The Right to Target.

Look hard at the title of this post.  If you sit with it for just a few beats you may see irony, a contradiction in terms … or you may not see much of anything.  But our interpretation of this simple phrase – The Right to Target – says a lot about each of us and when we probably got involved in this whole digital marketing thing.

To those who came to the business between 2000 and 2010, there may seem little to discuss.  Of course there’s an inherent right to target advertising to users… they’re getting their content for free, right?  Indeed, in the first decade of the millennium the machinery of targeting and its rationalization were both cranking full force.  Technologies were invented and businesses were launched to do nothing else.

To those who came earlier – and probably to those just joining the party now – the irony and inherent conflict in the term seems rather obvious.  To target someone seems like an overtly aggressive and invasive act.  Seen in a vacuum, the verb alone is rather jarring.  How could anyone have a right to target someone else?  It’s a question I raised way back in 2010 (@ 18:45 of the video) just as programmatic buying and technology were crashing over the business like a tsunami.   Back when it was raining money, this question may have seemed quaint or naïve.

Doesn’t seem like that anymore, does it?

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The Cambridge Analytica scandal the onset of GDPR regulation may not be causing a sea change in attitude and practice, but they are vividly reflecting it.  Zuck’s well-rehearsed damage control exercise on Capitol Hill brought the issues of targeting and data control out of the server closet and into mainstream consciousness.  I don’t think this dies down now, do you?

So if targeting is no longer a right, then what is it?   It’s a privilege.  It’s a pact.  It’s a knowing transaction executed in simple terms that have nothing to do with the insane legalese of the user agreement.  It’s not even targeting anymore; it’s customization and content selection.  And there is going to be very little in the way of gray area.  There will be great companies who uphold the highest standards and there will be scoundrels.

Semantics?  No.  Brands both established and emerging have woken to the social and business cost of being on the wrong side of history.  They’re in the room now with their eyes wide open.

The change has come.  Welcome to the sunlight.

Right Hand…Meet Left Hand!

I’m not generally inclined to comment in this space on the decisions of any particular company, but the events of the past two weeks at Microsoft have left me anxious and mystified.  But it turns out Microsoft probably already knew that and may soon be sending me ads for drugs to combat my anxiety and mystification.

Let’s start at the beginning.  Microsoft was among the scores of companies who were shoulder to shoulder with the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) and the Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA) on the issue of consumer “tracking.”  Oversimplifying the seemingly shared position, these groups were opposed to any legal or technical imposition of a “Do Not Track” function on browsers:  the preferred remedies for protection of consumer privacy were self-regulation and education of the consumer around the choice they could make about whether or not to “opt out” of having their behavior observed and saved by websites and advertising companies.  Everything was hunky-dory until Microsoft went off the reservation and announced that the next version of Internet Explorer (IE10) would have “Do Not Track” as its default setting.


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The pocket protectors in Redmond seriously blindsided online ad companies (including perhaps their own MSN division) with this swift 180 degree turn.  Damage control by the IAB and others was just as swift:  Disappointing but not fatal….IE is only a portion of the market…etc. To me it seemed like a calculated business and policy decision:  by seizing the flag of consumer privacy protection Microsoft gives its flagging browser – and new Windows 8 platform – a much needed competitive boost.  If that’s the case, I understand the move (even though I’m deducting style points for their handling of the decision.)

But then there was today’s news:  “Microsoft Files Patent to Serve Ads Based on Mood, Body Language.” The story in Advertising Age states that this amounts to an “…advertising engine that gauges people’s emotional states based on their search queries, emails, instant messages and use of online games, as well as facial expressions, speech patterns and body movements.”  At this point I’m starting to back slowly out of the room.  But what’s actually in the patent application itself is even more over the top:

Weight-loss product advertisers may not want their advertisement to appear to users that are very happy. Because, a person that is really happy is less likely to purchase a self-investment product that leverages on his or her shortcomings. But a really happy person may purchase electronic products or vacation packages. No club or party advertisers want to appear when the user is sad or crying. When the user is emotionally sad, advertisements about club parties would not be appropriate and may seem annoying or negative to the user.

Ew. I think I just threw up a little bit in my mouth.

