Punk’d by the Journal.

by Doug Weaver on August 4, 2010 at 2:28PM

I wanted to let the dust settle a bit before commenting on the beat-down administered to online targeting by the Wall Street Journal last week.  In case you missed it, the Journal does for cookies, tags and beacons what the Washington Post did for outsourced spying and Wikileaks did for the Afghan war effort.  (OK, so we’ll deduct a few points for lack of journalistic ambition.)

Most of the blowback from the online ad industry has been predictable, falling into one of two categories: “They’re being so unfair to us!” or “My company’s privacy solution is better than that!”  Roll it all up and the digital marketing world’s response can be summed up in four words:  We’re missing the point.

First off, every PR firm or company publicist who arranged interviews for their CEOs for this story should be fired.  If the Journal had done video interviews I’m sure they’d look a lot like those done by The Daily Show several times each week:  earnest looking reporter quietly mocking the interview subject by editing out all but the most  incendiary quotes. (“We can segment it all the way down to one person” ….Who knows how far we’d take it?”)   Have your PR guys ever read the journal?  For like ten years its technology expert Walt Mossberg was the Inspector Javert of cookies.  They’ve always been itching to turn over the digital targeting apple cart.  Did you really think they were going to celebrate your technological prowess?

Truth is, the Journal did what a news organization does:  they took the point of view of the consumer and drastically simplified a complex scenario for them.  Say what you will about the conclusions they drew, but Journal reporters were rigorous, focused and prepared.  I wish the same could be said for the subjects of their story.

I said in a speech last May that the average consumer would probably be mortified to hear us talk about targeting and data.  And now they have.  The Journal article may repel  consumers and draw the righteous indignation of Congress, but above all it showed a targeting and data “industry” that was not ready for prime time.  Sites being unaware of how many third-party cookies were being dropped on their consumers (159, in the case of Dictionary.com); Comcast’s vendor saying it was “a mistake” to deploy 55 flash cookies on the site….really? In the immortal words of Richard Pryor, “Who’s in charge here?”

Read carefully:  This is not an anti-technology, anti-data or anti-targeting rant.  It’s an anti-not-having-your-shit-together rant.  Truth be told, a lot of sites and networks are just rushing the process, forming alliances without deeply considering the implications.  We’re trading care for speed while also largely ignoring the most important question:  What’s in all this for the consumer? As I said in that same set of remarks in May, all that talk about targeting creating a better ad experience or targeted ads underwriting the content experience is pretty weak.

Is this article fatal to online targeting. No.  But it represents one more missed opportunity to positively define the role of technology and personalization in the online ecosystem.  We may not get many more.

Disagree with me?  Want to continue the conversation?  Check in below.

Reader Comments (14)

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  1. Ari Rosenberg August 4, 2010 at 3:44 pm

    Thank you for adding further clarity on a clear cut issue. It’s either “Opt in” for this kind of robust targeting or it’s leave me alone. Let’s let the consumer decide versus offering them maps to find their way to “Opt out.”

    Those same companies mentioned (and so many more not mentioned) are the one’s who want the status quo to be “opt out” so they can continue to take what hasn’t been granted.

    As far as the consumer is concerned, we should be acting in ways to gain their trust instead we act as if losing it can somehow be replaced.

  2. Joelle Kaufman August 4, 2010 at 3:48 pm


    Once again, you are on the money. We need to be as concerned with what’s best for the consumer as we are with what’s best for our bottom line. Targeting DOES bring more relevant advertising to the consumer. Over-targeting is creepy. And prolific partnering in pursuit of nickels and dimes doesn’t serve our publishers, advertisers or consumers.


  3. @dotjohn August 4, 2010 at 4:22 pm

    The privacy invasion that consumers universally hate is from poorly targeted advertising.

  4. Mark McLaughlin August 4, 2010 at 8:09 pm

    All of the crap that the WSJ brought to light is intended to improve click through rates from 2 tenths of one percent to 3 tenths of one percent. Or, failing that, to create a marketplace for direct response advertisers to arbitrage down the price of ad impressions to less than $2 in real time with no financial risk whatsoever to the buyer.

    The digital advertising industry has built a huge, chaotic and self-destructive set of brilliant technological solutions that serve the wrong masters.

    We get what we deserve. The WSJ has done us a huge favor if you believe that our industry still has time to save itself from itself.

  5. Terence Kawaja August 5, 2010 at 9:05 am

    Well said Doug. Prescient as always. Come on industry, man up. No tears in advertising….or PR. Perception = reality.

