least by the online press, as something of a failure. On 16 Ocbober 2014, Business Insider published Here’s Apple’s Plan To Turn Around iAd, One Of Its Biggest Flops. The gist:

Several sources have confirmed to Business Insider that Apple is currently visiting mobile specialists at the top media agencies in New York City to push the new function. (Cross-device retargeting.)

Cross-device retargeting is of most use to retailers: if a customer spends some time looking at a dress on their iPad app but decides not to buy it, that same retailer can “retarget” them with an ad displaying an image of that dress, options to buy, or directions to the store when they next pick up their iPhone.

On 19 November 2014, AdExchanger published iAd starts selling programmatically, and explains how it works:

iAd has more than 400 targeting options for advertisers. Its audience is also validated, since users must create an iTunes account in order to download apps. With the release of iOS 8, Apple announced that those Apple IDs could be used by iAds advertisers to retarget users across their devices. Those capabilities make it a good fit for advertisers doing audience-based targeting, who often prefer transacting in programmatic channels.

iAd has scale: “Apple iAd’s sell-side SDK is one of the most penetrated SDKs in the industry,” said Michael Oiknine, CEO of Apsalar. “They now have added iTunes radio inventory, so it’s a smart yield maximization strategy for Apple and is akin to Facebook strategy, which maximizes inventory sales via FBX and PMDs.”

On 21 November 2014, Venturebeat published Apple and AdRoll enable iOS ad retargeting — with extra data from iTunes and the App Store. It begins,

In a significant move for the mobile advertising industry, Apple and retargeting leader AdRoll have announced a partnership that will see AdRoll providing its retargeting and programmatic buying capability for iAd. In addition, Apple will enable advertisers to target potential customers via access to its proprietary data sets from iTunes and the app store.

On 21 November 2014, AdWeek published Get Ready for More Mobile Ads on Your iPhones as Apple Launches New iAds. The gist:

Today, Apple is unveiling partnerships with companies like AdRoll, which will flip a switch and start serving iAds through its automated marketing platforms. This turn toward programmatic mobile advertising has been in the works for at least a year. Last year, the company stopped treating iAd like a high-end marketing platform for only the top brands with the most cash.

Apple wanted to build a self-serve mobile advertising system in house, and it bought Quattro Wireless to help. Sources said that effort faltered, and Apple decided to partner with ad tech companies like AdRoll and The Rubicon Project to compete with mobile ad giants like Facebook, Google and Twitter.

AdRoll is a retargeting specialty firm that lets marketers use their own consumer data profiles to deliver ads across such platforms. And Rubicon unexpectedly leaked word earlier this week that it was partnering with Apple.

On 22 January 2015, ExchangeWire asked What will Apple’s Ad Tech Play look like? They say,

Apple’s renewed designs on the advertising business were revealed when it was announced it was to start selling its iAd inventory on a programmatic basis, with several firms including MediaMath, Rubicon Project, among others, over four years after its iAd unit was initially launched, asking advertisers for (the then audacious sum of) $1m per campaign on its iOS devices.

Since launch, Apple’s presence in the advertising business has been largely underwhelming (apart from its own spend). But the revelation it had chosen several supply-side platforms (SSP) to sell programmatic guaranteed opportunities on behalf of the 250,000-plus App Store developers indicated its renewed designs on the sector.

The announcement itself made waves, not least because of the bungled nature of the announcement,which itself raises a number of issues to debated about Apple’s influence in the ad tech sector (more on that later).

The initial announcement read: “Apple’s iAd provides 400-plus targeting options to advertisers, based on hundreds of millions of validated iTunes accounts worldwide. This rich first-party data asset makes it easy for buyers to target the specific mobile audiences of their choice.”

The move represented, for the first time, that Apple is willing to loosen control over its first-party iTunes data with advertisers expected to be willing to pay top dollar for the access.

They add,

Apple has since started to advertise for roles within its iAd business, requesting applications for UK candidates to join its iAd Marketplace Sales Organisation.

