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The Preference Bubble

December 11 2014 // Advertising + Marketing + Social Media + Technology // 15 Comments

A couple of mornings each week I drive down to my local Peet’s for some coffee. There’s a barista there named Courtney who is referred to by her co-workers as the Michael Jordan of baristas. Why? She can remember the names and orders for a vast number of customers.

“Both today AJ?” she asks me as I walk over to the counter.

“Yes, thank you,” I reply and with that I’ve ordered a extra hot 2% medium latte and a non-fat flat large latte.

This is a comforting experience. It’s a bit like the TV show Cheers.

Yet online we seem to think of this experience as something akin to having your foot eaten by a marmot. The person knows my name and what I usually buy? Something must be done! Courtney shouldn’t know any of that. Where’s my Men In Black pen so I and zap away any memory that this event ever occurred.

Men In Black Memory Erasing Pen

Courtney actually knows quite a bit about me. From that drink order she knows I’m ordering for another person. In rare instances she’s seen this other person – my wife. Courtney used to work at another Peet’s years ago that we frequented before we bought our house. So she knows we have a daughter.

The reason Courtney asks whether I want both is because about one out of every ten times or so I’m just getting something for myself. I’m driving off somewhere for a client meeting and not ferrying caffeine goodness back home.

Online some might suggest that it’s dangerous that I’m being presented with the same thing I usually get. I’m in a filter bubble that might perpetuate and reinforce my current life patterns and create a type of stunted stasis where I don’t experience new things. But here’s how this works.

“No, I’m going off the board today Courtney,” I reply. “I’ll take a medium cappuccino today.”

Just like that the supposedly dangerous filter bubble is popped. Of course it’s a bit more nuanced when we talk about it online but as our online and offline experiences become more similar this is an important reference point.

The Filter Bubble

The Filter Bubble

What is the Filter Bubble exactly? Eli Pariser coined the phrase to describe the way personalization and other online filters create a bubble of homogenous content that can have unforeseen and dire consequences in his book, aptly called The Filter Bubble.

The zenith of this personalization phobia was revealed in a remark by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

A squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.

I tend to think Mark is right but that’s not what I’m supposed to say. That’s not the ‘right’ thing to say. Yet human behavior just doesn’t work that way.

Similarly, I didn’t want to like The Filter Bubble. And while I disagree with some aspects, and many of the conclusions, I find the book compelling in a lot of ways. Not only that but I genuinely like Eli from an observer point of view. He’s been an activist of causes for which I support and created a framework (twice!) to help get the message out to people about important issues. #badass

My problem is that the filter bubble is increasingly used as a retort of fear, uncertainty and doubt when discussing personalization, marketing and privacy. It’s become a proxy to end discussions about how our personal data can, will and should be used as technology advances. Because despite the dire warnings about the dangers of the filter bubble, I believe there’s potentially more to gain than to lose.

What it requires us to do is to step outside of the echo chamber (see what I did there?) and instead rename this process the preference bubble.

Where Is Information Diversity?

US Geographic Mobility Graphic

Where do we get information from? The Filter Bubble covers the changing way in which information has been delivered to us via newspapers and other mediums. It documents how the Internet was supposed to allow for a flourish of different voices but hasn’t seemed to match that in reality. One can quibble about that outcome but I’d like to back up even further.

Instead of thinking about where we get information from lets consider where we consume that information. How many people in the US live where they were born? According to the 2010 US Census 59% remain in the state in which they were born (pdf) and there is similar evidence from Pew as well.

Not only that but there’s a host of evidence that Americans don’t often travel overseas and that many may never even leave the confines of their own state. The data here is a bit fuzzy but in combination it seems clear that we’re a nation that is largely stuck and rooted.

Most people will reference family and general comfort with surroundings as reasons to stay near where they were born or vacation. But what we’re really talking about is fear and xenophobia in many ways. It’s uncomfortable to experience something new and to challenge yourself with different experiences.

I was fiercely against this for some reason and made it a mission to break out from my northeastern seaboard culture. I moved from Philadelphia to Washington D.C. to San Diego to San Francisco. I also traveled to South America, the South Pacific, numerous countries in Europe and a bevy of different states in the US. I am a different and better person for all of those experiences. Travel and moving opens your eyes to a lot of things.

So when we talk about information diversity I tend to think it may not make much difference what you’re consuming if you’re consuming it in the same location. The same patterns and biases emerge, shepherding you to the common mores of your peers.

Your community shapes how you think about information and what information is important. One only has to take a trip into the central valley of California to hear chatter about water redistribution. I have some sense of the debate but because it’s not in my backyard it barely registers.

Notre Dame Football

Taken to another level, your family is a huge filter for your information consumption. We know that bigotry and other forms of hate are often passed down through family. On a trivial level I’ve passed down my distaste for Notre Dame football to my daughter. She actively roots against them now, just as I do. It’s an odd, somewhat ugly, feeling and I’m perversely glad for it because it makes me mindful of more important biases that could be passed on.

Yet taken to a ridiculous extreme, the filter bubble would tell us that we should forcibly remove people from their families. We should rotate through different families, a crazy version of TV’s Wife Swap, where we get a different perspective on our information as seen through the family filter.

I’d argue that the Internet and even TV has helped reduce geographic bias. Our knowledge of the world now must be bigger then the days around the campfire or those of the town crier or when we only had the town newspaper, one source of radio news and idle chatter at the local diner.

How we analyze and digest information may have changed less (potentially far less) because of geographic filters but even the presence of additional stimuli is bound to have made a difference.

Social Entropy

Social Entropy Revealed

One of the places where The Filter Bubble falls apart is the idea that our preferences will largely remain static because of constant reinforcement.

Instead, we know our preferences change as we grow and evolve. It’s something I refer to as social entropy. You are close to your college friends upon graduating and your interests have been formed largely from what you did during that time. Maybe you were totally into Frisbee Golf.

But you get that first job and then another and it’s in a slightly different vertical and now you’re interested in the slow food movement instead. You’ve connected with new people and have new interests. The old ones fade away and no amount of marketing will change that. Might it extend it? Sure. But only for a defined amount of time. Prior nostalgia can’t compete against current interest. I’ve got a shelf full of baseball cards I never look at to prove it.

The issue here is that there are external forces that will change your preferences despite all efforts to personalize your experience through search and social platforms. Who knew I’d be so interested in Lymphoma until I was diagnosed in October? The idea that we’ll simply continue to consume what we always consume is … specious.

You might love pizza, but you’re going to stop wanting it if you eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day for a month. I know, that’s pure hyperbole. Instead lets talk about babies. (Got to keep you on your toes!) You have one and then suddenly you’re part of a mother’s group, women (and some men) thrown together by the happenstance of conception. For a while these relationships are strong but as your children grow these relationships largely dissolve.

