February 2013

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When you see an ad for Budweiser on TV, you know who paid for it and why it’s there. You also know it isn’t personal, because it’s brand advertising.

But when you see an ad on a website, do you know what it’s doing there? Do you know if its there just for you, or if it’s for anybody? Hard to tell.

However, if it’s an ad for a camera showingng up right after you visited some photography sites, it’s a pretty good guess you’re being tracked. It’s also likely you are among millions who are creeped out by the knowledge that they’re being tracked.

On the whole, the tracking-driven online advertising business (aka “adtech”) assumes that you have given permission to be followed, at least implicitly. This is one reason tracking users and targeting them with personalized ads is more normative than ever online today. But there is also a growing concern that personal privacy lines are not only being crossed, but trampled.

Ad industry veterans are getting creeped out too, because they know lawmakers and regulators will be called on for protection. That’s the case George Simpson — an ad industry insider — makes in  Suicide by Cookies, where he starts with the evidence:

Evidon measured sites across the Internet and found the number of web-tracking tags from ad servers, analytics companies, audience-segmenting firms, social networks and sharing tools up 53% in the past year. (The ones in Mandarin were probably set by the Chinese army.) But only 45% of the tracking tools were added to sites directly by publishers. The rest were added by publishers’ partners, or THEIR partners’ partners.

Then he makes a correct forecast government intervention, and concludes with this:

I have spent the better part of the last 15 years defending cookie-setting and tracking to help improve advertising. But it is really hard when the prosecution presents the evidence, and it has ad industry fingerprints all over it — every time. There was a time when “no PII” was an acceptable defense, but now that data is being compiled and cross-referenced from dozens, if not hundreds, of sources, you can no longer say this with a straight face. And we are way past the insanity plea.

I know there are lots of user privacy initiatives out there to discourage the bad apples and get all of the good ones on the same page. But clearly self-regulation is not working the way we promised Washington it would.

I appreciate the economics of this industry, and know that it is imperative to wring every last CPM out of every impression — but after a while, folks not in our business simply don’t care anymore, and will move to kill any kind of tracking that users don’t explicitly opt in to.

And when that happens, you can’t say, “Who knew?”

To get ahead of the regulatory steamroller, the ad business needs two things. One is transparency. There isn’t much today. (See Bringing Manners to Marketing at Customer Commons.) The other is permission. It can’t only be presumed. It has to be explicit.

We — the targets of adtech — need to know the provenance of an ad, at a glance. It should be as clear as possible when an ad is personal or not, when it is tracking-based or not, and whether it’s permitted. That is, welcomed. (More about that below.)

This can be done symbolically. How about these:

 means personalized.

↳ means tracking-based.

☌ means permitted.

I picked those out of a character viewer. There are hundreds of these kinds of things. It really doesn’t matter what they are, so long as people can easily, after awhile, grok what they mean.

People are already doing their own policy development anyway, by identifying and blocking both ads and tracking, through browser add-ons and extensions. Here are mine for Firefox, on just one of my computers:

All of these, in various ways, give me control over what gets into my browser. (In fact the Evidon research cited above was gained by Ghostery, which is an Evidon product installed in millions of browsers. So I guess I helped, in some very small way.)

Speaking of permission, now would be a good time to revisit Permission Marketing, which Seth Godin published in May 1999,  about the same time The Cluetrain Manifesto also went up. Here’s how Seth compressed the book’s case nine years later.

Permission marketing is the privilege (not the right) of delivering anticipated, personal and relevant messages to people who actually want to get them.

It recognizes the new power of the best consumers to ignore marketing. It realizes that treating people with respect is the best way to earn their attention.

Pay attention is a key phrase here, because permission marketers understand that when someone chooses to pay attention they are actually paying you with something precious. And there’s no way they can get their attention back if they change their mind. Attention becomes an important asset, something to be valued, not wasted.

Real permission is different from presumed or legalistic permission. Just because you somehow get my email address doesn’t mean you have permission. Just because I don’t complain doesn’t mean you have permission. Just because it’s in the fine print of your privacy policy doesn’t mean it’s permission either.

Real permission works like this: if you stop showing up, people complain, they ask where you went.

Real permission is what’s needed here. It’s what permission marketing has always been about. And it’s what VRM (Vendor Relationship Management) is about as well.

