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Such a strong word

It is a company that is loved, and yet surprisingly hated — if not despised — by some. It is the friend whose little strange habits and quirks we once cherished. But now they annoy and grate on our nerves. It is a company that we have held up as a shining beacon of hope — the giant killer. The company that could stand against Microsoft and the great evil empire.

But alas, the company is but the latest victim of the same pedestal on which we elevated Microsoft years before. Beware that pedestal, for it provides a perch that only looks downward. Sometimes when companies ascend to it, they start to believe they are separate, better versions of humans.

They start to believe their own hype; in that moment, they become lost.

There is a fine line between confidence and arrogance, between self-assuredness and hubris, and unfortunately Google is straddling that line. Why the perceptive shift in attitudes toward Google? What has the company done other than bring us fantastic tools? Tools, like Android, that have changed entire industries. Tools, like search, that have provided insight into the most remote corners of the world. Why is the simmering of discontent Read the rest of this entry »

First I’ll tell you what we won’t do in 2009. What we won’t do is look at the core of the problem. It will be another year of snafu. Online advertising and marketing is intrusive, annoying, difficult to produce, reviewed in isolation away from how it’s consumed, approved by cretins who do not want to admit their own ignorance, and then foisted on the consumer in a mass rapid-fire direct-response-marketing-monstrosity-masquerading-as-advertising where the voluminous data that comes back to agencies is utter mind-boggling complexity that tells us all?… nothing. The agency then presents this refined clusterphuck to the luddite client in order to repeat and refine the loop. The whole process is fubar.

Now, here’s what we may be able to accomplish…

1. Privacy: The scare tactics around privacy online will further dissipate, allowing for better sharing of data among companies, to enable customized targeting which will serve to benefit the consumer. The ads will just be more relevant, and the blurred lines between personal and private lives will help further open the fallacy of the division.

Congress will take up some online advertising issue because one of the members moronic daughters got caught in an online scam, or they themselves did, and are just using their children as scapegoats. They will all rattle their sabers, and in the end nothing will happen. Or, we will get something pathetically ineffective like CAN SPAM or Sarbanes Oxley that just gives an overly paranoid and conservative public confidence that Congress is doing something. The good companies will get punished and then the consumer will bitch about advertising not being relevant… why? Because some idiot hindered the tools that would make it so.

2. Video: A new video ad serving model that divorces the advertising from the current content being viewed will emerge where consumers can build credits for watching advertising and then view any content they want. The consumer gets to watch the content they want, and the advertising for products they are interested in. Simple, no? Look, we have an enormous amount invested in television advertising production and assets and until we all figure out how to translate this to an online video ad model that is not interruptive to the content we’ll never become the rich consumption medium for advertising that will help move our entire industry forward.

3. Websites: The iPhone will grow to 2% of total total internet surfing, forcing most companies (or at least the ones that get it) to improve their mobile versions of their websites, which will be simpler, faster, and more useful to the consumer. Advice, stop using Flash to “wow” your internal staff, and start simplifying your online presence.

4. Banners: Several ad networks will go the way of the dinosaur.. or in our case, Pets.com… WebVan, and Boo.com. It will all be to our benefit as the ones that survive will have better technology and annoy the consumer less. They will have rich media ad serving capabilities that will integrate with the major rich media models, incorporate behavioral targeting and finally be less intrusive. Intrusion is a matter of relevance.

5. Mobile: Mobile advertising will finally start to become a reality with the “Apple Local Ad Serving system.” All iPhone apps will be able to incorporate a standard ad format and the consumer will be able to choose between the paid app, or the free app with advertising. Google will incorporate AdSense to present the first local ad model that works, and capitalize on the long tail of local advertisers utilizing the GPS system in iPhones to present temporal ads while the consumer in locally available.

Oh yeah, and there will be yet another “buzz.” You know, Viral Marketing, which became Buzz Marketing, which became Video Marketing, which became Social Media Marketing, which will become… Just don’t get caught in the wave of the “next big thing” and wait for it to become real. I was listening to a company present this year and when speaking about their marketing they stated they wanted to be the “best second” in the market. I’d advise that for everyone. If you want to blaze a path do it in a start-up, do not overly invest your company resources on the unproven. Be cognizant and track those technologies until they reach the scale that will do your business good.

ranty rant signing off….

So Gallup released their Annual Honesty and Ethics of Professions Survey this week, and guess what? We suck. We lie, cheat and steal. Advertising professionals rate only one notch above Stock Brokers. Stock Brokers!? This year, that ain’t saying much. Well, at least we’re above Congressmen. If we had been rated worse than them I’d have to move to Canada. I hear Vancouver’s nice, and with Global Warming it will probably be great weather all year by the time I retire.