Not only that but you aren’t continuing to watch the dreaded and whiny Caillou when your child is now 8 years old. The filter bubble fails to take into account social entropy.

Serendipity

Balsamic Vinegar and Strawberries! Who knew?

From social entropy we can segue nicely into serendipity. At some point, people crave and want something different. Serendipity is the unexpected appearance of something, often in relation to something else, that creates an epiphany or breakthrough. Balsamic vinegar and strawberries? Oh my god, it’s delicious!

Search Engines (pdf) and information retrieval in general has been interested in serendipity (pdf) for quite some time. Not only in the capacity to encourage creativity but to ensure that a balanced view of a topic is delivered to users. The latter is what raises the hackles of Pariser and others when it comes to search results. The left-leaning political user will get different search results than the right-leaning political user.

This seems to be the cardinal sin since we all aren’t seeing the same thing on the same topic. Now, never mind that seeing the same thing doesn’t mean you’re going to change your behavior or view on that topic. We perceive things very differently. Think about eyewitness statements and how the car the bank robbers drove away in was both a red sports car and a dark SUV. Even when we’re seeing the same thing we’re seeing something different.

But I digress.

Google believes in personalization but they aren’t just trying to tell you what you want to know. Search engines work hard to ensure there is a base level of variety. Amit Singhal has spoken about it numerous times in relation to the filter bubble accusation.

At a 2012 SMX London Keynote Singhal was noted to say the following:

Amit agreed, however, that there should be serendipity. Personalization should not overtake the SERPs, but it should be present.

At a Churchill Club event in 2011 I noted how Ben Gomes spoke about search relevance.

Two humans will agree on relevance only 80% of the time. If you looked at that same result a year later, you may not agree with yourself, let alone someone else. The implication (one I happen to agree with) is that relevance is a moving target.

At the same event AllThingsD reported the following quote from Amit Singhal.

Our algorithms are tremendously balanced to give a mix of what you want and what the world says you should at least know.

Then there’s an April 2012 interview with Amit Singhal on State of Search.

Regarding personalization, our users value serendipity in search as well, so we actually have algorithms in place designed specifically to limit personalization and promote variety in the results page.

There’s a constant evaluation taking place ensuring relevance and delivering what people want. And what they want is personalization but also serendipity or a diverse set of results. Just as we wouldn’t want pizza every day we don’t want the same stuff coming up in search results or our social feeds time and time again.

We burn out and crave something new and if these platforms don’t deliver that they’ll fail. So in some ways the success of search and social should indicate that some level of serendipity is taking place and that wholesale social or interest entropy (perhaps that’s a better term) isn’t causing them to implode.

Human Nature

Human Nature LOLcat

One of the things that Pariser touches on is whether humans aim for more noble endeavors or if we seek out the lowest common denominator. This seems to be what pains Pariser in many ways. That as much as it would be nice if people actively sought out differing opinions and engaged in debate about important topics that they’re more likely to click on the latest headline about Kim Kardashian.

So we’ll be more apt to click on all the crap that comes up in our Facebook feed instead of paying attention to the important stuff. The stuff that matters and can make a difference in the world. The funny thing is he figured out a way to hack that dynamic in many ways with the launch of Upworthy, which leverages that click-bait viral nature but for an agent of good.

To be fair, I worry about this too. I don’t quite understand why people gravitate toward the trivial Why “who wore it better” is at all important. I could care less what Shia LeBeouf is doing with his life. I watch The Soup to keep up with reality TV because I could never actually watch it. And I fail to see why stupid slasher movies that appeal to the base parts of ourselves remain so damn popular. It’s … depressing.

But it’s also human nature.

I guess you could argue, as was argued in A Beautiful Mind, that a “diet of the mind” can make a difference. I think there is truth to that. It’s, oddly, why I continue to read a lot of fiction. But I’m unsure that can be forced on people. Or if it can be, it has to be done in a way that creates a habit.

Simply putting something else in front of a person more often isn’t going to change their mind.

One More Facebook Post Makes A Difference?

That’s not how it works. In fact there’s a lot of evidence that it might do more harm than good. A good deal of my time in the last year has been dedicated to exploring attention and memory. Because getting someone to pay attention and remember is incredibly powerful.

What I’ve realized is that attention and memory all gets tied up in the idea of persuasion. The traditional ways we think about breaking the filter bubble do nothing to help persuade people.

Persuasion

Persuasion?

The fact is that being exposed to other points of view, particularly online, doesn’t aide in persuasion. There’s more and more research that shows that the opposite might be true. Simply putting those opposing views in front of someone doesn’t change human behavior. We still select the opinion that resonates with our personal belief system.

There’s a myriad of academic research as well as huckster like advice on persuasion. So I’m not going to provide tips on persuasion or delve into neuromarketing or behavioral economics. These are, though, all interesting topics. Instead I want to address how popping the filter bubble doesn’t lead to desired results.

One of the major areas of contention is the exposure to opposing political viewpoints on a variety of issues. The theory here is that if I only see the Fox News content I won’t ever have an opportunity to get the opposing point of view and come to a more reasoned decision. The problem? When we engage on these charged topics we don’t reach consensus but instead radicalize our own opinion.

From research referenced in this Mother Jones piece on comment trolls we get this interesting nugget.

The researchers were trying to find out what effect exposure to such rudeness had on public perceptions of nanotech risks. They found that it wasn’t a good one. Rather, it polarized the audience: Those who already thought nanorisks were low tended to become more sure of themselves when exposed to name-calling, while those who thought nanorisks are high were more likely to move in their own favored direction. In other words, it appeared that pushing people’s emotional buttons, through derogatory comments, made them double down on their preexisting beliefs.

Exposure didn’t move people toward the middle, it polarized them instead. This dovetails with additional research that shows that people often don’t want to be right.

Not all false information goes on to become a false belief—that is, a more lasting state of incorrect knowledge—and not all false beliefs are difficult to correct. Take astronomy. If someone asked you to explain the relationship between the Earth and the sun, you might say something wrong: perhaps that the sun rotates around the Earth, rising in the east and setting in the west. A friend who understands astronomy may correct you. It’s no big deal; you simply change your belief.

But imagine living in the time of Galileo, when understandings of the Earth-sun relationship were completely different, and when that view was tied closely to ideas of the nature of the world, the self, and religion. What would happen if Galileo tried to correct your belief? The process isn’t nearly as simple. The crucial difference between then and now, of course, is the importance of the misperception. When there’s no immediate threat to our understanding of the world, we change our beliefs. It’s when that change contradicts something we’ve long held as important that problems occur.