Among the skills requested are: “Apple’s customers on the various products iAd has to offer as well as how to leverage iAd’s self service buying platform, iAd Workbench.”

In addition: “Third-party tags familiarity a plus.”

What is clear, from all these pieces and many others like them, is that Apple’s adtech business is little if any different from the rest of them — meaning just as creepy and privacy-abusing — and notable as well for failing to live up to its original ambitions, which were both huge and (via Business Insider) outlined by Saint Steve himself:

At launch, Jobs set out the bold ambition that iAd would capture 50% of the mobile ad market. Apple marketed iAd as a best-in-class solution for advertisers because it owns both the hardware and operating system the ads ride on and gains valuable data when people sign up for Apple ID to register for iTunes accounts. That means it can target ads by age, gender, home address, iTunes purchases and App Store downloads.

However, it’s still somewhat behind that lofty 50% target. iAd made up just 2.5% of the mobile ad revenue booked in the US last year, according to eMarketer, behind Google which takes the lion’s share (37.7%) and Facebook (17.9%). The most recent data from IDC states Apple generated $125 million in mobile ad sales in 2012.

Apple’s total sales in FY 2012 were $125 billion, or 1000x its mobile ad sales that year. Put another way, iAd contributed 0.01% to Apple’s sales.

Meanwhile, does any Apple customer want advertising on their iPhone or iPad?

Apple knows the answer to that question, which is why Apple provides ways for you to “limit ad tracking on your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch” and “ads based on your interests.”* (Just go to Settings > Privacy > Advertising to “Limit Ad Tracking,” and to Settings > Privacy > Location Services > System Services. to turn off “Location Based iAds.”) And soon we’ll have Content Blocking as well.

Sacrificing its adtech business would position Apple in full alignment with three things:

  1. Tim Cook’s privacy statement. It would take the loopholes out of that thing.
  2. Market demand. People are fed up with losing their privacy online — almost all of it to the tracking-based advertising business. (Sources: Pew, TRUSTe, Customer Commons, Wharton.)
  3. The moral high ground called simple human decency. Most people don’t want to be tracked in the online world any more than they want to be tracked in the physical one. Nor do they want information about them known by first parties to be sold to third parties, or to anybody, with our without their knowledge, no matter how normative that practice has become.

Dropping adtech would also be good for iAd, which could then concentrate on placing non-tracking-based brand ads, which are more valuable anyway: to brands, to publishers and to the marketplace. Also to Apple itself, because they would be selling wheat, rather than chaff.

Until then, the loopholes persist in Tim Cook’s privacy statement, and Apple retains major conflicts between its massive B2C businesses and its struggling B2B adtech business.

It will be interesting to see what the company does once the Content Blocking chemo hits the App Store bloodstream.

* “Based on your interests” (aka “interest based advertising“) is a delusional conceit by both adtech (examples here , here and here) and online retailing (prime example: Amazon). Neither visiting sites nor buying are measures of interests. All they show are actions that could mean anything — or nothing.

The interest-based advertisers say our interests are “inferred” by what we do (and they like to observe, constantly and everywhere). And yet those inferences are weakened by another assumption that is flat-out wrong, nearly all the time: that we are always in a shopping mode. In fact we are not.

We are, in fact, always in an owning mode, which is why I think that’s the real greenfield for e-commerce. If companies shifted a third of what they spend on adtech over to customer service, they would vastly increase both customer loyalty and brand value.

By the way, Apple knows this, possibly better than any other technology company. That’s one more reason why I think their B2C smarts will correct the adtech crowd-following errors of their B2B ways.

[Later…] @JamesDempsey tweets,

iOS 9 content blocking is in Safari. iAds appear in apps—not web pages: iAds not blocked.

Good to know. Apple’s iAd site doesn’t make that clear (to me, at least). What this tells me is that iAd is in the chaff business while Content Blocking encourages wheat on Safari. Doesn’t change the point of this post, or the earlier ones.

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