Tag: Amazon

If it weren’t for retargeting, we might not have ad blocking

jblflip2This is a shopping vs. advertising story that starts with the JBP Flip 2 portable speaker I bought last year, when Radio Shack was going bankrupt and unloading gear in “Everything Must Go!” sales. I got it half-off for $50, choosing it over competing units on the same half-bare shelves, mostly because of the JBL name, which I’ve respected for decades. Before that I’d never even listened to one.

The battery life wasn’t great, but the sound it produced was much better than anything my laptop, phone or tablet put out. It was also small, about the size of a  beer can, so I could easily take it with me on the road. Which I did. A lot.

Alas, like too many other small devices, the Flip 2’s power jack was USB micro-b. That’s the tiny flat one that all but requires a magnifying glass to see which side is up, and tends to damage the socket if you don’t slip it in exactly right, or if you force it somehow. While micro-b jacks are all design-flawed that way, the one in my Flip 2 was so awful that it took great concentration to make sure the plug jacked in without buggering the socket.

Which happened anyway. One day, at an AirBnB in Maine, the Flip 2’s USB socket finally failed. The charger cable would fit into the socket, but the socket was loose, and the speaker wouldn’t take a charge. After efforts at resuscitation failed, I declared the Flip 2 dead.

But I was still open to buying another one. So, to replace it, I did what most of us do: I went to Amazon. Naturally, there were plenty of choices, including JBL Flip 2s and newer Flip 3s, at attractive prices. But Consumer Reports told me the best of the bunch was the Bose Soundlink Color, for $116.

So I bought a white Bose, because my wife liked that better than the red JBL.

The Bose filled Consumer Reports’ promise. While it isn’t stereo, it sounds much better than the JBL (voice quality and bass notes are remarkable). It’s also about the same size (though with a boxy rather than a cylindrical shape), has better battery life, and a better user interface. I hate that it  charges through a micro-b jack, but at least this one is easier to plug and unplug than the Flip 2 had been. So that story had a happy beginning, at least for me and Bose.

It was not happy, however, for me and Amazon.

Remember when Amazon product pages were no longer than they needed to be? Those days are gone. Now pages for every product seem to get longer and longer, and can take forever to load. Worse, Amazon’s index page is now encrusted with promotional jive. Seems like nearly everything “above the fold” (before you scroll down) is now a promo for Amazon Fashion, the latest Kindle, Amazon Prime, or the company credit card—plus rows of stuff “inspired by your shopping trends” and “related to items you’ve viewed.”

But at least that stuff risks being useful. What happens when you leave the site, however, isn’t. That’s because, unless you’re running an ad blocker or tracking protection, Amazon ads for stuff you just viewed, or put in your shopping cart, follow you from one ad-supported site to another, barking at you like a crazed dog. For example:


I lost count of how many times, and in how many places, I saw this Amazon ad, or one like it, for one speaker, the other, or both, after I finished shopping and put the Bose speaker in my cart.

Why would Amazon advertise something at me that I’ve already bought, along with a competing product I obviously chose not to buy? Why would Amazon think it’s okay to follow me around when I’m not in their store? And why would they think that kind of harassment is required, or even okay, especially when the target has been a devoted customer for more than two decades, and sure to return and buy all kinds of stuff anyway?  Jeez, they have my business!

And why would they go out of their way to appear both stupid and robotic?

The answers, whatever they are, are sure to be both fully rationalized and psychotic, meaning disconnected from reality, which is the marketplace where real customers live, and get pissed off.

And Amazon is hardly alone at this. In fact the practice is so common that it became an Onion story in October 2018: Woman Stalked Across 8 Websites By Obsessed Shoe Advertisement.

The ad industry’s calls this kind of stalking “retargeting,” and it is the most obvious evidence that we are being tracked on the Net. The manners behind this are completely at odds with those in the physical world, where no store would place a tracking beacon on your body and use it to follow you everywhere you go after you leave. But doing exactly that is pro forma for marketing in the digital world.

When you click on that little triangular symbol in the corner of the ad, you can see how the “interactive” wing of the advertising business, generally called adtech, rationalizes surveillance:

adchoices1The program is called AdChoices, and it’s a creation of those entities in the lower right corner. The delusional conceits behind AdChoices are many:

  1. That Ad Choices is “yours.” It’s not. It’s theirs.
  2. That “right ads” exist, and that we want them to find us, at all times.
  3. That making the choices they provide actually gives us control of advertising online.
  4. That our personal agency—the power to act with full effect in the world—is a grace of marketers, and not of our own independent selves.