  6. Kevin Lee August 5, 2010 at 3:00 pm

    At this point it may be too late to even get an opt-out (and high disclosure of all targeting) as a standard acceptable to legislators. We may find ourselves in an opt-in universe and how many consumers are going to opt-in?

  7. Doug Weaver August 5, 2010 at 3:13 pm

    Unless we’re willing to put up an opt-in toll gate, as in “we’d love you to look at our content in exchange for you letting us see what you’re interested in.” Not likely to happen in a world where we’re still valuing inventory and clicks though.

  8. Doug Weaver August 5, 2010 at 3:14 pm

    And Ab-So-Lutely no crying in baseball.

  9. Doug Weaver August 5, 2010 at 3:17 pm

    The digital advertising and marketing industry and the “targetocracy” isolated in this article may overlap, but not completely. Not even mostly. It gets the most press and the most attention because it is the most heavily funded sector. There are plenty of people who are hoping — as you do — that the whole thing implodes. I believe there can be quality co-existence between the different disciplines, but only when some sanity is restored.

  10. Doug Weaver August 5, 2010 at 3:21 pm

    Ari, you certainly stake out the extreme edge of one side of the debate. One could argue that when you go my website it’s like you’re going into my store and I have a right to put you on surveillance video. If you transact with me, i can save your name and credit card info. Happens every day in the brick and mortar world. I think Opt-In is unlikely and probably unworkable. Have you disabled cookies on your browser yet?

  11. Eric Picard August 11, 2010 at 3:03 pm

    Great article Doug!

    It’s interesting to me that even in our own industry we’re extremely polarized on this issue. I predict that there will be legislation on this issue in the next few years, and if we’re not careful, it will be ham-handed and unworkable.

    Some of the comments above are interesting. This isn’t about raising the response rate from .2% to .3%. This is about massively increasing the yield of ad inventory for publishers, and the ROI of ad spend for advertisers. It’s about massively reducing the inefficiency of the ad industry.

    We live in a world where at the same time we’ve increased efficiency and reduced costs in almost all segments of business – especially as related to supply chain management and manufacturing processes – advertising has become increasingly complex and inefficient (online advertising is more than 10X less efficient to manage than traditional media, which has become significantly less efficient on its own.) Since advertising actually works and does increase sales of products and services – it is a significant driver of the economy. But because it is becoming much less efficient and effective – and as publishing models change to online models that yield significantly less for publishers than traditional publishing models – the economy is going to take a major hit unless we change things.

    The movement toward increased tracking of consumer behavior online is driven by an evolution from a world where: Publishers sold ads based on content association (context) and were paid based on the size of the audience (based on panel data) that saw the content with the ads embedded; to a world where: Publishers will programmatically make the ad inventory available with data about that impression provided by numerous parties so that the advertiser can ascertain its value to them directly based on business goals and attributes of context, audience attributes, and historical activity.

    I realize the paragraph above is a ‘mouthful’. But it’s critically important to understand in order to see why this is important.

    In the old world where impressions were hand sold based on context, while there was ‘macro-scale’ competition between advertisers, it was so arms length that in reality that competition rarely increased the price of inventory (with a few categorical exceptions like finance and autos inventory). In this new world, we’ll see much more effective competition between seemingly unrelated advertisers – because the advertisers/agencies will be including audience attributes as a primary pivot:

    Today we filter *out* users with targeting – e.g. buy MSN Entertainment > Women > age range > auto shopper – where we filter out impressions on MSN Entertainment so that only matching impressions are shown. Tomorrow the ad buyer will try to buy impressions delivered to Women in an Age Range who are shopping for autos, and will vary the value of the impressions based on context. So MSN Entertainment could be considered a more valuable context for showing the message than a ‘blind’ site location, or even from less contextually relevant inventory – like Hotmail. This shift is fundamental and critically important to ensure that we get strong economic growth in online advertising.

    In this new world, advertisers that normally wouldn’t compete – Pampers and Ford – will absolutely compete, in very explicit terms, for the same inventory. This competition will drive the yield up on valuable impressions, and will drive yield down on less valuable impressions. But we should see Search-like yield on a small percentage of the overall inventory – which I firmly believe will increase both yield for publishers and ROI for advertisers. And by ROI – I don’t just mean Direct Marketing. I mean meeting campaign goals – such as reaching an audience of a certain size, or driving certain types of behavior, or changing purchase intent or awareness.

    I’m personally glad this is coming to a head – my hope is that we don’t handle it in a completely ham-handed way, and end up with ham-handed legislation that destroys a chance for the overall economy to radically improve. After all – if advertising becomes more effective and efficient, companies are going to sell a lot more products and services, which creates jobs, and ultimately benefits everyone!



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