How Did We Get So Far Off Track?

I started working in the digital world in the mid-’90s. While I wasn’t exactly there for the dawn of the digital age, I was a relatively early member of the group of executives that began building businesses on the internet and on walled gardens like AOL used to be. A couple of things that have happened recently have me shaking my head, wondering how it’s all gone sideways.

First, I asked Twitter to send me something:

Keith Ritter, your advertiser list is ready! The list attached includes the advertisers that have included you in a tailored audience. These advertisers have included you in one or more tailored audiences. Tailored audiences are often built from email lists or browsing behaviors. They help advertisers reach prospective customers or people who have already expressed interest in their business.

I figured since I do a fair amount of cookie-blocking and other means to prevent tracking that I’d turn up in a handful of audiences and I was right. I appear in exactly 9 audiences. However, the rest of the 57-page document (not a typo) listed the similar audiences Twitter has decided I fit. They market me as a part of these audiences and I have no control over it. I can opt out and it will change the ads I see on Twitter. It won’t however, remove me from these audiences. I am included in over 1,000 of them, my data used and sold quite unwillingly.

Then there are the constantly apologizing folks at Facebook. This article in the NY Times is both frightening and disappointing. It talks about how Facebook “gave some of the world’s largest technology companies more intrusive access to users’ personal data than it has disclosed, effectively exempting those business partners from its usual privacy rules, according to internal records and interviews.”  Their privacy track record is abominable and every week it seems there is another apology and a promise to do better. Fool me once…

It’s taken years for the marketers and publishers to push back on the rampant fraud and abuse of programmatic ads. Social media is rife with “influencers” who buy fake followers and regularly violate FTC regulations on advertising. It seems that everyone under 30 is either a ninja or a guru. Fake reviews for products that are complete rip-offs are everywhere (run a link to an Amazon review through Fakespot if you don’t believe me).

All of this leaves one question: what the hell happened? How did the digital business world get so screwed up? At some point, Facebook and many other digital businesses decided that making money is way more important than serving their users is, I think, the basic answer. I’m all for making money, as my business track record shows. There are limits, however, and I have a fundamental belief that making money can only happen over the long term when you respect the customer. As the great David Ogilvy once said, “The customer is not a moron. She’s your wife.” Because most of the people who use digital have no concept about how they are tracked and marketed, most businesses treat them as morons and therein lies the problem.

I could rant on but I’ll end it here with a plea. To any of you who are in the digital world, please resolve to get back on track. Way back when in 1995, all we wanted to do was to amuse a few people and keep them engaged. Yes, we sold ads but we also didn’t track people once they left our domain. We didn’t treat them as numbers or rubes. You shouldn’t either. I get that the tools are more sophisticated and more powerful and that the world has changed. Basic business principles and human decency haven’t, have they?

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Filed under Huh?, Reality checks, What's Going On

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