February 24, 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.