I’m not an online privacy zealot, but it’s impossible not to find this more than a little creepy.  But to see these ideas in print from a company that’s also presenting its browser as the consumer privacy standard…that’s hard to stomach.  I’d love to hear reader thoughts and also to hear from someone at Microsoft on how they square these two seemingly conflicting ideas.

Second Time Around

The following is a reposting of The Drift written way back in June of 2003.  I’d love to hear comments on how well you all feel these ideas hold up more than eight years later.

While there’s nobody more bullish on the core value of the Internet as a marketing medium, I have to ask that we all take a breath before we declare the onset of the next boom.

If you believe – as I do – that a fundamental reallocation of marketing dollars toward the Internet is underway, then you may be hoping – as I am – that we don’t screw it up this time around. With that in mind, here is a “reality checklist” to help us remain tethered to what’s solid and bankable about our industry… and to avoid the pitfalls that can derail the growth track that we’re on.

1. BROADBAND ISN’T “THE ANSWER.”The is no “the answer.” Just new sets of questions. There’s no question that the adoption figures and improved user experience afforded by broadband are all great for the online ad business. But let’s not over-sell and over-hype broadband the way we have every other technical feature of our medium. Stay focused on the relationship your customers have with the Internet – and your site – TODAY.

2. TARGETING MUST CO-EXIST WITH SCALE. I hear from a great many publishers who are exploring ways to segment and categorize their user-base to deliver on the web’s promise of meaningful ad targeting. But as they begin to discuss the possibilities with buyers the whole thing becomes somewhat surreal. Can you target high school students in Ohio who have downloaded a rap MP3 file in the last 90 days? Maybe. But why the hell would you want to? You’ll reach about nine of them and will actually lose money on the deal. When you target, target big, substantial audience clusters, and charge a premium for them. To move dollars into the medium, we don’t need to fulfill the fantasies of the media planner; we just need to be better than “adults 18-49.”

3. INTERRUPTING IS OK… What we’re doing is advertising, which by its very nature is intrusive. If six of your site visitors complain about an interstitial or DHTML unit you run, that’s not a backlash and it shouldn’t drive policy. We can always make our advertising more relevant, funnier and better looking, but let’s also agree that, no matter what we do, no consumer will ever love advertising or choose to get more of it. Let’s stop overreacting.

4. …BUT INTEGRATING IS EVEN BETTER. If the inventors of TV advertising could have foreseen the remote control, the VCR and the TiVo, they never would have invented the stand-alone 30-second spot. In response, TV is already beginning its ham-handed scramble toward content integration through product placement, fuzzy infomercial content within regular programming, screen crawls and on-screen animation. We can avoid this fate if we never segregate our content and advertising in the first place. Put your organization’s creative energy into more elegantly blending content and marketing services. Don’t settle for just doing “Internet commercials.” Use the whole screen.

5. STOP TALKING TO OURSELVES. There are many incredibly smart and dedicated people in our medium, including great interactive ad agencies and outstanding interactive point-people at many brands. But we’ve got to come to grips that we’re still living together in the interactive ghetto. Unless and until we really engage with chief marketing officers, brand managers and ad agency presidents, we’re not really moving forward. Focus sales time and marketing money on the highest levels of customers. Don’t wait for “the industry” or the trade organizations to do it. Take action yourelf. NOW.

Advertisers are – in the end – very smart people. Today’s average brand manager is about 30 years old and has spent an entire career in a world dominated by digital media and communication. They get it. The heavy rate increases by network TV in the face of declining ratings are a bitter pill to swallow. Change is happening: Online is on the ascent.

The only things that kill the momentum are the confusion we sow and the unreasonable expectations we set in the minds of customers. Let’s all be more thoughtful… this time around.

Targeting:Finding the Guardrails

At last week’s ad:tech conference in New York, I sat in on a fascinating and articulate discussion of networks, exchanges, DSPs and targeting.   While this rather sensible and illuminating conversation was taking place in a breakout room, the exhibit hall was a carnival midway of the latest whiz-bang  microtargeting technologies and services.  (Whether you want to track me down based on my current global position, my web activity, my social connections or just about anything I’ve ever done, said, considered or intended online, there’s clearly nowhere left for me to hide.)  So the questions I asked of the panelists during Q&A might better have been broadcast over the P.A. system at the Javits Center:

What rational role should targeting play within a digital marketing strategy?  And where are its sane economic limits?