But I have to ask. Is anyone surprised? Seriously? Look at what we have foisted on the consumer via internet advertising alone.

Complain about pop-ups? Then we’ll try pop-unders. Complain about banners? We come up with rich-media expandable ones that take over your screen. Complain about opt-in? Then we’ll fool you into clicking ok and signing up for a newsletter you didn’t want. SPAM was only the beginning.

We have not raised the bar of advertising with the Internet. We have reduced it to it’s core essence, and that essence is a blinky-blinky buy-now click-here punch-the-friggin-monkey world of intrusion into consumers lives. It’s essence is us. A mirror to society, and society is one very ugly place. Advertising had always been about fantasy. Now? The ugly disgusting dark reflection of ourselves is what we get.

Those of us who strive for ethical practices in advertising create great tools that enable us to deliver ads that are relevant to the consumer. Behavioral Targeting? It should be a boon to the consumer, but what happens is that every technology we create for email, banners, rich-media, are also available to the masses who are not so ethical, and unfortunately there are a lot more of them. We all get painted with the same brush, and to be honest, we deserve it. We are no better at policing our industry than the SEC was with the financial institutions. We all still do not know what we’re doing. We settled for mediocrity, and got complacent.

But doesn’t it seem worse than ever? and is it likely to get better anytime soon?

Sadly? No. Here’s why. We had a chance to turn the internet into TV. What I mean by that is we had a moment when internet advertising was going in the direction of richer advertising experiences that attempted to immerse the consumer in a pleasing way. But the long-tail bit back, and it bit hard.

You see, the long-tail access that the internet enables is a boon for the major brands in order to reach the ever fractured consumer interest. Most smaller brands were unable to afford the high prices of offline advertising, and so the majority of advertising that impacted consumers was national brands in immersive mediums like TV, or full page ads in major magazines. The aesthetic, the art was still valued.

But that long-tail of the internet also enabled something else. The prolific number of smaller business that have been enabled by it are a disaster for the consumer in display media. At least for now. Hold on, I’ll get to consumer choice in a second. God, the impatience of these readers. It’s a disaster as it relates to the aesthetic of the medium of advertising, and aesthetic matters. It matters because of the content it is next to. As much as editorial loves to draw lines between them, they provide a carriage if you will for each other. Vehicles that can hold each other if they complement each other well.

It’s like Cosmo filled with thousands of classified ads of horrendous eye piercing design. No full color spreads, no soft break in-between content; just content, and the next twenty pages filled with 50 ads a page all trying to grab your attention.

Long-tail Access

Search enabled a world that tapped into that long-tail of advertisers, every small business with national access, but they did it in a way that was both relevant (contextual relevance to the search term,) and not aesthetically horrific (a text ad is a text ad.)

But when those same type of technologies enable hundreds of thousands of advertisers to use display media on a national level? Disaster.

“But isn’t more choice for consumers good?” Nope. The consumer gets more choice. But how much choice is enough? Beyond a certain level choice is a barrier. Like a restaurant that has 1,000 items on the menu. How are you to know which of the 200 variation of the pasta dishes is the best? You don’t. You freeze. You become atrophied. In a world of nearly infinite choices the chef decides which choices are best for the consumer. Which he can serve the best. A menu, not an encyclopedia of food. The human element modifies the list of the infinite into something manageable.

What internet advertising resembles is that with every main course you order from that menu of limited options, your side dish is already decided. You could have ordered a steak, and get potatoes… good result. Or you could have ordered steak and gotten a side order of airplane ball bearings. Not too tasty. The advertising delivered rarely has relevance to the consumers main choice of content.

Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi… you’re my only hope?

And so I wrap this up with an odd loop back to Behavioral Targeting. We need a standard for it. We need a few good systems, just a few. Like Search, we should hope for only 4 or 5 systems that could enable the type of behavioral targeting to deliver ads to consumers that are relevant. We should hope to turn the entire banner infrastructure into the equivalent of Google Adwords. Because let’s face it, banner advertising sucks, and it will continue to suck until we deliver the right ads, to the right person, when they need it.

Let’s leave banner advertising to this disaster, and go create something that the consumer loves.

So the next time someone jumps down your throat about not wanting to have their cookies used, or their search terms, or any other perceived “private” data that could be used to make the ads more relevant, remember this post, and tell them to shut the hell up.