The piece (which is just brilliant) goes on to underscore the problem.

In those scenarios, attempts at correction can indeed be tricky. In a study from 2013, Kelly Garrett and Brian Weeks looked to see if political misinformation—specifically, details about who is and is not allowed to access your electronic health records—that was corrected immediately would be any less resilient than information that was allowed to go uncontested for a while. At first, it appeared as though the correction did cause some people to change their false beliefs. But, when the researchers took a closer look, they found that the only people who had changed their views were those who were ideologically predisposed to disbelieve the fact in question. If someone held a contrary attitude, the correction not only didn’t work—it made the subject more distrustful of the source. A climate-change study from 2012 found a similar effect. Strong partisanship affected how a story about climate change was processed, even if the story was apolitical in nature, such as an article about possible health ramifications from a disease like the West Nile Virus, a potential side effect of change. If information doesn’t square with someone’s prior beliefs, he discards the beliefs if they’re weak and discards the information if the beliefs are strong.

The emphasis is mine but it is vital to understanding that the areas where Pariser and others show such concern for the application of the filter bubble – in those areas where the issues are going to matter to our society – that popping that bubble might actually be detrimental.

If you’ve chosen to make the fact that vaccinations cause autism a part of your belief system and have responded by not having your children vaccinated it won’t be easy to change that viewpoint. #dummies

Another post on Facebook from a friend telling you how the vaccination link to autism has been completely debunked won’t have any impact. The numerous results on Google that point to this fact won’t help either. Instead, you’ll wind up distrusting those sources and falling back on others that conform to your beliefs.

Popping the filter bubble will not persuade people to think differently.

Oddly enough the one thing that seems to open the door to change is feeling good about yourself.

Normally, self-affirmation is reserved for instances in which identity is threatened in direct ways: race, gender, age, weight, and the like. Here, Nyhan decided to apply it in an unrelated context: Could recalling a time when you felt good about yourself make you more broad-minded about highly politicized issues, like the Iraq surge or global warming? As it turns out, it would. On all issues, attitudes became more accurate with self-affirmation, and remained just as inaccurate without. That effect held even when no additional information was presented—that is, when people were simply asked the same questions twice, before and after the self-affirmation.
Still, as Nyhan is the first to admit, it’s hardly a solution that can be applied easily outside the lab. “People don’t just go around writing essays about a time they felt good about themselves,” he said. And who knows how long the effect lasts—it’s not as though we often think good thoughts and then go on to debate climate change.

Another study detailed in a NiemanLab post shows that people feel more positive when an article proposes a solution instead of just presenting a problem.

After reading one of these six possible articles, respondents answered a survey about what they’d read. Did the article seem different from typical news articles? Do you feel more interested in the issue, or better informed? Have you gained knowledge from reading the article? Was your opinion influenced? Were you inspired? Do you feel there’s a way that you could contribute to a solution?
The results were somewhat surprising. Across all 16 measures, those who had read the solutions journalism article felt more satisfied, Curry found. “Often, doing research, you don’t get results where something works so well,” he said.

Not only that but those people were more willing to share those stories.
Solutions Journalism Leads To Sharing

“We are intrigued by the finding that people seem to want to share these stories more, and want to create conversation around them,” Hammonds says. “So we may build on that in the way we strategize with our papers.”

People are most open to change when they feel good about themselves and are more positive. In addition, those reading solutions journalism feel better and are more likely to share those stories – perhaps as a way to extend that good feeling and to feel like they’re doing something.

It makes Upworthy seem devilishly smart doesn’t it? #kudoseli

Soylent Green is Filters

Gay Pride Colors

Obviously real life experiences can transform our interests and beliefs.

I once had the idea for a story where a gay pride group would recruit a large number of homosexuals (10,000 or so) from urban environments and have them move to traditionally conservative areas where they’d pass themselves off as heterosexuals. Over the course of two years they’d join the community in all ways possible. They’d be churchgoers, friends, barbers, cube mates, insurance agents, softball players, you name it.

Then on the same day, after two years, they’d all ‘come out of the closet’ in these conservative communities. The idea being that knowing someone who is gay might be the best way to transform beliefs about homosexuality. Suddenly it’s not those ‘sodomites in San Francisco’ but Larry who helped get you a replacement car when you were in that bad accident.

Of course the idea is flawed because a movement that large would be noticed and then everyone would feel fleeced and duped. No one likes to feel that way and it retards our ability to change our opinion. But the idea here is that people and interaction is what transforms the filter bubble.

So how does this work online? Because some argue that the people you ‘friend’ online are too like you to bring new ideas into your orbit. If you were just relying on those friends you might be right. But more and more social graphs bring content liked by your friends. In other words, it’s a friend of a friend that might bring new ideas and perspectives. This is something referred to often as FOAF.

The idea here is that I might have a friend who shares certain things but if she likes something that she hasn’t shared explicitly then that content might still get passed along to me as well. I wrote about how I consciously friended people because I knew they were interested in a certain subject and would likely bring content I wouldn’t see otherwise into my universe. But even if you’re not doing this consciously, a FOAF implementation can help introduce serendipity.

Astronautalis

Instead of all this theory I’d like to present a real life example. I recently discovered Astronautalis, a really excellent songwriter/storyteller/rapper. Here’s how I wound up finding him.

I follow Wil Wheaton in large part because of his science-fiction leaning (both Star Trek TNG and Eureka) and then Table Top (which is why I play a lot of Ticket To Ride). Wil shared some content from April O’Neil, a porn star (for lack of a better term) who is also a huge science-fiction fan. I followed April’s Tumblr and she wound up sharing some of her music tastes, one of which included, you guessed it, Astronautalis.

Wrap your head around the chain of events that connects a digital marketer and father from suburban San Fransisco with Astronautalis!

So am I an atypical user? Perhaps. But even if my information diverse diet isn’t the norm this type of discovery happens naturally. You go out with your friends to a new restaurant and it’s there that you run into someone one of your friends knows who says they’re just back from an awwwwwwesome trip to Hungary.

Hearing about this gets you interested in learning more and suddenly you’re searching for information and your next vacation is to Budapest where you happen to meet another traveler from England who designs wool sweaters for a living on some green moor, which is where you wind up living as husband and wife two years later.

There’s a fear that our online activity translates into isolation, or that the only vector for information discovery is through that medium. But that’s just not the reality.

As our online and offline experiences converge and the world gets smaller we’re going to slam into the new with greater frequency, producing sharp sparks that are sure to puncture the filter bubble.