Not long after I did that little bit of shopping on Amazon, I also did a friend the favor of looking for clothes washers, since the one in her basement crapped out and she’s one of those few people who don’t use the Internet and never will. Again I consulted Consumer Reports, which recommended a certain LG washer in my friend’s price range. I looked for it on the Web and found the best price was at Home Depot. So I told her about it, and that was that.

For me that should have been the end of it. But it wasn’t, because now I was being followed by Home Depot ads for the same LG washer and other products I wasn’t going to buy, from Home Depot or anybody else. Here’s one:


Needless to say, this didn’t endear me to Home Depot, to LG, or to any of the sites where I got hit with these ads.

All these parties failed not only in their mission to sell me something, but to enhance their own brands. Instead they subtracted value for everybody in the supply chain of unwelcome tracking and unwanted message targeting. They also explain (as Don Marti does here) why ad blocking has grown exactly in pace with growth in retargeting.

I subjected myself to all this by experimentally turning off tracking protection and ad blockers on one of my browsers, so I could see how the commercial Web works for the shrinking percentage of people who don’t protect themselves from this kind of abuse. I do a lot of that, as part of my work with ProjectVRM. I also experiment a lot with different kinds of tracking protection and ad blocking, because the developers of those tools are encouraged by that same work here.

For those new to the project, VRM stands for Vendor Relationship Management, the customer-side counterpart of Customer Relationship Management, the many-$billion business by which companies manage their dealings with customers—or try to.

Our purpose with ProjectVRM is to encourage development of tools that give us both independence from the companies we engage with, and better ways of engaging than CRM alone provides: ways of engaging that we own, and are under our control. And relate to the CRM systems of the world as well. Our goal is VRM+CRM, not VRM vs. CRM.

Ad blocking and tracking protection are today at the leading edge of VRM development, because they are popular and give us independence. Engagement, however, isn’t here yet—at least not at the same level of popularity. And it probably won’t get here until we finish curing business of the brain cancer that adtech has become.

[Later…] After reading this, a friend familiar with the adtech business told me he was sure Bose’s and JPL’s agencies paid Amazon’s system for showing ads to “qualified leads,” and that Amazon’s system preferred to call me a qualified lead rather than a customer whose purchase of a Bose speaker (from Amazon!) mattered less than the fact that its advertising system could now call me a qualified lead. In other words, Amazon was, in a way, screwing Bose and JPL. If anyone has hard facts about this, please send them along. Until then I’ll consider this worth sharing but still unproven.

Advertising in Reverse

Here in the VRM development community we’ve been talking (and in some cases working) for several years on the Personal RFP. Technically an RFP is a “buyer-initiated procurement protocol” for businesses doing business with businesses: B2B as they say. With VRM the buyer is an individual. Hence, Personal RFP. Not a great label, but one that businesses understand.

Now comes Scott Adams (Dilbert’s cartoonist), with Hunter Becomes the Prey. His compressed case:

Shopping is broken… Google is nearly worthless when shopping for items that don’t involve technology. It is as if the Internet has become a dense forest where your desired purchases can easily hide.

Advertising is broken too, because there are too many products battling for too little consumer attention. So ads can’t hope to close the can’t-find-what-I-want gap. The standard shopping model needs to be reversed. Instead of the shopper acting as hunter, and the product hiding as prey, you should be able to describe in your own words what sort of thing you are looking for, and the vendors should use those footprints to hunt you down and make their pitch…

You can imagine this service as a web site. The consumer goes to the section that best fits his needs (furniture, cars, computers, etc.) and describes what he wants, in his own words. Vendors could set key word alerts via e-mail or text for any products in their general category.

Once they read the customer’s needs online, they have the option of posting their solution, publicly, which gives other vendors and consumers an opportunity to offer counterpoints.

I assume this service already exists in some weaker form. www.answers.yahoo.com is a step in the right direction, but it doesn’t broadcast your needs to vendors.

My prediction is that Broadcast Shopping (as I just decided to name it) will become the normal way to shop.

I love “broadcast shopping.”

Where I veer from Scott’s approach is with the assumption that this requires “a site.” That’s because sites become silos, and silos are a big part of the problem we also have with loyalty cards. All are different. All say We have ways of making you shop. Tll trap and control you in their own ways. We need something that serves as a customer’s own tool, and works as simply as a keyring, a car key, an emailing, or a text message. “Here’s what I want: _________.” That’s it.

In business, RFPs use an open protocol (essentially, formalized paperwork and bidding processes). Anybody can use it. We need the same for broadcast shopping. Any of us should be able to broadcast, in a secure and selective way that protects our privacies, specified goods we’re shopping for.