One notch above Stock Brokers? Sheesh...

One notch above Stock Brokers? Sheesh...

I just spoke at the PIPA Conference on Security on Behavioral Targeting with James Bond. Yes, that’s his name.

It was interesting to speak to so many people in one room whose job is to control, limit, and say “no.” I asked them to all introduce themselves to the person next to them and tell that person one thing about themselves that they would not normally tell someone they just met.

“Why did you do that?” I asked. Why, because I asked them too.

The internet works much the same way. Sites are constantly asking you for information which you divulge; names, email, your location etc… Realize that even just clicking on a link, you are saying something about yourself. You divulge it because each time its not a lot of information, so you do not feel threatened, do not feel violated. The problem with the internet is that we now have the ability to scoop up each little tidbit about you to create a profile of who you are, what you may like, what you are interested in. In fact, we may be able to construct a more complete profile of your interests than you even know. That is because it will be based on what you actually do, as opposed to what you think you are interested in.

I will go so far as to question the very reason for this conference. Are we barking at moon? Can we control privacy in a free society? And what about Behavioral Targeting is SO threatening to it? Yes, a little extreme, without so semblance of guidelines it would be complete anarchy. But it is really only an illusion of order now. But that is essential. We all buy into that illusion, and that’s what creates the order in the chaos.

Never before have we had the technology to stretch beyond our own imagining. Computer programs approaching that of Free Will in their decision making. Algorithms, intricate in design, yet simple compared to the vast sea of data they crawl.

You used to play hide-and-seek as a child. Over time if you played with the same people they would discover your favorite hiding places. You are, much to your chagrin, much more predictable than you would like to believe. And so is your online persona. That is what the new technology enables. Over time, it uncovers all the little places you hide. It’s as if you are playing hide and seek, and every-time you go to one of your hiding places there is a slip of paper. You pick it up, open it, and it says “I’ve found you.” In real life this would be a surreal experience, and one that causes you consternation. But what if, every-time you went to one of your hiding places, instead of a note, there was something useful. A flashlight in that dark hallway so you could light your way? A book you wanted to read in the closet so you could read while you were waiting? It’s the difference between active acknowledgment with the note, and passive rewarding with the useful items. Providing you what you didn’t even know you may need but have the proclivity to respond to. You didn’t ask for it. Most would find that very helpful. That is what Behavioral Targeting enables.

That is the issue we are facing, and this is the decision that we all make. That is the issue of this conference. How much do we want intrusions into our illusions of privacy for convenience? Do the benefits outweigh the risks?

This is not new. Grocery stores have been assembling profiles on shoppers for years with “discount cards.” They do not discount merchandise because they are altruistic. They are using it to make more money. How many of you have a Safeway card? That discount card… which tracks every purchase you have ever made… ever. Now, how many of you buy alcohol, cigarettes, or condoms there? High fat foods? Hmmm… what if that data was used by an insurance company? But the data of these organizations is used vertically, to improve their store sales, to put products where people will purchase them, to create need states for particular products. Credit Card companies know more about your lifestyle and purchases than you are probably comfortable with, yet we use them for convenience.

Catalog companies are one of the biggest resellers of your name, address, and profiles in the world. If they could not do it they would not be able to survive economically, and yet, convenience. In the end people, like with the hide & seek example are habituators. Habitual pattern developers, and followers. That is what enables marketers to be so successful.

1.0 technology was not intelligent about the data, it was not really Behavioral Targeting, or it was, but the data sets were limited. People became very vertically sliced representations of themselves to that individual company. But is a more holistic view of the individual increasing the accuracy for individual companies? No. Its value is to that of the advertiser.

Ad Networks in a vast sea of non-specificity where improvement in ad targeting allows for ongoing monitoring of consumers whose behaviors shift over time. Once you’ve bought the house, your need for the mortgage decreases, however, you shift into a different category of home improvement and furniture selection, insurance policies, and school districts.

There is no security online… accept it, and move on.

Do we want the Internet to be more intuitive? or less so?

It’s a global issue trying to be controlled locally by governments. How do you know if that site that appears Canadian is even located in Canada? Anyone can register a .ca domain, regardless of what some think. I’ve done it. The domain name system is not an indicator of your security, or the laws that bind them.

But the attitudinal shift difference between generations is faster than that of employers shifting to adapt. GenY and Millennials do not have the same illusions of security, nor do they really have that much credit to destroy yet. However, what they do not seem to do is find delineation’s in their private and public selves. This may come back to haunt them, but they are not past, or future. More so than other generations they seek to be conscious in the present.

