The Privacy Quandary
Revisiting the advertising industry of yesteryear in shows like Mad Men feels quaint when you realize how far we’ve come from the days of single-platform advertising dominance. Print, radio, and television were the harbingers of new ways for advertisers and companies to connect with potential audiences with the hopes of converting them into paying customers. In 2016, this is no longer the case. Those channels exists in some form, but they hold neither the same attention nor weight as they once did; instead, a myriad of platforms have manifested and taken hold across audiences and users that have avoided consolidation and technological limitations like their predecessors once did. But with this proliferation of platforms and marketplaces came supportive, connective technologies that reach beyond anything the 1960s masterminds in the pitch room could ever have dreamed up. And with those connective technologies comes one critical decision that must be made by each and every participant on these platforms: how much do I value my privacy?
My guess is the eventual convergence of millennials coming to fruition, and baby boomers slowly fading, will demonstrate how the question of privacy, technology, and advertising pans out. But even before that happens, anyone who browses the Internet with a web browser, or uses a mobile device, or makes a purchase online, or conducts a search on Google, or clicks on an ad must take account of whether or not they value the inherently private right to those choices without submitting to the data aggregation overlords (and whether we have a right to question what companies do with their own platforms and services).
Why should we care about the data aggregation happening at the search, browse, click, and engage levels? If you aren’t cognizant of what is happening when you choose to load a given web page‚ or take a particular action in a browser, you are likely permitting dozens of services to track your behavior, align you to an ID, and connect your engagement with look-a-like modeling to better inform advertising, spending, and customization decisions for advertisers and brands across the world. (On the contrary, this data also helps designers and technologists create more personalized, better experiences and services to serve you based on your behavior.) Either way, you are inadvertently telling advertisers and a slew of other companies what you do, how you interact, and how you spend your money so they can customize messaging and content to your liking to encourage more spending and more engagement with brand assets.
If you like the notion of ads aligning to your interests, or have little care for companies bending your behavioral metrics to marketers’ and brands’ visions of perfect content resonance, then forget this entire editorial. Receiving more relevant ads or highly customized, purposefully tweaked content to adhere to your interests is the endgame for so much of what’s happening in the technology and advertising industry that if no one notices what’s happening on the backend — if no one cares — then we as audiences, attention centers, and customers lose some of our right to discern, decide, and demonstrate our free will. If we can’t choose to shell out money or click our way through a conversion funnel to arrive at a purchase, a sign-up, or an end point without being manipulated or steered by invisible forces, then this kind of technology could be exponentially built to influence us beyond just advertising.
But… Perhaps This Isn’t All Such a Bad Thing
You know what? Maybe this is okay after all. Very few users have activated mobile Safari’s content/ad blocker in iOS 9 when it was released in the fall of 2015 on iPhones and iPads. Maybe no one cares to use the private mode in their browser. Or perhaps no one is interested in using the highly private, highly secure Apple Pay to avoid being tracked upon every transaction you make. Maybe no one gives much weight to digital privacy, and everyone would rather software and services better serve their needs, their attention, and their wallet. You can’t have both, but perhaps you can have a balance.
While tracking, customization, and connecting user information across sources to power ad campaigns and content is the hot new frontier, there have been several subtle yet successful underground advertising strategies in place for years that don’t require invasiveness or big, expensive technology. I’d like to call these methods bespoke ad targeting.
The best examples of this are The Deck, an advertising network for creatives, web, and design culture, and the entire podcast industry.
For many, The Deck (powered by the Chicago-based design and interactive studio, Coudal Partners) has been a bastion of hope for non-intrusive advertising tied to a curated, human-approved ad network featuring such luminaries as John Gruber’s Daring Fireball, web community mainstay MetaFilter, the publishing world’s darling McSweeney’s, and long-form pioneer The Morning News.
Having established a quality, editorially-related group of sites and authors permits The Deck to run an equally curated and selected group of advertisers to appeal to the perceived needs, interests, and attentions of such audiences. Sure, data informs these decisions, but The Deck does not track or use data from third-party aggregators — instead, they understand the audiences’ interests based on their network sites and align advertisers (or permit advertisers) to run ads inside their program; which, as they describe, is “not about ‘cost-per-thousand’ it’s about ‘cost-per-influence’.” This methodology is unlike most ad or display networks, which consider impressions but make most of their revenue off cost-per-click. This approach is summarized best by The Deck:
The loyal, regular readers of the network’s sites and services consist of web publishers, writers, developers, editors, reporters and bloggers as well as influential designers and art directors. Plus, the aggregate audience is made up of writers, photographers, illustrators, students, filmmakers, typographers, artists, animators, musicians, coders, designers and many other creative professionals.
This methodology could be repeated ad nauseum across any fields, interests, or publishing networks, but since The Deck is such an indie game, it would likely be hard to convince major agencies, advertisers, and publishers to get onboard (Big Data drives everything in terms of quantitative business investment rationales).
Another advertising anomaly is the wrapper around the podcasting industry. Long has this industry been around (really, since the boom years of the iPod over a decade ago), but never has its advertising implications been treated with the same kind of sophistication found in other mediums and channels. Since there is no common platform for podcasts (they are essentially audio files that can be published via RSS for feed processing), there has not been a common way of inserting advertisements into them.
A recent Wall Street Journal article about podcasts facing advertising hurdles summarizes this best (via a quote from Jonathan Barnard, head of forecasting at ZenithOptimedia):
“Podcast ads can't be targeted in the way other digital media can be, and there's no immediate metric of success - like impression served or links clicked - to allow advertisers to evaluate return on investment"
Regardless of these hurdles or concessions, some advertisers continue to invest significant money into podcasting because of the same kind of bespoke reach that The Deck famously claims. The Atlantic investigated this, particularly through the humorous lens of Squarespace (a website CMS service), which seemingly advertises on nearly every podcast.
