Who owns the internet, us or them?

It has been interesting to observe the furore over the launch of Apple’s latest operating system iOS9, with its built-in ability to support ad blocking apps.

The ‘Apple vs Google war’ headlines are amusing to read but what is the underlying message here? Is the tail wagging the dog?

Who owns the internet, us or them?

There’s no doubt the adtech market has provided a rich suite of solutions enabling publishers and therefore brands to more accurately find interested buyers. But as we enter this brave new world of personalisation and experiences over products, is it making the situation better or worse?

Perhaps the numbers will tell us. For this blog post I started to research the ‘real’ cost of advertising to us, the advertiser and the publishers.  It wasn’t easy to find recent data, however there’s a lot of data available for the 2012 period which is about half way between the global downturn and now.

I looked at five key industry sectors; Finance, Travel, Shopping, Telco and Automotive. In quarter period, across these five industry sectors the ads delivered by just two Google products (search & display) totalled 12.78 Billion. A grand total of 0.018% of these ads were ‘converted’ to leads (note not sales).

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The cost of all this? – $104.5 Million

Maybe a fair result for the brands that paid for the clicks compared to other available mediums? Perhaps the most disturbing number from this snapshot however is that of the 12.7 billion adverts served to us, 12.5 billion were pushed in front of an audience that was not interested in the product or service on offer. I’m no marketing expert but that seems like a real waste.

In a world where trust in brands and Governments is at an all time low, I also wonder what this level of exposure is doing to the consumer perception of these companies?

With a 41% year-on-year increase in blocking ads, perhaps we should ask the 198 million people who now use ad-blocking software?

Global Ad Blocking

Let’s also take into account that this cost does not include the increasing expense of brands acquiring data from third party brokers in order to satisfy their thirst for knowing everything about us. It seems that the promises of ‘Big Data’ and programmatic advertising have created a data gobbling monster which has forgotten the human aspect in all of this. That is, most of the time we simply don’t want all this digital noise.

I guess the publishers and data brokers are OK with this though. As the classic middle men in this closed market, their cash registers continue to ring whatever the outcome for the brand or us.

Seth Godin’s view on all this is worth noting. In his recent blog post on ad-blockers he commented that by using them (People) “don’t miss the ads, and they don’t miss the snooping of their data”.

He pointed back to his advocacy for ‘Permission Marketing’ and called out what he believes reinforces the fundamental building blocks of growth today:

  • The best marketing isn’t advertising, it’s a well-designed and remarkable product
  • The best way to contact your users is by earning the privilege to contact them, over time
  • Making products for your customers is far more efficient than finding customers for your products
  • Horizontally spread ideas (person to person) are far more effective than top-down vertical advertising
  • More data isn’t the point. Data to serve explicit promises is the point.

At the centre of all this debate and opinion sharing on whether Adblocking is the end of the road for the adtech industry and free content, there’s another point that isn’t getting as much airtime.

Ultimately, how we live our online lives should really be up to us shouldn’t it?

It’s a simple point of choice.

The real message here is the options available to the average internet user (everyone) are currently extremely limited. Whichever way you look at it, the ‘agreement’ of being able to access free content in exchange for a bombardment of mostly unwanted sales messages is now in it’s death throes.

There are so many reasons for us to go online these days that don’t have anything to do with advertising.

Having a one size fits all experience where we have no choice but to give up slices of our personal data every time you open a browser and type something is a very one sided equation.

Take health data for example. In the US, if you are pregnant and wanted to consider a change of health insurer, you may well consider visiting a ‘trusted’ Government backed online health insurance marketplace like www.healthcare.gov? It’s likely you would be comfortable in sharing certain information about your pregnancy or general health in order to receive a better deal. It’s fair to assume any data you provide would be classed as private and not sold in the open market. After all, it’s backed by the Government right?

Unfortunately, healthcare.gov wouldn’t have the same view. As reported in January this year by the Electronic Freedom Foundation, personal data of this nature is being sold to “at least 14 data collection services” even if the user has enabled Do Not Track on the website. It’s no coincidence that you would then see a big increase in online adverts for pregnancy related products.

