The Wall Street Journal just published an article written by Esther Dyson, called “the Coming Ad Revolution”. It is an interesting article. I think Ms Dyson starts out right when she discusses the current bombardments of ad pressure that ultimately leads to users ignoring ads. She says:
This market will get more competitive, and users will be barraged by ads to which they will pay less and less attention. Call that public space, a world of billboards and cacophony. Even though the ads will be more “relevant” than ever, users will increasingly tune them out.
So far so good. But I don’t agree entirely with the rest of her article. She continues with:
Now consider the new world of social networks. Facebook, unwittingly or on purpose, has been teaching people to manage their own data about themselves. Facebook’s launch of the Beacon service — which informs Facebook of members’ activities (i.e., purchases) on other sites — was a PR fiasco. But it still familiarized millions of users with the notion that they can control information about themselves online — and determine to whom it is visible.
What might seem like a horribly complex and tedious task to their elders — categorizing “friends,” managing news feeds, handling intersecting communities of contacts — feels natural to the Facebook users of today. They want more granularity of control, not less.
I agree partially with Ms Dyson here, people need more granularity of control. I doubt everyone understands that yet. Once people become less naive and begin to understand what Facebook and other social sites do with their profiles, more people will want to control which aspects of their digital lives can be used or not. But she goes on to explain how this behavior will help change the advertisement scene and provides us with a traveling example.
So what’s the business model? I’ll “friend” British Airways, which will say, “We see you’re going to Moscow next month. Why not fly through London and we’ll give you 10,000 extra miles?” I’m no longer in a bucket of frequent travelers, my privacy protected. I’m an individual with specific travel plans, which I intentionally make visible to preferred vendors. British Airways, of course, will pay Dopplr a handsome sponsorship fee to be eligible to be my “friend” (just as a Nike rep might pay to sponsor a basketball game and be part of the community). Someday NetJets may show up, offering to ferry me and my friends to a conference we’ll be attending together.
I’m far more likely to respond to BA or NetJets within a trusted site, and for a specific offer, than I am to heed their ad while reading a newspaper article on the troubles in Russia. (As for Orbitz, my old standby: After five years, it still doesn’t acknowledge my preferred airlines.)
I couldn’t agree more with her that this is a good example of a commercial message adding value to my actions. But there will be a long way ahead to reach this excellent fitting proposal from an airline. It assumes that not only I have taken action to allow British Airways to provide me offerings, but it also assumes that British airways, or any other advertiser for that matter, knows or can infer enough from my on-line behavior that they can provide me with a matching proposal.
The power of search is that when I search using a search engine, I essentially tell the advertiser that I am looking form something. In that case, providing me with an advertisement or commercial offering that matches what I’m looking for is not a difficult task. Hence the success and domination of Google. But, if computer systems are going to predict or analyze my on-line behavior and try to match that with an advertisement or commercial offer that comes at the right time with the right content is much more difficult. It is precisely for that reason that Beacon failed before it even launched (privacy aspects not even included). Even if Facebook has found out that I have an interest in cars, a commercial message or offering for a new car will only be useful if I am looking for it at that specific time. If I happen to be talking to a friend on Facebook and we chat about cars I would probably be annoyed if a car ad would pop up in that conversation. It would likely make me distrust Facebook. If I start looking at car sites, because I’m looking for a new car, then it wouldn’t be a problem. It isn’t just about content, previous behavior or profile. It is also about context, trust, and things I’m doing right now.
I believe that Ms Dyson is right about the user getting fed up with advertisement. Advertisement is simply one company yelling at a user, who does his best not to listen. Targeted advertisement doesn’t really change the underlying issue, it doesn’t matter how sophisticated it is. It is still one way traffic, and the user can and will ignore it if the context isn’t right.
Providing the user with value is the best way to go as the example from Ms Dyson above shows. But the question is if there is enough context in which this value can be provided when we look at the amount of advertisement money spent on-line. Current on-line advertisement is old-school billboard thinking, translated to the on-line world. Facebook SocialAds and Beacon are potentially powerful advertisement tools which happen to be in a totally wrong context where friends interact. And friends that interact don’t want or need commercial interruptions.
There is still one area in which targeted ads, behavior, preferences, interactions, profiled information can help.
It is in search of course. If I am looking for something I’m essentially opening up the door to advertisement and commercial offerings. Who is going to build me a tool in which I can deliberately contact advertisers to tell them what I’m looking for? Sometimes a direct interaction can be so much simpler than all these indirect behavioral mechanisms to find out what I want. Why not let me ask for it? Now that would be a revolution in advertisement.