The Preference Bubble

Ham Sandwich

So for the moment lets agree that the filter bubble might not be a bad thing and that trying to eliminate it through traditional means is Sisyphean due to human nature and life experience. Instead lets talk about what it really is – a preference bubble. This is a bubble that represents what you currently prefer and will change (as I’ve noted) over time through a variety of ways.

For good or for bad there are people who are mining the preference bubble. Those people are marketers and advertisers. As in every field there are some that will exploit the preference bubble and take things too far. But that doesn’t mean we should reject it outright.

My dad told me a story once about how you don’t stop liking a ham sandwich because Richard Nixon loves ham sandwiches. The idea being that you can still enjoy something even if there are tangential parts of it that are distasteful.

From my perspective there’s a small anti-marketing bias throughout The Filter Bubble. But perhaps, as a marketer, I’m just a bit too sensitive and on the watch for this attitude. Don’t get me wrong. I have a severe distaste for many (if not most) fellow marketers who seem more than happy to spit out a few buzzwords and feel good when they make a vendor decision on their latest RFP. #CYAmuch

Yet, there are other marketers who combine creativity and data and are passionate about both the fundamentals and the details of their craft – and it is a craft. In the very general sense marketing is about finding a need and filling it. The preference bubble gives marketers the ability to find those needs far quicker and with more accuracy.

Marketers want to save you time and effort, read and buy things you desire as quickly as possible. Do we want to make a buck doing it? Absolutely. But the good ones aren’t out to use the preference bubble to sell you stuff you don’t want. Sure we might make some assumptions that your penchant for kayaking might also indicate that you’d want some rugged outdoor wear. But would we be wrong?

There’s been numerous instances where people can show when these models do go awry. Even now at Amazon if you buy something as a gift for someone but don’t mark it as such, that can have some pretty interesting consequences on your recommended products. Marketers are not perfect and the data models we’re using are still evolving. But they’re getting better every day. And that’s important.

Privacy?

Elbow Fetish and Privacy

As marketers get better at mining the preference bubble we have an opportunity to engage instead of obfuscate.

Chris Messina wrote about this recently where he discussed the very real trade off that takes place with the preference bubble.

Ultimately I do want companies to know more about me and to use more data about me in exchange for better, faster, easier, and cheaper experiences. 

That’s what the preference bubble is all about. We want this! If you’re a vegetarian and you’re looking for a place to eat out wouldn’t it be nice if the results presented didn’t include steak houses? But we need to understand what and when we’re giving our preferences to marketers. We need to know the personal ROI for providing that information.

I often tell people that privacy is far more bark than bite. How quickly do we provide name, address and phone number on a little comment card and slip it into the window of a Ford Mustang sitting at the local mall, hoping that we’ll be the lucky winner of said car. Pretty quick.

How often do we mindlessly hand over our driver’s license to cashiers to verify our credit cards when there is no such law saying we need to do so. Every damn time right? It’s just easier to go along with it, even if you’re grumbling under your breath about it being bunk.

But here we’re making conscious decisions about how we want to share our private information. It may not always be the most noble exchange but it is the exchange that we are willingly making.

The change that Chris Messina rightly asks for is a data-positive culture. One were our ‘data capital’ is something we marshall and can measure out in relation to our wants and needs. We might not want our elbow fetish to be part of our public preference bubble. That should be your right and you shouldn’t be bombarded with tweed elbow patch and skin cracking ointment ads as a result.

It would be nice if the things we feel so self-conscious about didn’t come under such scrutiny. You shouldn’t be ashamed of your elbow fetish. That would be really data-positive. Many have written that a transparent society might be a healthier society. But there are many ways in which transparency can go wrong and we’re clearly (perhaps sadly) not at the point where this is a viable option.

Instead we should be talking about how we engage with privacy. The consternation around personalization is that people don’t know what type of private information they’re giving up to deliver that experience. But lets be clear, based on the advertising they receive users do know that they’re giving up some personal information. You don’t get that retargeted ad for the site you visited yesterday unless you’ve been tracked.

Speed Boat Wake

People know, on some level, that they’re providing this personal information as they surf. Fewer people understand that they leave behind a large digital wake, waves of data that mark their path through the Internet. What is missing is exactly what is tracked and how they might limit the amount of information being used.

The problem here is that Messina and others are asking people to participate and take what amounts to proactive action on shaping their public preference bubble. In the realm of user experience we call that friction. And friction is a death knell for a product.

It makes any opt-in only program, where nothing is tracked unless I specifically say so, a non-starter. We know that defaults are rarely changed so the vast majority wouldn’t opt-in and nearly all of us would be surfing the Internet looking at the ‘one trick to get rid of belly fab’ ad.

Not only that but your online experiences would be less fulfilling. It would be harder for you to find the things you wanted. That increased friction could lead to frustration and abandonment. And the added time taken to navigate is time taken away from other endeavors. Life gets less happy.

Point of Purchase Privacy

Shut Up And Take My Money

Is there a solution? (Because you clearly want one so you feel better about this piece and wind up sharing it with your colleagues.) One of the ideas I’ve mulled over is to deliver the data-positive message at the time of purchase. What if when you clicked on that retargeted ad and wound up buying that product that during the transaction the data transacted would also be revealed.

I’m not talking about whether you’re agreeing to opt-in to that site’s email newsletter. I’m talking about a message that would state that your purchase was made by tracking your behavior on two other sites, interacting with a Facebook ad and through a prior visit to the site in question.

It’s during that time when you’re most satisfied (you’ve just made a purchase) that you are most likely to engage in a positive way with your data capital. There’s an educational aspect, where you’re told, almost Sesame Street style that today’s purchase was brought to you by pixel tracking, search history and remarketing. But there’s also a configuration aspect, an option to access your data capital and make changes as appropriate.

If my personal data tracking led to this purchase, do I feel okay with that and do I want to double-check what other personal data might be out there or not? So it would be my time to say that my tastes have changed from a latte to a cappuccino and that while I love Astronautlis I’m not a Macklemore fan. #notthesame

So maybe I do want to zap away any memory of how that transaction occurred. That would be your right. (A bad choice I think but your right nonetheless.)

I doubt you could leave this up to each site so it would likely have to be something delivered via the browser, perhaps even a add-on/extension that would be cross-browser compliant.

I’m not an engineer but I sense there’s an opportunity here to have sites provide markup that would indicate that a page or purchase was made based on personalization and that the specific set of preferences and tracking that led to that can then be displayed in a pleasing way to the user as a result. I’m not saying it would be easy. It would need to avoid the annoying ‘this site uses cookies’ message that buzzes like a gnat across UK websites.

But I think it could be done and you could even think of it as a type of customer satisfaction and feedback mechanism if you were a smart marketer.