Brand advertising is permitted in part because it’s not personal. Sometimes it is even liked.. The most common example of that is Super Bowl TV ads. But a better example is magazines made thick with brand ads that are as appealing to readers as the editorial content. Fashion magazines are a good example of that.

Adtech right now is not in a demand market on the individual’s side. In fact, judging from the popularity of ad-blocking browser extensions, there is a lot of negative demand. According to ClarityRay, 9.23% of all ads were blocked by users surveyed a year ago. That number is surely much higher today.

At issue here is what economists call signaling — a subject about which Don Marti has written a great deal over the last couple of years. I visit the subject (with Don’s help) in this post at Wharton’s Future of Advertising site, where contributors are invited to say where they think advertising will be in the year 2020. My summary paragraph:

Here is where this will lead by 2020: The ability of individuals to signal their intentions in the marketplace will far exceed the ability of corporations to guess at those intentions, or to shape them through advertising. Actual relationships between people and processes on both sides of the demand-supply relationship will out-perform today’s machine-based guesswork by advertisers, based on “big data” gained by surveillance. Advertising will continue to do what it has always done best, which is to send clear signals of the advertiser’s substance. And it won’t be confused with its distant relatives in the direct response marketing business.

I invite everybody reading this to go there and jump in.

Meanwhile, consider this one among many olive branches that need to be extended between targets — you and me — and the advertisers targeting us.


In 2013 – Beginning Of The End For PR Boomers, David Bray actually says this…

The media landscape is evolving rapidly, and baby boomers are about to be left behind because of their inability to keep up with technology and the changing times. The days of the self-proclaimed experts (those who profess to be “thought leaders” as a result of reading and hearing about new advancements that clients can take advantage of) are long gone.

Media today is all about authenticity — and largely dominated by participatory media and consumers, who see right through advertising and marketing hyperbole and shut it out. Participating in these media is the only way to gain a “true” understanding of how and which work, and which don’t. Clients are demanding that their PR counsel and support teams are in the conversation, and that they themselves use the media where their content is being created and distributed.

Take, for example, the use of social media for online business networking or lead generation. As the saying goes, “it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks.” The old dog in this instance — baby boomers — use traditional, in-person offline meetings as their primary source of building their business networks, while the younger generations are building their own brands and businesses more quickly, and reaching a much wider audience by leveraging new digital tools like LinkedIn and Twitter to run full-on campaigns.

… giving his profession some bad PR that gets worse as you read down through the comments. Here’s mine:

No person is just a demographic, just a race, or just a category. Nor does any person like to be dismissed as a stereotype, especially if that stereotype is wrong about them personally. I have 972 friends on Facebook, 19,061 followers on Twitter, 801 connections on LinkedIn, a Klout score of 81 and a PeerIndex of 81. That I’m also 65 is not ironic. If I weren’t this old, those stats wouldn’t be this high. I got the hell out of PR several demographics ago — and into the far more helpful work I do now — exactly because of shallow and dismissive stereotyping that has been a cancer in PR, and all of marketing, for the duration. It only makes the problem worse to drive out of the business people who have been young a lot longer than you have.

PR’s problems are old news and not getting any younger. Here is what I wrote for Upside in 1992. Alas, Upside erased itself when it died, the Wayback Machine only traces it back to 1996, and the text is stuck for now in a place where search engines don’t index it.  So I’ll repeat the whole thing here:


There is no Pulitzer Prize for public relations. No Peabody. No Heismann. No Oscar, Emmy or Eddy. Not even a Most Valuable Flacker award. Sure, like many misunderstood professions, public relations has its official bodies, and even its degrees, awards and titles. Do you know what they are? Neither do most people who practice the profession.

The call of the flack is not a grateful one. Almost all casual references to public relations are negative. Between the last sentence and this one, I sought to confirm this by looking through a Time magazine. It took me about seven seconds to find an example: a Lance Morrow essay in which he says Serbia has “the biggest public relations problem since Pol Pot went into politics.” Since genocide is the problem in question, the public relations solution can only range from lying to cosmetics. Morrow’s remark suggests this is the full range of PR’s work. Few, I suspect, would disagree.

So PR has the biggest PR problem of all: people use it as a synonym for BS. It seems only fair to defend the profession, but there is no point to it. Common usage is impossible to correct. And frankly, there is a much smaller market for telling the truth than for shading it.