There are a number of people reading this who visit porn sites. I know, shocking. Most of you are smart enough to use aliases and email addresses you use specifically for this purpose. But MOST of you do not mask your IP address. If you think US laws on security are bad, do you think that a website in Russia cares one iota about your data or security? In fact, many of these sites exist specifically to mine your information for identity fraud. Rings of sites waiting to connect hat IP address with real information.

When we talk about DPI (Deep Packet Inspection) and other technologies I really think senators want the “opt-in” because of their own duality. What if Governor General was found out to be a frequent visitor of such sites? But opt-in is always the first step… it dissipates over time with the benefits. Remember, this is the same argument that happened over email. Now checkboxes are routinely checked YES as opposed to NO. You opt-ed in, but are often unaware that you did.

What about real sites? Lawyers construct complicated legal agreements that no one reads online, specifically crafted to allow for change and variability. All they do is give the illusion of control to data. Most are written so that the legal agreements do not survive the company if sold. Self serving documents designed to protect the company, NOT the individual.

What’s the harm?

YOU are actually in control of the data YOU post, the way YOU surf, what YOU do. I will argue tat as soon as you go out of the confines of your own home, either physically or virtually, you lose ceratin rights to contain information about yourself. If you click on the porn link, that was in the public domain outside of your home. If the consumer does not take care with their data, why should companies respect it? That is a serious question. Why? Because the individual is often ignorant of the dangers of what they post online UNTIL they are affected by it.

What role does government have to play? Actually a very limited one in my opinion. No one government can protect your data. All they can do is set laws to provide the illusion of your security. Provide you with a recourse of action, but usually the damage has already been done. If public, it often does not matter what the truth is, it matters what the perception of that truth is.

Look at airport security for an illusory example. You all realize it’s an illusion right? You get to the point of being cavity searched just to fly a plane, yet they load on tons of cargo. 1% is checked if we’re lucky, a check mark on a manifest by an overworked employee unhappy with their job. The loopholes in everything is people. Society is not a clean organized mechanical being – well unless you’re in Singapore. It’s messy, chaotic and subject to the moods and whims of its populace.

In the global age, we need a global governing body for information, and no one should have that kind of power. With 54 of the top 100 economies in the world being corporations, government is increasingly limited in it’s purview to control information.

Unless you are the government actually looking to control the populace, as with The US Patriot Act (I love that name… as if I am not a patriot if I don’t support it) which allows the request of any information it wants in the name of “terrorism” without the individual being notified.

Should we be moving to an arena of less governmental laws and control, or more?

What are the real risks? Identity theft, fraud. There is a profound aversion to you not being you. That someone could take it, assume your identity. It is a loss of self, the most profound societal violation, but only if people let it be. You are not a credit card number, not your name or your credit report, your registration data.

What do you expect to be private? and can you let go of that resistance? Embrace change? The old world we once knew is gone. To remain anonymous you must now truly be off the grid.

Do we have the time to adjust to this new world order?

Me, my contact information… Anyone could find all of this online with a little effort, but, at any one destination it would only be one or two bits of it. This is what Behavioral Targeting enables. Now, if they use this data to deliver better content to me that’s wonderful. I get to live my life more efficiently… more likely I’ll just get more ads for dating sites, a new mortgage, or a car I don’t need. 

Sean X Cummings / 40 / Male / Single / Liberal / Stroke survivor / Buddhist / OM / Marketing / Advertising / Writer / Facebook / No MySpace / Childhood Europe / College Cornell / Dual Citizen USA / Ireland / High-energy particle physics / drives Ducati / Skydiver / Ask.com / American Express / C-K / Leap / Startups / Tattoo’s / Wears toe polish / Sensuality practice / Drinks alcohol / Ex-Hacker / Burning Man / Visits porn sites / Reads SciFi /BSG / Dexter / House / Weeds / Heroes / Independant Film… oh yeah… and I hate penguins

The biggest illusion is that we have any privacy online. It’s bunk. So is New York Sen. Richard L. Brodsky’s privacy bill, if it passes.

What is it with Washington bureaucrats that they fundamentally cannot understand the internet? Are we seriously stuck with: “The internet is a series of tubes?” — I just love citing that.

This time it’s another group of luddites in Congress on a crusade. You see, privacy is such a wonderful issue for “idiotarians” to jump on the bandwagon with. It’s easy fodder. You’ll never get consumers screaming for companies to gather more information about them and use it to target ads at them. “Oh, yes, please, can I have more personal data gathered about me? I’d like another ad please. That would be scrumptious!”

