Where's all the legit spam?
This was the US Federal law that overruled state
laws on email spam, some of which were strict, and
cleared the way for advertisers to send all the
spam they wanted, as long as they followed a few
basic rules. It was a huge lobbying victory for the
Direct Marketing Association.
Today, the data, the tools, and even the law are all
there for advertisers to take full advantage of email
spam. The CAN-SPAM debate is over. The Internet
privacy nerds lost, and database marketing won.
So where is all the CAN-SPAM compliant spam?
After all, it seems like it should be a no-brainer.
Spam has everything that's promising about adtech.
Web ads promise targeting, but spam has been able to
deliver it for a long time. Why aren't advertisers
Let's go back and look at the potential
of adtech. In Ad Age, Adam
Lehman, COO and General Manager at Lotame, writes,
With the enormous variety of information available
through the Internet, I am able to do research on
running shoes across diverse sources. Based on the
interests I express through my research, I may be
presented with downstream advertising offers, which
I can take or leave.
The key word here is "downstream." Lehman goes to a
running site and somehow expresses interest in shoes.
Later, while he's browsing some other, possibly
unrelated, site, an advertiser "retargets" him with
a shoe ad. The "downstream" site can be running
whatever the hell is the cheapest content that Lehman
is willing to look at at all, because adtech magick
will stalk, sorry, retarget him. That's the adtech Holy
Grail. Instead of having to place ads
on relevant content, an advertiser can
chase the user onto cheaper and cheaper
sites. (An example of this effect is the problem
of ads showing up on infringing sites.
When technology starts automatically searching
for cheaper and cheaper places to run an ad,
it inevitably connects with the Internet's
bottom-feeders. But that's another story.
If you're in adtech and not reading Chris
Castle, the webmasters of skeevy rip-off sites
are so far inside your OODA loop that you might as
well not bother.)
Anyway, back to spam. What if you took adtech and
turned all of its qualities up to 11? Exact user
targeting? Sure. Email addresses are in marketing
databases already. Save money on content? Can't get
cheaper than free. Take every adtech concept and
max it out, and you get email spam.
But what's wrong with that? John Battelle writes,
It’s actually a good thing that we as consumers
are waking up to the fact that marketers know a
lot about us – because we also know a lot about
ourselves, and about what we want. Only when we can
exchange value for value will advertising move to a
new level, and begin to drive commercial experiences
that begin to feel right. That will take an informed
public that isn’t “creeped out” or dismissive of
marketing, but rather engaged and expectant – soon,
we will demand that marketers pay for our attention
and our data – by providing us better deals, better
experiences, and better service. This can only be
done via a marketing ecosystem that leverages data,
algorithms, and insight at scale.
As they say on the Internet, d00d wtf? The first step
in me getting a better deal is for the other side
to have more information about me, and for
me to be
engaged and expectant about that?
If that's true, advertisers should be able to (1)
Dump the company accounting database as CSV (2)
Upload it to Wikileaks (3) PROFIT!
Information asymmetries work in favor of the side
with more information, and no hippy-dippy talk about
"engagement" and "ecosystem" is going to change that.
If you know enough about individuals, you can
give better offers and service to the high-Whuffie
customers, and rip off the rest. Or discriminate in
IBM is already offering a social analytics package for
mobile carriers that will let them see how influential
a customer is over the carrier choices of others.
From there, carriers can easily partition the
support tree into customers worth paying attention
to and others. The open question is how close is
the relationship between customer-avaiblable social
metrics such as Klout and the internal scores.
"I have to call support...better get my Klout above
50 or I'll be wasting my time."
But back to email spam. Which is the
digital version of direct mail, which
is the paper version of a cold call. The problem
with that whole kind of communication is that it's
based on extremely fine-grained data on the seller's
side, and none on the buyer's.
An advertisement that's tied to content, in a
clearly expensive way, sends a signal from the
advertiser to the buyer. The extreme example here
is an ad in a glossy magazine. It'll still be on
that magazine years later, and every subscriber
gets the same one. Almost ideal from a signaling
point of view. The other extreme is a cold call,
which carries no "proof of work" or signaling value.
All the information is on the seller's side, so the
cold call is of no value to the recipient.
Which is why users block email spam. It's worthless.
Even spam that complies with CAN-SPAM is worthless.
Now look at web advertising. A web ad is
neither magazine ad nor cold call, but somewhere
in the middle. The key problem with adtech is
that it's moving web ads further and further away
from magazine-style, with signaling value, toward
spam-style, with no signaling value.
It's no coincidence that as adtech gets "better,"
users are blocking more ads. If you crank up the
targeting far enough, the ads start to carry so
little signaling value that the web will become a
refuge for bottom-feeder advertisers, the way email
spam is today. Adtech's success would be a failure
There is a better way, though. And print has it.
Fine Homebuilding magazine is actually
much more valuable to me because of the ads.
I can skip or view them as I choose, and, more
importantly, they convey valuable information to
me about sellers' intentions to sell and support
products. I'd prefer the magazine with the ads to
the magazine without them.
We need to start making a distinction between adtech,
which is creepy and wrong, and advertising in general.
We seem to be going down the path that advertising on
the Internet == creepy adtech. But advertising on the
Internet in combination with technology and norms that
respect privacy can be a good thing. After all, advertising
is good for both buyers and sellers when it acts
as a public signal of a seller's intentions. This has
always been true but will become increasingly obvious
as buyer-driven search improves.
So the hard part is making web advertising work
more like print advertising. That's going to take
good design and UX, and effective sales as well as
privacy tech. It's past time to revisit some of
the browser design decisions that affect privacy and
cross-site tracking. During the dot-com frenzy, the
industry made some bad decisions on how to handle
third-party cookies and scripts in the browser.
Today's browsers are a wretched hive of scum and
villainy, privacy-wise. But that's starting to
change. Tracking Protection Lists from MSIE are a
promising start, and the Firefox scene has a confusing
selection of extensions that implement some good
privacy improvements that are looking increasingly
likely to make it into the mainstream browser.
Online advertising will be worth a lot more when
we outgrow creepy adtech. The question is how to
allocate the costs of the privacy work—all
advertisers will benefit, so it's a classic free rider
problem. All advertisers would benefit by raising
online advertising's signaling power, which reducing
targeting capabilities would do, but a specific ad
can perform better if user-targeted.
And even if de-creepifying advertising is the right
thing to do, people aren't economically rational.
So they don't value each other's freedom even when
it's in their best interest economically to do so.
The pride of man makes him love
to domineer, and nothing mortifies him so much
as to be obliged to condescend to persuade his
inferiors. Wherever the law allows it, and the
nature of the work can afford it, therefore, he
will generally prefer the service of slaves to that
of freemen. This comes in The Wealth of
Nations right after a long explanation of
how free labor is preferable to slave labor from the
POV of the employer/owner. We have to be realistic
when thinking about adtech's appeal to conventional
marketing decision-makers, who could easily prefer
a tracked or locked-in customer to one with which
the vendor might have a more profitable equitable
Anyway, that creepy feeling you get from adtech?
That's your inner Homo economicus
Syndicated 2013-01-05 15:17:20 from Don Marti