For proof, check your trash for a computer industry press release. Chances are you will read an “announcement” that was not made, for a product that was not available, with quotes by people who did not speak them, for distribution to a list of reporters who considered it junk mail. The dishonesty here is a matter of form more than content. Every press release is crafted as a news story, complete with headline, dateline, quotes and so forth. The idea is to make the story easy for editors to “insert” with little or no modification.

Yet most editors would rather insert a spider in their nose than a press release in their publication. First, no self-respecting editor would let anybody else — least of all a biased source — write a story. Second, press releases are not conceived as stories, but rather as “messages.”

It is amazing how much time, energy and money companies spend to come up with “the right message.” At this moment, thousands of staffers, consultants and agency people sit in meetings or bend over keyboards, straining to come up with perfect messages for their products and companies. All are oblivious to a fact that would be plain if they paid more attention to their market than their product.

There is no demand for messages.

There is, however, a demand for facts. To editors, messages are just clothing and make-up for emperors that are best seen naked. Editors like their subjects naked because facts are raw material for stories. Which brings up another clue that public relations tends to ignore.

Stories are about conflict.

What makes a story hot is the friction in its core. When that friction ceases, the story ends. Take the story of Apple vs. IBM. As enemies, they made great copy. As collaborators, they are boring as dirt.

The whole notion of “positive” stories is oxymoronic. Stories never begin with “happily ever after.” Happy endings may resolve problems, but they only work at the end, not the beginning. Good PR recognizes that problems are the hearts of stories, and takes advantage of that fact.

Unfortunately, bad PR not only ignores the properties of stories, but imagines that “positive” stories can be “created” by staging press conferences and other “announcement events” that are just as bogus as press releases — and just as hated by their audiences.

Columnist John Dvorak, a kind of fool killer to the PR profession, says, “So why would you want to sit in a large room full of reporters and publicly ask a question that can then be quoted by every guy in the place? It’s not the kind of material a columnist wants — something everybody is reporting. I’m always amazed when PR types are disappointed when I tell them I won’t be attending a press conference.”

So why does PR persist in practices its consumers hold in contempt?

Because PR’s consumers are not its customers. PR’s customers are companies who want to look good, and pay PR for the equivalent of clothing and cosmetics. If PR’s consumers — the press — were also its customers, you can bet the PR business would serve a much different purpose: to reveal rather than conceal, clarify rather than mystify, inform rather than mislead.

But it won’t happen. Even if PR were perfectly useful to the press, there is still the matter of “positioning” — one of PR’s favorite words. I have read just about every definition of this word since Trout & Ries coined it in 1969, and I am convinced that a “position” is nothing other than an identity. It is who you are, where you come from, and what you do for a living. Not a message about your ambitions.

That means PR does not have a very good position. It’s identity is a euphemism, or at least sounds like one. While it may “come from” good intentions, what it does for a living is not a noble thing. Just ask its consumers.

Maybe it is time to do with PR what we do with technology: make something new — something that works as an agent for understanding rather than illusion. Something that satisfies both the emperors and their subjects. God knows we’ve got the material. Our most important facts don’t need packaging, embellishment or artificial elevation. They only need to be made plain. This may not win prizes, but it will win respect.

That was 21 years ago. Now PR doesn’t just spin the press, but “influencers” of all kind. These days I sometimes find myself on the receiving end of that spin: a vantage from which I can see how much the fundamental disconnects in PR have remained the same, while the methods used, and the influencers targeted, have changed. (Mostly by adding new methods to old ones that haven’t changed at all.)

Even the “social media” David Bray finds so young and modern embody the same disconnect between consumers and customers that have afflicted old media, such as TV and radio, from the beginning. Only now the consumers are called users while the customers are still called advertisers. Thus PR maintains the age-old dysfunction of stereotyping populations, and of dealing with whole populations through categorical prejudices, rather than engaging real human beings in real ways, with a minimum of bullshit, even when one party is spinning and the other is just listening. That’s what being “in the conversation” actually means.

6:42am — Flights are starting to land at JFK, I see by Flightaware. Not yet at LGA, EWR or the New England airports. More links:

It’s getting light out, and the snow has stopped.

6:10am — Dig:

5:58am — Fittingly (given the local coverage concentration below), Maine appears to be hardest hit, though farthest from news outside the area. CNN and The Weather Channel are all about Boston, Providence, Hartford and New York.