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the dangers of online social networks and what you reveal to the world. I am not against data gathering by companies, but we should all be more cognizant of what we put out there. The crucial point in all of this is that although consumers will never ask for more ads, what they will do is respond to advertising that is relevant to them, that speaks to their consumer needs. “Wow, I am running more, it was good to find out about that new shoe and that race coming up that I can enter locally.” That’s never something that someone would say out loud, but that internal voice we all have constantly pings all day, every day, with the advertising we consume. Consumers value, subconsciously, that we have that data when it benefits them. The problem is that even though it benefits them, they don’t really want to know what we used to deliver it. They just assume it was happenstance. Well, how did that ad really speak to that consumer’s need state? Yes, yes, simple answer: behavioral targeting.

A bill is currently in the New York State Assembly presented by Sen. Richard L. Brodsky (Dem.), (alas, sometimes I really hate my own party,) that would essentially require a user to give explicit permission before companies could link the anonymous surfing data to their name, address or phone number.

(The bill would essentially make it a crime for certain internet companies to use personal information about consumers without their consent.)

Wow, that’s just great, Senator. Are you really that stupid? Uh, yeah, people are going to flock to do that. Since when did this country become a bunch of choice-less lemmings? “The television program is offensive.” Well, then change the channel, you moron. You don’t even have to get your fat, lazy butt out of your Lazy Boy. Just press the button! Someone can’t opt-out? Oh no, the consumer is not bright enough to do that. Yes, let’s assume everyone in society is an idiot — that really helps the situation. Let’s coddle, control, and regulate our way to happiness, while the lumps of flesh watching the pict-o-cube sit there consuming in ignorant bliss.

The biggest illusion is that we have any privacy online. It’s a myth. It’s like the myth of airline safety and the fact that the security procedure makes us strip down before we board the plane, regardless of the fact that 90 percent of the cargo on that plane has never been checked. The illusion of security makes us feel better, and that is exactly what a bill like this would do, make us feel better. It will make us feel like we have control over our online data. But the only control we have is over what we do online.

Online search companies are providing a service — a damn cool service, I might add — and one that is FREE for the consumer. Hmmm… think about that. You are getting something for free and then trying to tell the company that is providing that service not to track you. Wow, that’s a great business model. I give you something for free, something that costs an enormous amount of money and a lot of brain power to provide, and we are just supposed to sit back and let you look around our entire store and do nothing?

If you don’t want to be tracked, don’t come in the door. It’s your choice. My company even gives you that choice to surf anonymously, so that we don’t track your searches. Just click a button on the homepage. And that is my point. It’s your choice what you put online, and it’s your choice if you are concerned about privacy to seek out solutions that protect you, the consumer.

A lot of people feel this anonymity because they are in the confines of their own homes. It’s the kind of anonymity that lets the side of ourselves we do not tend to show society out. It’s more alternative, subversive, dark, kinky, and to be honest, fun. Just imagine, however, that there is your mom looking over your shoulder the entire time you are surfing. Yes, it’s all being tracked somewhere, but the sad thing is that it really is not being used for evil. These companies are just trying to provide consumers with ads that are actually more relevant to them. The web runs on advertising, limit it at our peril. If search engines didn’t have an auction bid model for keywords that made sure the landing page was relevant to the paid ad, then you wouldn’t get any ads that were targeted. But they do. If you search for something kinky, guess what? A text ad may be delivered that just may be relevant to your search. That’s fine, you just don’t want your name attached to it, I understand.

For some reason in the offline world, it seems completely acceptable to data-mine to your heart’s content. Why do you think grocery stores give you discounts for using a simple card? Because they so value you as a customer and they are just being nice? Are you really that naive? That information with your purchase habits is immediately tied to your name and your address. Are you single and do you buy booze, condoms and cigarettes? Guess what? Don’t be surprised if you start getting some fun, hip catalogs in the mail. But that is not where the danger is; the danger is that some health insurance company buys a grocery chain and then starts to adjust insurance rates based on your lifestyle. Think about that the next time you throw your grocery card down for that carton of cigarettes and the three liter bottle of vodka. That is scary, and a much more probable scenario than all the scare tactics about online privacy and behavioral targeting.

Look, online privacy is a good thing, and if Congress does pass legislation, then at least it will make it a level playing field for everyone. But don’t be surprised if all of a sudden those banner ads and other forms of advertising online start to become a little less relevant and a lot more annoying.

ranty rant signing off…


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