Tag Archives: technology

We Are At An Advertising Turning Point

Unless you never use the internet, you’re aware that something is happening in the next few days because every service and site you use is updating their terms of use. You may be wondering why you’re getting lots of emails to that effect or why sites are putting large banners to that effect on their homepage. It’s due to the start date of the GDPR. In case any of you don’t run digital businesses (which I suspect is most of you), the GDPR is a regulation that pertains to privacy and data protection for all citizens of the E.U. Because the internet is a global thing, many digital publishers and stores are extending the protections of the GDPR to their non-European consumers as well. I, for one, am very glad even though there is a good chance that it will force the ad tech business to change dramatically. It’s a big effing deal and we are at a turning point.

Let me preface this by saying that I got fed up with the ridiculous amount of tracking going on quite a while ago. Like many people, I think that tracking someone without their permission or a court order is wrong. I think it slows down the user experience and unbalances the trade of content for attention toward the publisher since tracking me beyond your content is infringing on some other entity’s territory. Besides that, it’s creepy. I don’t want to see a few weeks’ worth of ads for an item I looked up for a friend in which I have zero interest. I don’t care about ad personalization, frankly, although I know for many people it’s a much better user experience. I think only showing me ads for products and services that you think I might care about excludes product discovery and I have proof in that I’ve made many purchases based on content-based marketing but very few based on served ads.

I installed a browser extension called Cookie Auto Delete which wipes out cookies as you surf. That’s on top of Ghostery which blocks ads and other trackers. Because of that, I don’t see ads other than those targeted to things such as geography that don’t require cookies (actually, I don’t see a lot of ads period). Am I hurting my friends in digital publishing? I don’t think so since most of the cookies placed these days are not by publishers but by ad tech services that I think undermine the value of great content. They value eyeballs, not what lures the eyeballs.  Ads served directly by publishers and embedded in their content value the content. They’re not based on your ability to track me.

Am I overly sensitive? Not when I’m joined by billions of people who have installed ad blockers. If ad tech was doing a great job, that wouldn’t be happening. Would GDPR be necessary if ad tech companies respected consumers’ privacy? Of course not and I think it’s going to cripple any business that doesn’t respect its customers enough to work in the customer’s best interest. Tracking them like Big Brother doesn’t do that, does it?

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Filed under digital media, What's Going On

A.I. Aye Yi Yi

One of the hottest topics in business these days is artificial intelligence. One can hardly pick up a business publication of any sort and not trip over an algorithm. AI is being used to do everything from writing articles to running chatbots to protecting against fraud. There is one problem with AI, though, and that’s our topic today. 

You’ve probably encountered something that’s the product of AI. A fair number of game summaries one finds in the sports pages (physical or digital) are, in fact, written by machines. Same with many company summaries in the financial section. The main problem with these pieces is that they’re great at populating a template with all the facts and not so great at figuring out the “why.” You might also have used an online chat function to get some customer service support. More often then not, that’s AI at work as well. But that’s not the business problem I want to discuss.

The problem with most of the AI solutions I read about is that they’re all geared toward helping a business but they’re not focused at all on helping the customer. If you’ve ever wandered into an AI-driven customer support phone line you know what I mean. Get outside of what the algorithm can handle and your blood pressure is sure to soar. While the bot on the other end knows all about you if you’re able to identify yourself in the way the AI is designed (frequent shopper number, etc.), if you don’t know what phone number was used to create the account or you’re a frequent shopper without a frequent shopper ID (some folks don’t live being tracked, you know), it’s hard to get support. Humans are still better at solving many non-standard requests.

I get that sharing all your data – what you read, what you watch, where you go, what you eat, etc. – can help a company give you better recommendations. The problem is that many of the companies use that as a pretext to sell you products you might not really need. Can any of us really know how the data was used to create a recommendation? When a fitness app tells us we’re having sleep issues because our data says so and says we need to buy a new mattress, can we trust that or is it an affiliate deal that brings the fitness app a commission? Maybe we just ought not to have that nightcap instead if we want to sleep better?

