Driven by curiosity, fear, or money (20XX → 2023)

Online Advertising: Defending Free

Not since Guttenberg’s invention of the printing press has anything done so much to democratised media.

From #BlackLivesMatter to The Arab Spring, good ideas, big ideas, can spread freely, all thanks to the free internet.

OK. So let’s look at why “free” really is worth protecting. Even if that means championing online advertising.

I promise this won’t hurt…

Before we assess the value of retargeted advertising, we need to rewind a little, and look at the relationship between marketers, and consumers, on the internet.

So let’s look at why “free” is worth protecting. I promise this won’t hurt…

Not since Guttenberg’s invention of the printing press has anything done so much to democratised media. From #BlackLivesMatter to The Arab Spring, good ideas, big ideas, can spread freely, all thanks to the free internet.

That’s because the internet is best when it’s open to as many people as possible.

For the vast majority of the internet, once you pay to access it (thru your phone company or ISPs monthly fee) it’s pretty much free to use. Search is free. Social media is free. News is free. Music is free. That’s not strictly true. You can pay for social media (LinkedIn Premium). You can pay for news (parts of premium publication like THe Economist and The Wall Street Journal are behind paywalls). And you can pay for Spotify to get rid of the ads that play between songs.

The free internet is largely paid for by advertising.

So it’s not really free is it?

What’s really happening is you’re paying for content on the internet with your attention.

For most people, this is a really good model.

It gives you access to insane levels of information. Want to know more about German trains? Well, thanks to free services like Google Search, industry publications about European trains, and blogs by trainspotters, and WikiPedia (with its donation / non-profit model) you can become an instant expert. You don’t need to pay to access professional publications.

This inclusivity gives the internet a network effect. That is, the more people contribute tweets, articles and entire websites about German trains, the more valuable the internet it is to everyone.

So free access to information is important.

 How can advertising balance the needs of marketers to make money, in a way that is respectful to users, and might make their internet experience better?

 By delivering relevant experiences.

Jeff Jarvis suggests, that advertising sucks on the internet, precisely because it isn’t relevant.

I suggest that advertising retargeting, if done respectfully, and transparently, can be a very good. Good for both those that use it to market their products and services, and for consumers too.

Retargeting is a good start, but it’s still pretty dumb. Here’s why.

 Let’s say you look at a pair of Levi’s jeans for sale on a website. Just once. That pair of jeans will mindlessly follow you around the web for weeks. What’s the half-life for the purchase of a pair of jeans? Maybe a week. So if you’ve not purchased new jeans a week after your first visit to an online jean retailer, there’s at least a 50% chance you’re not really in the market for jeans.

But no. You’ll be retargeted without mercy across the web.

When you’re bored at work and looking at fashion blogs? You’ll get an ad for jeans. When it’s raining and your car won’t start and you need to call a mechanic? It’s those jeans again. When you search for how to get red wine out of carpet? Yep. Jeans again… When your headache is so bad you’re looking into brain cancer symptoms? Jean ads…

This is a waste for everyone. For the consumer, it’s nauseating to see that same pair of jeans all the time. On the advertisers side, they’re paying for ad impressions that had almost zero chance of being clicked.

What would be better is if retargeting was coupled with other technologies (sentiment analysis and machine learning jump to mind). All with the aim to make the retargeting more relevant.

So, to use the examples above, perhaps the only good time to see that pair of jeans again was when you were bored at work and browsing fashion blogs. And perhaps the advertiser should have stayed away from mechanics, brain cancer and red wine stains…

And another reason why current retargeting is dumb?

Were you to buy those jeans, there’s still a good chance you’d see that ad for jeans, again. And an even better chance you’d want to burn down their jean factory!

So what things should the retargeting industry do to better balance their responsibilities to users?

  • Always anonymise personal data. Marketers should do everything to make this data as abstract from a user’s identity as possible. It’s important to know that I’m a man who loves volleyball, live in Stockholm, and am looking to buy new black jeans. It’s not important for them to know my date of birth, my passport number, or my name. They can market to me knowing basic demographic and psychographic information
  • Encrypted data when it’s at rest. In a world of endless hacking, leaks and security compromises, users should expect all data about their web browsing and purchase decisions be encrypted. So that when, not if, this data falls into the wrong hands, it’s relatively safe
  • Treated their practices transparently. Users have the right to know what data is collected about them (their browsing habits and thus their interests), why it’s being collected (to customise marketing messages), and what the benefit is to the user (they get more relevant ads and they get to use the internet for free
  • Make Opt-Outing easy. It’s very important for users to have the option to opt out of customised marketing experiences, and to receive generic marketing messages. There’s a fraction of society that can’t compromise any level of privacy for a better web experience. People in witness protection, etc
  • Keep users best interest at heart. This is like the Hippocratic Oath Doctor’s take to “Do No Harm”

 These are all things that online marketing have, historically, been terrible at. They’ve commonly overstepped all reasonable privacy. They’ve had massive amounts of marketing data stolen. And perhaps most damaging of all to the marketing industry, they’ve never clearly articulated why they do any of this in a transparent way.

It matters. We need to get this right.

For marketers it matters.

  • It matters that they to stop wasting money on useless ad impressions.
  • It matters they demand consumer attention when they’re useful to that consumer.
  • It matters that we move a higher percentage of consumer spending online.
  • It matters that we respect our customers.

And for consumers it matters.

  • It matters that the web stays free and open so that billions more people can join the conversation.
  • It matters that our attention isn’t wasted on stuff that can’t help us.
  • It matters that we have some control over our digital footprints.
  • It matters that the internet is fast and useful.
  • It matters that we stop seeing that God Damn jeans ad before we kill ourselves!

Note: This is an essay I wrote defending web advertising (!!!) for Digital Analytics for Marketing Professionals course I took thru University of Illinois & Coursera. It was originally published on LinkedIn.

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