Are We Ourselves

Our lives are increasingly reflected by our digital wake. We are what we do online and that’s only going to grow not decline. Why not embrace that rather than deny it? I’m a perfect example of why embracing it would make sense. As a digital marketer I work with a number of clients and often visit sites that I have no personal interest in whatsoever.

Being able to quickly adjust my preference bubble appropriately would make sure my experience online was optimized. In a far flung future the cost of goods could even be reduced because the advertising and marketing spend would drop through preference bubble optimization (PBO). The maxim that advertisers are wasting half their spend, they just don’t know which half would be a thing of the past.

Beyond the crass commercialization I’m amped up about as a marketer are the societal aspects of the preference bubble. And while I share Pariser’s concerns about how people can receive and digest information I think the answer is to go through it instead of avoid it.

I remember playing Space Invaders for days on end, my thumb burning with a soon to be callus. But at some point I got bored of it and went out to count wooly caterpillars under the Japanese Maple in our front yard. This is who we are.

Our preferences are influenced by more than just what flows through our social feeds and what’s returned in search results. And while I wish we could force a ‘diet of the mind’ on people the fact is that people are going to consume what they want to consume until they decide not to.

I’d prefer to make it easier to show who we are when they’re most open to seeing it. We need to point them to their own Japanese Maple.

TL;DR

The filter bubble is not something terrible but is a product of human nature and geographic bias. It has been around before the Internet and will be there long after because it simply reflects our preferences.

Our preferences are a product of more than our digital diet and trying to change that digital diet externally may actually backfire. So as we express and conduct more of our life online we should embrace the preference bubble and the privacy issues that come with it so we can gain better, faster experiences.

2013 Internet, SEO and Technology Predictions

December 31 2012 // Advertising + Marketing + SEO + Social Media + Technology // 15 Comments

I’ve made predictions for the past four years (2009, 2010, 2011, 2012) and think I’ve done pretty well as a prognosticator.

I’m sometimes off by a year or two and many of my predictions are wrong where my predictions were more like personal wishes. But it’s interesting to put a stake in the ground so you can look back later.

2013 Predictions

2013 Predictions Crystal Ball

Mobile Payment Adoption Soars

If you follow my Marketing Biz column you know I’m following the mobile payments space closely. Research seems to indicate that adoption of mobile payments will take some time in the US based on current attitudes.

I believe smartphone penetration and the acceptance of other similar payments such as app store purchases and Amazon Video on Demand will smooth the way for accelerated mobile payment adoption. Who wins in this space? I’m still betting on Google Wallet.

Infographics Jump The Shark

Frankly, I think this has already happened but perhaps it’s just me. So I’m going to say I’m the canary in the coal mine and in 2013 everyone else will get sick and tired of the glut of bad Infographics.

Foursquare Goes Big

The quirky gamification location startup that was all about badges and mayorships is growing up into a mature local search portal. I expect to see Foursquare connect more dots in 2013, making Yelp very nervous and pissing off Facebook who will break their partnership when they figure out that Foursquare is eating their local lunch.

Predictive Search Arrives

Google Now is a monster. The ability to access your location and search history, combined with personal preferences allows Google to predict your information needs. Anyone thinking about local optimization should be watching this very closely.

Meme Comments

A new form of comments and micro-blogging will emerge where the entire conversation is meme based. Similar to BuzzFeed’s reactions, users will be able to access a database of meme images, perhaps powered by Know Your Meme, to respond and converse.

Search Personalization Skyrockets

Despite the clamor from filter bubble and privacy hawks, Google will continue to increase search personalization in 2013. They’ll do this through context, search history, connected accounts (Gmail field trial) and Google+.

The end result will be an ever decreasing uniformity in search results and potential false positives in many rank tracking products.

Curation Marketing

Not content with the seemingly endless debate of SEO versus Inbound Marketing versus Content Marketing versus Growth Hacking we’ll soon have another buzzword entering the fray.

Curation marketing will become increasingly popular as a way to establish expertise and authority. Like all things, only a few will do it the right way and the rest will be akin to scraped content.

Twitter Rakes It In 

I’ve been hard on Twitter in the past and for good reason. But in 2013 Twitter will finally become a massive money maker as it becomes the connection in our new multi-screen world. As I wrote recently, Twitter will win the fight for social brand advertising dollars.

De-pagination

After spending years and literally hundreds of blog posts about the proper way to paginate we’ll see a trend toward de-paginating in the SEO community. The change will be brought on by the advent of new interfaces and capabilities. (Blog post forthcoming.)

Analytics 3.0 Emerges

Pulling information out of big data will be a trend in 2013. But I’m even more intrigued by Google’s Universal Analytics and location analytics services like Placed. Marketers are soon going to have a far more complete picture of user behavior, Minority Report be damned!

Ingress Becomes Important

I’m a bit addicted to Ingress. At first you think this is just a clever way for Google to further increase their advantage on local mapping. And it is.

But XM is essentially a map Android usage. You see a some in houses, large clusters at transit stops, movie theaters and doctor’s offices, essentially anywhere there are lines. You also see it congregate at intersections and a smattering of it on highways.

Ingress shows our current usage patterns and gives Google more evidence that self-driving cars could increase Internet usage, which is Google’s primary goal these days.

Digital Content Monetization

For years we’ve been producing more and more digital content. Yet, we still only have a few scant ways to monetize all of it and they’re rather inefficient when you think about it. Someone (perhaps even me) will launch a new way to monetize digital content.

I Will Interview Matt Cutts

No, I don’t have this lined up. No, I’m not sure I’ll be able to swing it. No, I’m not sure the Google PR folks would even allow it. But … I have an idea. So stay tuned.

Twitter Will Win The Social Brand Advertising War

November 26 2012 // Advertising + Social Media // 44 Comments

Twitter will steal Facebook’s bacon and become the most powerful brand advertising platform on the planet.

That’s saying a lot since I previously called Twitter the Underpants Gnomes of the Internet. But Twitter has changed and is no longer simply an altruistic agent of social change with revenue as a side gig. In 2013, Twitter means business.

That’s Entertainment

That's Entertainment

Those who have been on Twitter the longest probably still think of Twitter as an information source. You may remember back in 2009 when people began talking about how Twitter was their replacement for RSS feeds.

I was not one of those people. Don’t get me wrong, I found some value out of Twitter from an information perspective (and still do), but the signal to noise ratio was never that good.

But here’s what I’ve realized. Twitter is not about information anymore. It’s meta-entertainment.

Mark Cuban recently called Facebook a time waster, an alternative to boredom that looked far more like TV than a Google search. I think he’s right and his description applies to both Facebook and Twitter.