I think the use of AI in some areas is fantastic. Fraud protection, for example. It’s easy for AI to spot something that’s out of place in your credit card use and send you an alert. That’s customer-centric. Using a bot to cut costs while providing a lesser experience isn’t and that’s my issue with much of the AI work that’s going on now. What’s your take?

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Filed under Reality checks, Thinking Aloud, What's Going On

Serving The Wrong Master

One of the things you learn about if you’re in the digital marketing space is Search Engine Optimization and its cousin Social Media Optimization. I work with clients on both from time to time and frankly, it’s a time-consuming and frustrating process. I say that not because it isn’t worthwhile – it is. In my mind, the biggest challenge in digital marketing is being visible. Call it discoverability, call it what you will, but unless you are presented as an option to consumers you aren’t going to make a sale. If you don’t get a turn at bat you’re unlikely to hit anything, right?

Photo by Alex Knight

That said, the frustrating part comes from two places. The first is that it’s always much harder to hit a moving target and the algorithms that drive how search engines and social media platforms behave are constantly changing. Google’s search algorithm changed half a dozen times this year and 10+ last year, although researchers on those numbers have to guess because Google doesn’t announce most of the changes (or how the whole damn thing works for that matter!). Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, and others have all done similar things, so getting your content to be visible is like herding cats if you’re chasing a changing formula.

The second part of my frustration comes from a philosophical place. I don’t think any of us should be serving the algorithm rather than serving our customers. The algorithm is the wrong master. Before you object, think about any content you’ve written lately or that your organization has put out. I’m willing to bet the creator thought about keywords and making the title “click-worthy.” There is nothing wrong with that up to a point. I do it and I advise clients to do so as well. However, when what we’re creating loses relevance and meaning to humans while becoming more attractive to computers, we’ve gone too far. You see it in the repetition of words in an article making them less interesting. Content that uses sarcasm or clever writing might delight a reader but confuse an algorithm.

Given where artificial intelligence and machine learning are headed, I’m not sure how long we humans will be writing a lot of what we consume now. A significant percentage of sports and financial reporting, for example, are made by machine today and most of us can’t tell the difference. There is software on the market that will help you create content that’s perfectly optimized for whatever algorithm you’re chasing. But ask yourself this: when was the last time you met an algorithm at a cash register? Serve your customers – they’re in charge, not an ever-changing bit of code. You with me?

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Filed under Consulting, digital media, Huh?

Losing The Lottery

We’re all bugged. If you carry a smartphone, you may rest assured that it’s possible to identify that device as it moves through the world and interacts with various services. How difficult do you think it is, once someone has a device ID, to associate it with a phone number‘s owner?

I think none of that is a surprise to you, nor is it to me. I try to keep the list of organizations tracking me to a minimum and to a list of companies I trust. Unfortunately, that takes more effort that most people are willing to exert but it can affect you in more ways that you might know.

I uninstalled a lottery app this morning. It was doing a number of things that caused me concern. First, it alone was responsible for 65% of the data traffic from my phone when the phone was idle. The app was idle too, or so I thought. In fact, it was busy sending my phone number, my device ID, and several other very personal pieces of data (Facebook and Twitter ID’s among them) to…someplace. Who knows what happened to the data from there.

I installed this app a few months ago when the Powerball prize pool was ridiculously large. It seemed like a convenient way to input my tickets and get notified if I won anything. What I won, apparently, was the ability to be tracked as an individual and have my battery drained unnecessarily. Buh bye.

What’s the point today? I guess it’s a message for you as you’re on either side of the desk. As a marketer, we can’t violate our customers’ trust by using the permissions they give us to collect usage data and selling or sharing that data to companies with which the customer has no relationship. More than 70 percent of smartphone apps are reporting personal data to third-party tracking companies like Google Analytics, the Facebook Graph API or Crashlytics. Generally, those companies are there to improve the user experience. The problem is that in many cases, app developers that that permission as carte blanche to send the data anywhere. I’ve seen how that data can be used for profiling and targeting and believe me, it’s frightening.