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For too long we’ve watched the targeting joyride skid down a winding road with no economic guardrails.  The direct response advertisers, agencies and technology vendors at the wheel have apparently given little thought to what the next wide turn might bring.    Deal sizes go down, complexity goes up, all in the service of shaving a few cents off acquisition cost or goosing the click rate a half a point.

Before we take targeting to even more ridiculous extremes, let me suggest a more rational role for it within the marketing plan:  as frequency.  The online marketing plan can and should include lots of contextual placements and reach against a broad but relatively defined audience.  Targeting is then deployed as a second wave, “heavying up” the message against key customers, much the way targeted print and vertical cable channels are used to compliment broadcast.

We collectively botched the targeting story for much of the past decade, but we’re getting a rare second chance to get it right.  Video and social connectivity are ushering in the next major spending infusion by top advertisers, and we shouldn’t assume they’re going to geek out on targeting the way we have to date.  Also, the power balance is subtly shifting back to media owners with strong content brands and environments, and tech providers like Collective and Lotame (among many others) are putting targeting and audience management solutions into their hands now.  Let’s hope that these publishers bring a new level of judgment, perspective and restraint a targeting culture that’s run amok.

Losing Main Street.

The consumer privacy series run by The Wall Street Journal last week is still pumping current into a third-rail social and political issue that will fry just about anyone who touches it.  Last week in this space I challenged both the motivation and wisdom of the starstruck industry execs who fed the story.  Now its time to look at the reaction from “our side,” both official and unofficial.  And I’m afraid it’s about as effective and authoritative as Deputy Barney Fife at his most menacing.

I love so much about what Randall Rothenberg and the Interactive Advertising Bureau have done recently, but his opinion piece in yesterday’s USA TODAY left a lot to be desired.  The IAB CEO sought to disarm the Journal’s wacky conspiracy theory by layering on one of his own.  According to Rothenberg, the whole controversy is driven by “activists who want to obstruct essential Internet technologies and return the U.S. to a world of limited consumer choice in news, entertainment, products and services.”   So if you’re concerned about being tracked with cookies and beacons you are the Taliban.  Nice.

Also in the response is a nod to the town-hall meeting in which we have a “real American” stand up to demonstrate the problem.  “Regulating (online ad technology tools) unwisely,” says Rothenberg,  “puts at risk people such as Tim Carter, a former Cincinnati home contractor who now makes a living with his ad-supported site, and James and Susan Martin, who work full time and care for their kids from their Montross, Va., home, thanks to their site,”  So if you regulate online tracking Tim Carter goes back to hanging drywall and the poor Martin children become latchkey kids in a house full of elegantly simple Swedish furniture.

Finally Rothenberg leans on “the Dorothy principle.”  Like Glinda the good witch of the North, he tells consumers, “Why, you’ve had the power all along!”  You can go dump your cookies, shut them off and navigate the web without them.  As Randy knows and the consumer now believes thanks to the Journal, it’s a lot more complicated than that.  And a consumer who goes to the IAB website and sees names like Audience Science, Crowd Science, Data Xu, Exact Target and BackChannel Media isn’t going going to think it’s much of a fair fight.

This isn’t the first time I’ve written on this issue (see “The Vast Luddite Conspiracy Theory” from March 2nd) and it won’t be the last.  I agree with Randall Rothenberg and the IAB on many of the facts.  But the battlefield here is not about facts, it’s all about image, and on that front we’re getting our asses kicked.  Dismissing privacy advocates as marginal extremists is not a long term strategy.  (Today’s extremist issue is tomorrow’s dominant trend.)  I think a sustainable privacy strategy begins with acknowledgment of the problem that exists.   Facts is facts: the “Targetocracy” in our business is big, wildly overcapitalized and a little bit out of control.  What I think consumers want to hear from Randy and the IAB is “we take the issues raised by the Journal very seriously.  The issues and the technology are quite complicated, but we remain committed to rooting out the bad guys and maintaining an environment that’s rich, free and privacy focused.”

As one of the IAB’s earliest board members and one who’s contributed a great deal of time and effort toward its mission over the years, I believe it’s time for the group to act less like the Chamber of Commerce and more like the Internal Affairs Department.  There are both rogues and careless polluters in our industry and their actions poison the environment for everyone.   Not everyone wants regulation, but the consumer wants to know someone’s in charge.  Who’s that going to be?