Supporting the idea of social media as entertainment is a March of 2012 The Hollywood Reporter study.

Nine of 10 respondents view social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook as a new form of entertainment, and more than half say social media sites are important tastemakers in determining what to watch and buy. Perhaps more surprising, 80 percent of television viewers visit Facebook while they watch.

Of course I have to believe these numbers might be a bit over-inflated based on who commissioned the study, but the general thesis resonates and seems solid.

Mobile Is Where It’s At

Twitter was mobile before it was sexy to be mobile. Mind you, it wasn’t really Twitter who figured out mobile. They had a robust community of third-party developers who led them to that conclusion over the course of many years. With all that data staring them in the face they moved quickly to double down on mobile. And it’s paid off.

Oh, did you notice the hashtag in that Tweet? Hello McFly!

Multi-Screen Viewing

Twitter’s lead in mobile has allowed them to capture the multi-screen viewing market. Make no mistake, this is the future of content consumption. Twitter understands that they can play a huge part, perhaps the connective tissue, between TV and other screens.

Multi-Screen Viewing

These are not this or that experiences but this and that experiences. Twitter is adding value to mass media content.

Pew found that 52% of adult cell phone owners use their phones while watching television. That’s the popular stat but it gets even more interesting if you look at just smartphone users.

Fully 74% of smartphone owners reported using their devices in one way or another while watching television in the preceding 30 days, compared with 27% of non-smartphone owners.

Of course, smartphones comprise the majority of phones (and rising), making this even more important. Yet, an April 2012 Forrester report shows that smartphones are already being displaced in many ways by tablets.

Tablets are displacing PCs and smartphones as the “couch computer” of choice: 85% of US tablet owners use their tablets while watching TV, and according to Nielsen, 30% of total tablet time is spent while watching TV.

The real takeaway here isn’t which screen is winning but that we’re entering a multi-screen viewing environment. Twitter, not Facebook, seems best positioned to capitalize on this new reality.

Owning The Hashtag

 

Twitter Hashtags

The hashtag is Twitter’s secret weapon.

While anyone can use a hashtag most consumers see it as synonymous with Twitter. I have to say I wasn’t a huge fan of the hashtag at first. Or, rather, I didn’t like the way many abused it, using more hashtags than normal words in a Tweet. (I still think that’s moronic.)

But hashtags are clearly a great way to aggregate content on a topic or event. Just watch a stream of Tweets from a conference and you’ll begin to understand the value of hashtags.

What’s more, when you’re attending a multi-track conference you often use the stream of Tweets from the sessions you don’t attend as a comparison and cheat sheet. It’s not unusual to hear someone complain that they were in the wrong session based on a comparison of Tweet streams.

Yet, I was still annoyed by hashtags until I read a piece by Denton Gentry on the use of hashtags to improve communication. Sure hashtags were great functionally but Denton made me realize that they were also ways to add expression.

Why does this matter in this context? The hashtag became entertainment. Hashtag memes were born and those brands who understood how to tap into this dynamic could create entertainment.

Collaborative Entertainment

We Are The Entertainment

The hashtag and Twitter’s short form anti-conversation content has created an opportunity for collaborative entertainment. It’s not about conversations it’s about the ever-changing aggregate of opinion, insight and snark.

I was recently down in Los Angeles on business and happened to be in the airport during the second Presidential debate. How did I wind up ‘watching’ it? On Twitter using the #debate stream. It was actually quite easy, interesting and fun to follow the debate this way.

I wasn’t going to wade into the mess of politics with my own Tweets but it was an entertaining way to view the debate and how others were interpreting it.

Pages vs Hashtags

Since the introduction of the Open Graph I really thought that Facebook wanted to kill Pages. In the last few years Facebook has made it more and more difficult for brands and businesses to make Pages worthwhile.

Yes, yes, I know you have a client or a case study that shows they’re killing it on Facebook but from the reduced functionality and reach I think most are swimming upstream on Pages.

I actually think it’s a smart idea to get rid of Pages but that’s a post for another day. The problem is Facebook has no alternative place to aggregate brand conversations. Unfortunately, Facebook doesn’t support the hashtag.

Facebook conversations are with brands. Twitter conversations are about brands.

This is really the functional difference between the two platforms right now. Many still cling to the notion that people want to have conversations with brands. I simply don’t think that’s true. Conversations with brands are not social. Yet that’s the implicit goal of Facebook Pages.

Conversely you need not follow a brand on Twitter to view that stream of hashtag content. I can tune in when I want and it doesn’t even need to be explicitly brand centric. Examples are littered over our television screens. Think of the hashtags on Survivor (#rewardchallenge and #immunitychallenge) or The Soup (#satanstoaster) to name just a few.

The hashtag is both a connection and platform for multi-screen collaborative entertainment.

User Centric Engagement

You don’t have to follow CBS or Survivor. You tune in when you want to tune in. Think about how scary and powerful that is!

The brand account could still be a valuable part of the ecosystem but it wouldn’t need to be the center of the brand experience. That might allow accounts to add value instead of incessantly trying to collect followers and figure out ways to break through the noise or crack the EdgeRank algorithm.

In fact, brands can participate in the hashtag stream along with everyone else, supplying ‘official’ announcements or insider content when appropriate. The role of an official account is to egg on your fans to provide that meta-entertainment.

Sure, the number of fans or followers seems comforting but we’ve all seen how little engagement results from these massive numbers. In the end it comes down not to who you follow but what content you’re engaging in.

Viewers Like You 

Red View-Master

Imagine knowing which hashtag streams a user has viewed! How valuable would that information be? How easy would it be to advertise to lapsed viewers? Or to understand the other programming or products you might be losing out to based on viewing behavior. This isn’t about the brands I say I like but the ones I’m actively consuming.

The hand-wringing over active users as defined as those who Tweet or how many people they follow may be completely specious. The pure ‘lurker’ may be just as valuable, particularly for brand advertisers. I’d be far more interested to know about interaction based how many hashtag streams users viewed and the dwell time on those streams.

And there’s a really interesting opportunity to map hashtags to brands and categories, not to mention crawling the public social graph of accounts to develop demographic data. It would become relatively easy to match advertisers to users who frequently view a variety of hashtag streams.

The discussion around viewers makes me think about traditional TV advertising. Twitter seems to think so too if comments by Joel Lunenfeld at IAB MIXX are any indication.

A campaign on Twitter, he said, is “the ultimate complement to a TV buy.”

Can they make it any more clear?

Beyond Text

Twitter Gets Visual

Twitter is doing a lot to make the experience more visual which is critical not just to keep up with competitors but to get mainstream adoption. And the new email Tweet feature continues to push them to a broader audience.