As consumers, we need to pay more attention to privacy and where our data goes. It’s not just to keep your battery from running down. Given the role that our smart devices play in our daily lives, it’s quite possible that a bad actor could know way more about you than you’d care to share. I don’t just mean by monitoring your texts or any unencrypted data you send. It’s also tracking your movements. As a positive, location-based services can help us (you get an alert for a sale at a store you frequent as you pass within a quarter mile) but the possibility of an unscrupulous third party misusing that data is exceptionally high. Check your app permissions. Why would a game need to know your location or have access to your camera, for example? Turn off the permissions that don’t make sense.

I’ll be looking up the results of the money I risked on Powerball some other way since trying to make my life a little easier made it a lot more risky in other ways. It was a good reminder to let my devices work for me and not for people who want to spy on me. You with me?

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Filed under digital media, Huh?, Reality checks

Be Inefficient – It’s Better For Your Business

Representatives of Facebook, Google, and Twitter have been summoned to Capitol Hill to explain what they know about how Russia used their platforms to interfere in the last Presidential election.  Their testimony began yesterday, and there was a recurring theme that I think has implications for any business. It has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with serving your customers.

Facebook logo Español: Logotipo de Facebook Fr...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You may remember something from a few months back. There was a kerfuffle about Facebook using human editors on the News Feed who had a liberal bias. Whether that’s true or not is immaterial to our discussion. Facebook removed human editors from the “trending topics” feature seen in the news feeds of users. Given the decreased human oversight, gaming Facebook’s algorithm became easier, as demonstrably false news reports spread with increasing speed during the election. As Recode reported:

Sen. Jeff Flake is asking Facebook how it monitors its service — humans or artificial intelligence or both? Stretch (note: Facebook’a lawyer) said both, and explained a bit about how algorithms can detect non-human behavior, like someone creating many accounts in a very short amount of time. But while software can detect some of this stuff, humans often need to make a final decision on whether or not contents should be removed. Twitter and Google confirmed they have similar setups.

Fewer humans means fewer edits, apparently. What caught my attention yesterday was that each of the three platforms testified that putting in human-based solutions are inefficient for their business. What about the people on their platforms? A significant percentage of young people get their news only from Facebook. How can they be expected to understand the issues when the facts that are presented to them may be propaganda and not news or factual at all?

None of us in business can afford to make decisions solely on the basis of what’s good for the business. We need to stay customer and consumer-centric. After all, you wouldn’t want doctors in an ER failing to administer expensive drugs because it’s inefficient for the hospital, right? The restaurant that cuts the quality of their ingredients or service because they need higher margins won’t be around for very long.

Like most of you, I use these three platforms every day. Twitter is a cesspool, in my opinion, filled with trolls, hate-speech, and spam, but it’s also critically important. It’s a shame that they use the “free speech” argument to ignore that crap. There are limits on speech – try yelling “fire” in a theater and see what happens to you – and Twitter needs to clean up its act. All three of these companies need to quit using the profit motive and their responsibility to shareholders as excuses to let the bad actors do their thing. Be a little less efficient and more customer-friendly. Facebook admitted they knew something was going on and did nothing, allowing the “fake news” and propaganda to disseminate. That’s not consumer-friendly, is it?

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Tolls

As you might have guessed from the name of my company (Keith Ritter Media), I’ve spent a great deal of time in the media business, both as a marketer and as a publisher. The business model used to be pretty simple. Create something about which people care, make them aware that you’re offering it, get them to read, listen, or watch it, and aggregate those people into a saleable audience. You hired salespeople to meet with the representatives of your real customer – the advertiser. Usually, these representatives were media buyers from an ad agency. You with me so far?

In TV, we’d offer a unit of time at a “gross” price and asked the agency to remit a “net” price, which was usually the gross minus 15%. That commission was the toll we paid to get the revenue. Obviously, how much of that the agency kept was between them and their client but it wasn’t really our concern. We did our budgeting on the expected net revenues we’d get which was pretty much a straight line derivative of the gross monies sold. Other media had similar models but in every case, the dollars received by the publisher were directly and clearly tied to the size and desirability (to marketers) of their audience.