I use the plural of privacy because what we reveal selectively will depend on who we already relate to. For example, say I have a trusted relationship with Nordstrom, Sears and a variety of smaller clothing retailers. I could broadcast only to those stores my need for a tan cotton dress shirt of a particular brand, with a 17″ neck and 31″ sleeves (my actual dimensions, there — I have a linebacker’s neck and arms like a penguin’s flippers). Or I could broadcast the same need to the general marketplace through a fourth party that intermediates on my behalf, not revealing any information about me beside my actual need.

One scenario Scott describes in his post…

For example, let’s say you’re looking for new patio furniture. The words you might use to describe your needs would be useless for Google. You might say, for example, “I want something that goes with a Mediterranean home. It will be sitting on stained concrete that is sort of amber colored. It needs to be easy to clean because the birds will be all over it. And I’m on a budget.”

Your description would be broadcast to all patio furniture makers, and those who believe they have good solutions could contact you, preferably by leaving comments on the web page where you posted your needs. You could easily ignore any robotic spam responses and consider only the personalized responses that include pictures.

… outlines a broad class of needs where the customer’s mind is not yet made up. Those are within the scope of VRM, but I think we should start with cases where the actual requirements are known by the buyer, and the buyer can set the terms of engagement. For example, “I want my receipt emailed to me in (this specified) data format, and I don’t want to receive any promotional material.”

All this is not only do-able, but inevitable.

I’ll conclude with a pitch of my own for funding research and development on this work.

Google should be interested because Advertising in Reverse, or Broadcast Shopping (a term I love, by the way), will either undermine or replace the company’s standing business model (which pays for all those freebies we enjoy).

Microsoft should be interested because this could give them something Google doesn’t have yet.

Yahoo should be interested because they need something new that’s a winning idea. Amazon and eBay should be interested because they’re already in that business, though in a silo’d way.

Oracle should be interested because it will sell more databases and Sun gear.

Apple should be interested because it’s one more area where they can push for new standards on which the range of innovation goes through the roof.

Every retailer and intermediary should be interested because the promise of the Net for buyers is not an infinite variety of closed silos, but a truly open marketplace where any buyer can do business with any seller — and on the buyer’s terms and not just the seller’s.

Like everything else we will come to depend on utterly while remaining absent in the present, VRM is thoroughly disruptive idea. It’s always smart to get ahead of the curve by getting behind what will bend it.

Adjusting Business to a Networked World

In response to The Trillion Dollar Market, which adds a few paragraphs to Gain of Facebook (below), which responded to How Facebook Could Create a Revolution, Do Good, and Make Billions, by Bernard Lunn in ReadWriteWeb, Nate Ritter raised some questions that I’d like to answer in detail. We begin…

…one question that needs to be solved is that if both suppliers and demanders are getting value out of the transaction why is it the suppliers are always fronting the money to make the connection?

The short answer is that we’ve done it that way ever since Industry won the Industrial Revolution. The long answer is that customer choice in the prevailing industrial system is provided by sellers to buyers they “target,” “acquire,” “control,” “manage” and “lock in.” These efforts include telling captives what their choices are. We call this “marketing”.

At the level of simple customer choice, the industrial system is no different than it was when sellers operated out of carts and stalls at village crossroads. Such is the nature of straightforward retailing. But in our industrial system, sellers sit out at the last link of many value chains. Exchanging goods and services for money is a small part of that system. The final transaction is just the far end of a process that moves from source to sale through a series of complex stages in which individual customers have little if any direct say. At the end of those stages, the customer’s choice is to buy or not to buy. The customer’s job is to consume, and not to do much more than that. It works well enough, but it is also open to countless improvements in a world where everybody is approximately zero distance from everybody else. That world is the Internet. And it’s new.

The Net makes it easy—or should make it easy—for customers to advertise what they want. That is, to find and drive supply. To a very limited degree, the supply side helps this with CRM (Customer Relationship Management) systems, but those systems are all silo’d and allow very limited input from customers themselves. Put crudely, they have ways of making you talk—with a minimal set of allowable words and phrases.

If this weren’t already broken enough, many sellers’ sites and systems are also poorly designed or maintained.  Think about what we all go through when we need customer service or tech support. Why should you have to give a series of call center people your account and phone numbers, even after you’ve already punched them in, time and again? These systems are lame because they put all responsibility for maintaining a “relationship” on the sell side. They exclude most forms of customer input because they don’t want more variables than they can easily “manage”. That excludes countless clues about what the market is up to, in addition to countless sums of money left on tables they can’t see through the CRM blinders they wear.

To be clear, I’m not saying CRM is inherently bad. I am saying it’s no closer to what we need than AOL and Compuserve were to the Internet, or than mainframes were to PCs.