5:30am — Looking for live local coverage from TV stations. Here’s what I’ve found so far:

That’s it. One in New York, one in Hartford, none in Boston and three in Portland. Maine wins! Corrections, of course, are welcome.

Also: the NYTimes and the Wall Street Journal have both dropped their paywalls for storm coverage. The Boston Globe‘s is still up.

03:30am — This is as quiet as New York gets. No traffic flowing. No horns blowing. No jets on approach to anywhere, or taking off. From our encampment in “upstate” Manhattan, there is just the sound of snowplows scraping Broadway clean.

The Weather Channel (aka Weather.com, aka TWC on my Dish Network channel list, aka @WeatherChannel), calls the storm #Nemo, as they said they would last Fall. The National Weather Service, aka Weather.govisn’t playing along. Neither is AccuWeather.

They should. I’m sure the success of the Nemo nickname has their sphincters in a knot, but they should loosen up. This isn’t just another nor’easter. For parts of Connecticut and Massachusetts, it might be the biggest storm since the last glaciation, named after Wisconsin. (Probably not, but still.) Earthquakes get named after epicenters. And hey, we live in networked times. These days the vernacular wins, fast. Best to get ahead of that curve.

Here’s a view of aviation, as of 3:00am this morning:

Normally thin anyway at this hour, it’s absent in the Northeast entirely. The nearest named flight is a United one inbound to Dulles (UAL981). An un-named plane is passing over Philadelphia, and another over Binghamton. That’s it. (The green color is not for rain, by the way. It’s precipitation density. That’s snow there.)

It’s raining here now, in Manhattan. It was snowing earlier, but then came the sleet, and now the rain, and the slush. Here’s what I shot with my phone a few minutes ago, on my way back from the subway:

Blcch on broadway

And here’s what this kind of thing looks looks like on Intellicast‘s radar:

Blcch map

The red X marks where I grew up, on Woodland Ave in Maywood, New Jersey, about 5 miles from the George Washington Bridge and Manhattan. Woodland Avenue was (and still is) a hill. Not a big one; just one ideal for sledding. It had a nice steep slope at the top, and a long flat stretch at the bottom, so you could get up some good speed and glide a long way. Sometimes the town would designate Woodland Ave as the sledding hill, and block off the top and the bottom except for residential traffic. If the snow was deep enough, cars would pack it down and make sledding better.

Terrace Ave, one street over, was good for sledding too: steeper at the top, with a shorter glide path at the bottom. So was the back yard of the Borg house on Summit Ave in Hackensack, which was a short walk through Borg’s Woods, also owned by the family. (It’s now a nature preserve.) The Borg family owned the Bergen Evening Record (now just The Record).

This was back in the 1950s, which were simpler times. There was no cable, no Weather Channel. Almost nobody in our social stratum went skiing. Few civilians had four-wheel (or even front-wheel) drive vehicles. For kids, sledding was the favored recreational activity in snow, and the best sleds were Flexible Flyers. The family had a big old heavy one, good for seating two or three people. It looked like the one on the right (from 1936), but a bit longer. It may have been that old too. We also had a smaller one, good for solo flights.

If snowy weather threatened, as it does now, we’d be glued to our radios, eager to hear a forecast that did not include the dreaded word “rain.” The most disappointing forecast was this one: “Snow mixed with and then changing to rain.” It was also the most typical for New York. An inch or few of snow would fall, and then it would turn to sleet, or drizzle, and then rain, and the street would turn to slush. These days they call snow/rain combo “wintry mix.” That’s the pink on the map. Almost always the forecast would say something like “significant accumulations in the outlying suburbs.” Those are the areas in blue already.

So my heart’s is back in Maywood today, while my ass is in Manhattan, watching the blizzard fail to happen — at least here. On the iPad is the Weather Channel, tuned in to our Dish Network box in Santa Barbara. The forecast, as always with TWC, is breathless and dire. They (or somebody) have named the storm “Nemo.” Oy.

In a slightly more ideal world, we would have already rented a four-wheel drive, thrown a suitcase and ski clothes in the back, and have driven up to Hunter Mountain, or some place in Vermont. I’ll bet the skiing up there will be perfect for the next few days. But we’re busy, and not in a position to indulge.

TWC says it’s still going to snow later, with accumulations even as close as Maywood. So, for the sake of the kids out there, I hope the pink turns blue.