That statement in no longer true for digital publishing and the fact that it isn’t has serious negative implications for other media as they shift to a more programmatic sales model. I have no idea how digital publishers are able to do financial plans since they can’t project revenue from audience size. That’s because they’ve allowed themselves to generate billions of dollars in ad revenue while only capturing somewhere around a third of what is spent. The 15% that used to be paid in tolls is now more like 67% although some estimates are even higher. More importantly, it’s usually impossible to predict the net revenues received from the gross revenues sold. Digital audiences are growing while publisher revenue is declining.

Where is the money going? A sponsor pays $1 for an ad impression. The agency still takes their commission, but added to the toll-takers are trading desks, DSP providers, data providers, supply side platforms, ad serving platforms, verification services (viewability, etc.) and who knows who else. In some cases, it’s the agency double-dipping, but most of the time these are third parties. Most of these ad services have no interest in either the publisher’s or the marketing client’s success. They aren’t about a quality ad environment. They facilitate a transaction. In some cases, a platform that connects both buyers and sellers charges each side a separate fee without disclosing that they’re doing so. In short, publishers, agencies, and marketers have created a system that works for no one but the VC’s that fund these ad tech companies. What happens when programmatic spreads to other media such as TV?

Publishers have many other challenges. Facebook, for example, makes more money off of some publishers’ content than do the publishers themselves without paying the publishers a dime. But the real threat to a healthy media environment is the toll-takers. When you create great content and grow your audiences, you should be the entity that benefits and not some opaque service provider. More eyeballs used to mean more money to the bottom line. Can we make that equation true again?

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Filed under digital media, Huh?

Cars For Dummies

I bought a new car yesterday. Mine was going on 10 years old and was beginning to show those little warning signs that it was heading downhill. Advocate for proactive action that I am, I decided that 10 years was a good run and that the car and I should part as friends. I know this will come as a shock to you but today’s post isn’t a screed about how my salesperson mistreated me (he didn’t) or how the paperwork takes forever (well, only about an hour) or how I had to negotiate my butt off to get a fair deal (we agreed on numbers in about 30 seconds – yay for the internet bringing transparency).

What has surprised me instead is how much more complex the car is. The decade has turned our vehicles into rolling computers. The owner’s manual – which comes in a few volumes – is roughly the size of a paperback edition of War And Peace. It should have a “hernia hazard” warning on the cover. The car has radar on all sides so that there is no longer a “blind spot”. I can set the cruise control and the radar in front of the car will keep me at a pre-determined distance from the car in front of me regardless of the speed I’ve set. The car will also hit the brakes if it thinks I’m moving toward an object too quickly – useful for idiots that are texting and driving I suppose, but also in case the car in front of you stops short.

I have the ability to connect via Bluetooth, which I had in my old car, but the functionality is much more advanced. In addition, I can link in via a USB cable and have the car perform dozens of functions through my phone and the car’s software. I can install apps in the car, which has its own ISP address. Of course, that’s assuming I can understand how to use all of this. The media center has its own rather large manual as well. My favorite passage in both manuals so far? A warning not to test the collision avoidance system. I suppose some moron thinks driving at a wall doing 40 to see if it works might be fun.

Why am I bring this up? Cars are very complicated machines and while I’m certainly a long-time user of them (as well as a relatively sophisticated user of digital products) I’m kind of overwhelmed. Part of what we need to remember as we introduce new features to current users or our product to new users is that they need help. Jargon isn’t helpful nor are explanations written by technical writers who are engineers first and consumers second. I would have loved a short pamphlet that showed the “Top Ten Things You Will Want To Do First”, written in plain language, highly illustrated, and backed up by a newcomers’ hotline I could call if I ran into trouble. Expensive to support? Sure, but cars are expensive products. Could the dealer have sat with me and provided that service? You bet. Did they? Nope.

Selling the product is only part of the process. Making sure the customer gets every bit of value out of what you’ve sold them is just as important. I’m off to figure out just what I’ve bought here. At least I knew how to get it home!

 

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Filed under Thinking Aloud, What's Going On