Again, I think Twitter is being relatively transparent in how they’re approaching this issue.

People tell incredible stories on Twitter through photos and videos. When you search for a person, an event or a hashtag, you can now see a grid of the most relevant media above the stream of Tweets.

You can also see media instantly in your search results stream on iPhone and Android. Photos and article summaries automatically show previews to give you a bird’s eye view on what’s happening.

This makes Twitter far more visual, compelling and … entertaining. The need for a consistent experience is also the reason why Twitter pulled back on the third-party apps and ecosystem as a whole.

You need a reliable, safe and consistent platform when securing major brand advertisers.

Context Matters

Facebook has a lot of advantages in being able to capture attention and profile interests. But there’s a fundamental problem with Facebook. It’s far more about navel gazing than anything else. The context is still largely personal.

Facebook aggregates your social graph while Twitter aggregates everything around a specific topic.

Even when someone shares something on Facebook it’s as much about who shared it with you as what is shared. You’re connected with the person not the content. Twitter is the other way around, with content coming first and people reduced to a filter.

Twitter Hashtag Filter

Both platforms deliver a type of social voyeurism as entertainment, but the context is different.

Checking out the photos from a friend’s marathon run is not the most effective time or place to advertise running shoes. Sure the topic is right but the context is all wrong. I’m not looking at the marathon photos with shopping in mind. Heck I could hate running. Instead, I’m doing so because I want to keep up with my friend.

The person is important, the content isn’t. That’s not an optimal environment for advertising, even for intent generation.

Twitter Advertising

Twitter has been busy building out different advertising opportunities culminating recently in interest targeting. I’m not sure how this will all work for small businesses, but I don’t think anyone has fully solved that one yet.

However, I believe Twitter is laying the groundwork to catch traditional offline brand advertising dollars moving online. Twitter is creating a comfortable and recognizable entertainment platform that allows advertisers to connect and extend traditional channels.

Not only will brands and businesses want to advertise against these new forms of meta-entertainment, but they’ll seek out ways to create their own. There’s been a lot of talk about content marketing lately but what I see is the dawn of content advertising.

TL;DR

Twitter has quickly evolved into a collaborative entertainment platform that serves as the glue of multi-screen viewing. Their focus on mobile, visual makeover and tacit ownership of the hashtag puts Twitter and not Facebook in a position to capture the lion’s share of brand advertising dollars moving online.

The Future of Twitter is Twumblr

August 02 2012 // Advertising + Social Media // 19 Comments

Twitter is changing and a lot of people don’t like it. Developers are howling at being cut out and users are concerned about change. But the fact of the matter is that for Twitter to flourish it’ll need to evolve. Twitter needs to become Twumblr.

The Internet Is Visual

Surprised and Shocked Looking Cat Drawing

Remember, Twitter was established before the launch of the iPhone or Chrome. Yeah, think about that. Twitter has been around for over six years with a virtually unchanged UX. During that time the Internet has changed dramatically. It’s become vastly more visual in nature.

Many argue Facebook built their business on pictures. Look at the popularity of Flipboard, Pinterest and Instagram. Not to mention the incredible power of memes.

Twitter Cards

In light of this trend, Twitter recently introduced Twitter Cards, new structured mark-up that essentially creates rich snippets for Tweets. (Here’s how you can implement them.)

What this does is transform Twitter from a text based medium to a visual medium. Right now the default for Twitter Cards is closed, but what would happen if the default was set to open?

Twitter Cards Make Twitter Look Like Tumblr

Suddenly Twitter looks a whole lot more like Tumblr, doesn’t it? And that’s not a bad thing as far as I’m concerned. Nor does it seem like a bad idea to Twitter.

As for the platform itself, Costolo said Twitter is heading in a direction where its 140-character messages are not so much the main attraction but rather the caption to other forms of content.

That’s a really interesting insight from Twitter’s CEO. I’m not sure you could make it any more clear than that.

Advertising Demands Attention

The reason this is all so important is that advertising demands attention. Twitter simply doesn’t have enough of it right now. People don’t sit on or browse Twitter. Instead, Twitter functions like the digital version of those black electricity power lines that cut across our landscape, ferrying people to interesting content where it is then monetized.

You’d think being a utility of sorts would be a good place to be, but it requires charging for the delivery of that content. The problem is, Twitter doesn’t own the power plants (content) nor limits who uses their service. All they really own are those wires and that’s important but ultimately … a commodity.

Twitter realizes that they need to be a destination. They need attention and eyeballs so they can monetize that content. They don’t want you reading Tweets on LinkedIn or in a third-party application. They want you to read them where they can advertise against them.

There have been many arguments recently about whether Twitter is looking to usurp those publishers. That there’s a tension there that will ultimately cause a rift. There might be, but perhaps not if Twitter can pull this off (which is not altogether clear.)

Twitter Wants to Monetize Sets of Content

If we think about Twitter less as an Internet megaphone and more as a curation service, you begin to see how it benefits users, Twitter and publishers.

Your stream becomes a highly curated set of content. It’s that set of content that Twitter seeks to monetize, not each individual piece. It is then up to individual content creators to ensure their content is optimized for that environment. That means good titles and great visuals to take advantage of scanning behavior.

Of course Twitter will allow advertisers to promote content into that steam, but it is all on the premise that the set of content displayed is valuable and secures attention.

Frictionless Engagement

Instead, I’m far more interested in how this impacts engagement. Because Tumblr is on to something.

Frictionless Engagement Example from Wil Wheaton

They’ve reduced the friction of engagement by asking users to perform only one of two actions: reblog or like. And if you scroll back up and look at those open Twitter Cards you’ll note that the same metrics are displayed: retweets and favorites. That’s not a coincidence in my opinion.

The huge numbers on Tumblr are not an aberration either. There is a very connected and engaged audience there. Marketers should be falling over themselves to get their brands in front of these people.

This is also the reason I’m not convinced that limiting third-party development is some sort of death knell. It’s always hard to put the horse back in the barn, but you can have a decent developer ecosystem that builds value into your platform, not outside of it.

Conversation Killer?

Someecard About Conversation

The question for me is about conversation and comments. Tumblr is frustrating in this regard. Yet maybe that’s by design. Sure, you can integrate DISQUS into Tumblr but it’s certainly not the out-of-the-box default. Deeper engagement is found on the publisher site or other social networks.

The question to me is whether publishers want to own the conversation. Do they want users to comment and converse on their site? Many seem to think comments are more trouble than they’re worth but I have to believe that being the place where conversation is happening is good for business, if only for the extra page views.