Essentially, podcast advertisers needed to come up with a method for enabling a call to action in their audio spots. In almost every instance, this comes in the form of a promotional code or website link. As reported by the Atlantic, now that podcasts are reaching “17 percent of Americans age 13 and up (that’s almost 50 million people)”, we’re seeing more of this approach by advertisers:
Instead of pursuing signups and orders, companies—especially larger ones—are increasingly hoping that podcast advertisements create positive associations for their brand. “We select a property like This American Life not because we expect it to increase sales the next day, but because … we know our target values the content,” says Nancy Hubbell, the communications manager for Scion. Some advertisers trawl Facebook and Twitter to see how their ads are being received.
To summarize, both non-invasive advertising methods - bespoke networks and podcasts - rely less on user behavior tracking and data aggregation, and more human-picked selections that aim to provide less direct calls to action and drive positive brand associations. If this sounds familiar, it’s a call back to the era of analog television, analog billboards, and analog in-theatre ad reels (or event present-day sponsoring of sports functions, television shows, and physical events). Less invasive, but likely just as impactful in terms of impressions and brand association/reinforcement.
The Important Elements of Connected Experiences
Bespoke or not‚ with all these new digital advertising strategies come more and more tech stacks, which in turn can actually impact more than just privacy considerations. In particular, we are talking about the overall user experience of accessing content. It's been quite clear over the past 12-18 months that the web (and its content ecosystem) has become clunky again, like the days of dial-up:
- Site speed has been a massive issue for several large brand and publication websites over the last several years, with third-party scripts contributing heavily to lag time in loading in a browser
- Newsrooms have seen a proliferation of speedy publication choices on OSes and platforms attempting to wrest control of the content floodgates: Facebook Instant Articles, Apple News, and Google AMP
- Website design norms have caved to accommodate responsive design, oftentimes executed in ways that aren't entirely mobile-friendly, bringing resource clutter, inefficient load times, and the slew of tracking mechanisms from the desktop era to mobile (the days of simple, fast mobile sites circa 2010 is over)
- Target: 44/100
- Best Buy: 53/100
- Beats By Dre: 44/100 (curious to see if Apple will curtail use of certain ad and content platforms now that they own Beats)
- Apple: 61/100
- New York Times: 62/100
- The Verge: 13/100
- Slate: 58/100
- Microsoft: 53/100
Dean Murphy demonstrates how much better the mobile web experience is with the iOS9 content-blocking feature, describing the following impact it had for one site he loves to visit but which suffers significantly from site slowdown:
With no content blocked, there are 38 3rd party scripts (scripts not hosted on the host domain) running when the homepage is opened, which takes a total of 11 seconds. Some of these scripts are hosted by companies I know, Google, Amazon, Twitter and lots from companies I don't know. Most of which I assume are used to display adverts or track my activity, as the network activity was still active after a minute of leaving the page dormant. I decided to turn them all off all 3rd party scripts and see what would happen.
Even with the benefits of perceptively better content or ads geared to the user, there is an adverse effect:
- Slower accessibility to services, apps, and sites
- More expensive data plans (accommodate unchecked ad networks required bandwidths)
- Exposure of personal information, even if anonymized
Advertising Isn't the Only Industry
The permeation of data tracking and data-driven decision-making is not just trending through the advertising industry. It is everywhere. Most notably, though, is its involvement in the health industry. This is a critical are for data precision, and the more information available about patients, prospects, and conditions, the better the decisions become for health organizations and insurance companies.
Similar to how web behavior data is curated by third party companies and aggregated in commercial databases for sale to advertisers and agencies, so too is the data for health. As Scientific American reports, however, these databases aren’t quite as easy to orchestrate:
By law, the identities of everyone found in these commercial databases are supposed to be kept secret. Indeed, the organizations that sell medical information to data-mining companies strip their records of Social Security numbers, names and detailed addresses to protect people's privacy. But the data brokers also add unique numbers to the records they collect that allow them to match disparate pieces of information to the same individual—even if they do not know that person's name
For most industries, this should be typical of best practices for anonymizing data. But they continue to report that the clarity around data collection (and from whence the data is entered or stored) confounds many industry participants:
…the system is so opaque that many doctors, nurses and patients are unaware that the information they record or divulge in an electronic health record or the results from lab tests they request or consent to may be anonymized and sold.
Big surprise there.
Where We Go From Here
For some companies, like the aforementioned iMore, or heavyweights New York Times, Slate, and The Verge, advertising is an integral part of how they pay the bills (and journalists). Is there a better way to evolve advertising without sacrificing the inherent privacies of participants in ancillary activities (such as reading a publication online, or watching a video on YouTube)?
Advertising is a massive, $500BN industry. The medical industry is even bigger. Neither is going away, and ad-blocking or a handful of privacy advocates won’t change the face of the business any time soon. Sure, Apple can advocate for device-specific privacy against the FBI and potentially the federal government, but that doesn’t have any effect on the data users are willing (or unknowingly) contributing to forms, subscriptions, browser histories, and clicks/taps throughout the Internet.
The game could change — for users, experiences, and privacy — in a meaningful way if we decide to move a dialogue down that route. But as companies continue to build useful services around data for their users, the reliance and convenience of those services may eventually outweigh the privacy concerns of the data begin recorded, submitted, analyzed, and used to create them. And for us, there isn’t necessarily a right or wrong way to move forward from here, but there are liberties around the nature of privacy that will forever be changed to accommodate the digital ecosystems of the future.