If we are being served an average of 1,700 digital adverts every month (ComScore) clogging up our downloading speeds and using up our precious data plans, it makes sense that we would go a step further and pay a few bucks to download ad-blocking apps in an attempt to get back some control. Apple has reported that iOS9 has been the fastest update to be installed in their history, an estimated 500 million people and counting.

How many of these 1,700 ads do we actually remember? It feels like we have developed a 6th sense of our own. A human ad-blocking filter to mostly ignore the digital advertising ‘noise’ we’re constantly bombarded with on our online journeys.

We are all consumers – we all buy things and have our favourite brands and products. Generally, because we trust these organisations, we don’t mind hearing from them about their new products or service lines. As long as they don’t join the herd and try to ram these messages down our throats. Research also tells us that we don’t mind sharing data with these trusted organisations if it enhances our engagement with the brand.

So how do we bridge this gap? How can a brand grow a loyal following rather than just a fickle customer base happy to switch to a competitor at the first sign of a discount? How can we have more control over our online activities and more choice on what businesses can and can’t do with our personal information?

How can we get our ball back?

Tim Burners-Lee summed it up by saying “The data we create about ourselves should be owned by each of us, not by the companies that harvest it”

Perhaps what the ad-blocking movement is really saying is “Give us our internet back, it wasn’t yours to take anyway!”

Queensland University of Technology together with PwC recently published an inspiring view of digital empowerment in their paper Digital Identity 3.0, the platform for the people

Here they describe how user centric platforms flip data control into the hands of the people. By having a privately owned and integrated master record of your identity, attributes, preferences and likes, the individual can then use this as a central asset to engage with all third parties on their terms.

You allow access to who you want to be able to see, view and use different combinations of your data and preferences. The platform would also have a data sharing and permission layer. This would enable you to change, delete, update and rescind any data you have previously shared with organisations. This is especially relevant for the European market as the soon to be released General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) will legally require organisations to provide this level of data transparency to all customers by 2017.

Compared to the existing silo based CRM models used by most enterprises, a user centric data platform would also be much more efficient. You won’t have to constantly fill in numerous online forms with the same data, you simply share the required data points once from your own central data bank. And because it’s your data, it would inherently be more accurate than that collected or purchased by corporations trying to build a profile of you. As the QUT & PwC report highlights:

(the) integrated master record exists independently of any immediate commercial or legal context. It empowers people to create new attributes, share these attributes selectively as they connect with others, and create experiences and value beyond what can be predicted.

In the new era of connected devices, IoT and smart sensors, a platform of this type also enables the individual to centrally collect multiple data sets and combine them in exchange for new areas of value.

For example, combining your Fitbit data with your grocery purchasing data would be a valuable package to present to an insurer to request a competitive health insurance quote (if you exercise and eat a healthy diet, of course).

How does this affect the adtech issue I hear you ask? – Well, personal data and the digital footprint we leave behind online is the fuel powering the profiling, tracking and serving of ads to us every day. If this data flow was controlled by us, the customer, we wouldn’t need to be tracked, followed and targeted so much just because we typed something in a search bar.

After all, looking for information online is not always an indication of your willingness to buy something.

Instead we could simply engage on our terms directly with the brands we trust, indicating to them when we may be open to new product or service offers. This would also work for the brands, as a potential customer who intends to buy is far more useful to them than one who has no interest in their offerings.

This would also enable brands to move beyond serving billions of unwanted ads to get their 0.018% ‘conversions’. The adtech giants and the data brokers wont like this of course, as they stand to lose the most but as the ad-blocking movement is showing, the people are voting with their fingers.

The emergence of user-controlled ‘Life Management Platforms’ has begun! Whilst I’m not suggesting they will mark the end of the online advertising sector as we know it, they may just provide people with an alternative to what is obviously a system that is bursting at the seams.

These new platforms and tools provide us with new choices to perhaps balance the equation a bit more in favour of us.

Meeco Case Study – Online Advertising; Booming or Broken

Adtech business models, the concept of Life Management Platforms and the emerging user centric personal data marketplace is explored in further detail in the latest Meeco Report – Online Advertising – Booming or Broken which can be downloaded here.

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