What VRM proposes is shifting relationship responsibility to customers as well as sellers, for the simple reason that the customer is, for many purposes, the best point of integration for his or her own data—and the best point of origination for what can be done with it.

For example, a customer’s VRM system should be able to say, globally, “I want receipts emailed to me. Here is my email address. You can do business with me if you don’t share that address with anybody, and if you don’t send me unwanted emails. Sign here (digitally) if you agree to these terms.”

Yes, that may sound scary to sellers, but guess what? The customer-control horse left the seller’s barn as soon as the Internet came along. All that precious customer data that sellers think they own is a tiny fraction of what they can gain from independent customers in relationships where both sides are open to whatever the other brings to the table. In other words, relationships in which sellers do not speak of “acquiring”, “managing”, “controlling”, “owning” or “locking in” customers as if they were slaves or livestock.

What VRM offers are better ways for sellers and buyers to relate—as equals with a wide range of options. Yes, we’ll need open and standard protocols, data types, and methodologies. Not to mention agreements that the customer (and not just the seller) asserts. We’re working on all that stuff.

Next item…

I have a feeling the culture of consumerism dissuades consumers from believing they are giving up anything (or devalues the money they are giving away for the product/service). For example, the belief that everything is free that is on the web. That’s an inherent problem that has to be solved before there will be an market that starts with the consumers. The “market’ necessitates a trade of value, and if one side is inherently told that what they want is free, then why would they give up money to trade for it?

First, what we call “consumerism” should be re-labeled “producerism”, because it’s a phenomenon driven by production. As Thorstein Veblen put it long ago (and I used to put it before discovering Veblen said it first), invention is the mother of necessity. Consumers participate, of course, but they don’t drive it. The production side does.

Of course, I’m speaking on the general scale, and of course there are definitely products and services that exist because people wanted them to. And of course they do well in charging for something because the demographic believes it’s worth the trade. But that’s not a change of the macro market. And although it’s nice and warm and fuzzy, the reality is that on a large scale people are simply being conditioned to take things for free. They don’t want to trade value for value.

When Napster came along, and suddenly everybody’s CD collection was free for the taking, “everything is free” became a mantra. Nobody, it seemed, would ever pay for music again. Why would they, when all of it is free, and one’s chances of getting caught and nailed by the RIAA and its running dogs were so small? Then Apple created the iPod and iTunes and the iTunes store, and started charging 99¢ for medium-fi music that didn’t work on more than five “authorized” devices. And people ate it up. Suddenly music had two price points: $.00 for illegal music and $.99 for legal but crippled music. How big is the latter business? Said here two years ago that Apple had already sold 2.5 billion songs. And how much has the former non-business driven the whole music industry in a new direction? Why cry about how disruptive the Internet is, and how much it devalues every old business it touches*, when it’s an expanding planet-sized environment on which countless new businesses can be built to do far more, and make money from (and for) many more people, and companies, than the old ones?

My point: it’s early. The Net is a giant zero between everything and everybody. It removes distance and reduces the costs of connection, storage, and distribution in the direction of zero.

There is still plenty of money to be made at the commodity level (just ask Nick Carr, or Amazon), but that’s one more reason why the Giant Zero is a great place to build all kinds of new businesses. And why it’s still very, very early in what Craig Burton calls the “terraforming” of the Net’s new world.

The point of my two postings (in the first sentence up top) is that there is much more money to be made in helping demand find and drive supply than in helping supply find and drive demand. And that this will be much better for the supply side than the old system, where suppliers have to do it all.

I wish it weren’t that way. Perhaps some day it won’t be. But we have to start changing the message that we’re sending out there, or even better than pushing a message, finding the areas where people are indicating they’re willing to pay for a product to be created. Harder done than said.

True. But we’ve already started. If one looks at markets (or economies) as places where parties signal each other, we’re already well underway. Nate himself did a heroic job of putting Twitter on the map as a great signaling system on the Live Web during real-world emergencies. In his case, it was the San Diego Fire. It’s conceivable that what the market learned in that experience helped save my own house during the two recent fires in Santa Barbara.

Last winter I used Twitter successfully to signal our family’s interest in a good restaurant during a layover at O’Hare. This was way less significant than what Nate did during a huge fire, but no less eye-opening for me.

Still, tweeting—microblogging—is just one early step in a direction where lies an endless variety of signals that can move from demand to supply. VRM is about creating open, standard, and simple pro forma ways of doing that.

* Tom Foremski is right when he says The Internet Devalues Everything It Touches, Anything That Can Be Digitized. But you have to read Tom’s points deeply to get the full implications. Losing the old will be painful. But there is far more value to be found in the new. For example, in fourth parties.

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