That’s where Twitter has a problem. Because many use Twitter like a public instant messaging platform. The problem? It’s far from instant. You wind up having these clipped asynchronous conversations that feel like deep space time delay communication.

And the 140 character limit doesn’t even work to provide any type of real dialog. Other platforms like Google+ are far better at fostering strong conversations.

So, does Twitter want to try to hijack those conversations and foster deeper engagement on Twitter proper? To me, that’s the greater threat to publishers. Sure, Twitter wants to be a destination but not the destination.

TL;DR

Twitter needs to embrace radical change and evolve to stay relevant. The future of Twitter is one in which they monetize a visual set of ever changing curated content that captures attention but not conversation.

Top Tweets is a Trojan Frog

May 14 2010 // Advertising + Social Media // 2 Comments

Top Tweets look like Promoted Tweets. That’s no mistake.

Top Tweet by AJ Kohn

Promoted Tweet by Sony

Top Tweets

Twitter is getting users used to seeing something ‘stuck’ at the top of search results. Today it’s Top Tweets but tomorrow it will be Promoted Tweets. Top Tweets are innocuous for the most part and leverage game theory psychology around being the best or most popular for a certain fiefdom. Twitter would likely say that Top Tweets deliver ‘resonance’ (aka relevance) for that search result and they’re probably right.

Resonance is Quality Score

Twitter’s resonance sounds an awful lot like Google’s quality score. The launch of Promoted Tweets touted the fact that low resonance would mean the removal of that Tweet. Perhaps a few will fall below that resonance threshold and be removed. More likely, resonance will be used to secure top placement for a search term and/or reduce the CPC paid for that placement.

Multiple Promoted Tweets

Right now you see just one Promoted Tweet per search result. But lets look at how Twitter is displaying Top Tweets.

Top Tweets Smash Summit

Top Tweets are stacked at the top of search results. What does that remind you of?

Google Three Ads Search Result

So, how long until we see stacked Promoted Tweets?

Integrated Tweets

The difference in presentation between a Top Tweet and a Promoted Tweet is small. This allows Twitter to swap Top Tweets for Promoted Tweets with little visual dissonance. Not only that, but Twitter could integrate Top Tweets and Promoted Tweets, stacking them by order of resonance. What better way to make that real estate interesting to users. By doing so they’ll prevent ‘banner blindness’. Far-fetched?

Sponsored Tweets and Top Tweets

Trojan Frog

Trojan Frog

Twitter is undertaking a boiled frog strategy for getting acceptance of ads within search results by using Top Tweets as a Trojan Horse. In doing so, Twitter may actually have a viable paid search business in their future, and they’ve already got a potential ‘network’ in place with application partners.

Have Facebook and Google Killed Permission Marketing?

May 06 2010 // Advertising + Marketing + Technology // 3 Comments

Have Facebook and Google Killed Permission Marketing

Back in 1999 I sat in the San Diego County Courthouse reading Seth Godin’s Permission Marketing, hoping that I didn’t get selected to serve on the class-action lawsuit against grocery chains who had allegedly conspired to fix prices on eggs.

I run hot and cold on Godin these days but Permission Marketing made a lot of sense and still does to a large extent. The core principle was that you needed permission to market to your customer.

Make the Permission Overt and Clear – Chapter 9, p 163.

As an early email marketer I recall the days when double opt-in lists were all the rage. Opt-in just wasn’t enough because the methods of collection could have been less than overt and clear. A double opt-in list ensured that you were getting the best list, the Glengarry list.

Opt-In versus Opt-Out

The difference between opt-in and opt-out can be substantial. Opt-in is the active choice to accept something, while opt-out is the passive acceptance of something. The problem here is that inertia can be quite powerful. The default presentation is often used by users as they seek to efficiently complete a task.

That’s not to say all opt-ins are created equal. The acceptance of terms of use (and privacy) before completing a download or registration is a weak opt-in since the majority of people don’t read it and those that do often don’t understand it. This type of coerced opt-in may be better than an opt-out but not by much.

Is Opt-Out Bad?

As a marketer, opt-in can be frustrating. A product or service that you just know would be valuable to a user is gated by their natural inertia. You run the numbers and it’s clear that an opt-out would be better for both the business and the user. Quite simply, you’d be able to deliver a valuable product to more of the right users. Those who don’t see that value can opt-out. No fuss, no muss right?

Well, permission marketing would tell you that you need overt and clear permission from a user to start that relationship. A user must raise their hand. Is opt-out overt enough? That’s debatable but it brings us to another permission marketing principle. Once given permission, you can’t abuse that permission. That’s where things have gone awry.

Opt-out got a bad name because (way) too many businesses abused that weak permission by not being relevant. It’s a shame since a good marketer could probably pull off an opt-out program. And that’s just what Facebook and Google are doing.

Value and Relevance

The value of your product or service and the relevance you deliver to the user are going to be paramount to maintaining that permission, no matter how it was attained. Think about that for a minute.

What I’m saying is that if your product or service is that good, you can acquire those customers in nearly any way. Opt-in, Opt-out, Optimus Prime, it won’t matter. Sure, some people will claim it does, but there’s evidence to the contrary.

Google is Good … Enough

Google tracks and uses your search and site history to personalize your search results. They actually do this when you’re signed-in and signed-out. Here’s a look at how you sign up for Web History.

Google Web History

It’s opt-out and it’s relatively overt, but is it clear? It communicates the benefits quite nicely but what the feature actually does … not so much. But hey, that’s why there’s a Learn More link, right?

Web History actually can make your Google experience better. For most users I’d guess the Web History feature is completely transparent and they have no idea that their actions are being recorded. They simply think Google works great.

But what happens when someone figures out what’s going on?

What People Say and What People Do

People may say they would turn Web History off but how many really do? Sure, sometimes there’s a meme that takes hold and a few folks will very publicly call it quits. But the majority don’t … even when they say they will. The bark is much worse than the bite. And both Google and Facebook know it.

Lets take behavioral targeting (BT) as an example.

Behavioral targeting uses information collected on an individual’s web-browsing behavior, such as the pages they have visited or the searches they have made, to select which advertisements to display to that individual.

When people are asked whether they want this type of advertising, the response is generally negative.

Users Say They Don't Want Behavior Targeting

Yet, behavioral targeting has proven to be very successful with click through rates substantially higher, often cited at three times the normal click through rate and recently noted in one study (pdf) as having the ability to achieve a 1000% lift. The ads are more relevant and people are voting with their clicks.

Google’s DoubleClick has a BT program. They call it interest-based advertising. The program is opt-out and Matt Cutts recently commented on the opt-out behavior.

Only a relatively small number of people visit that opt-out page each week, and the majority of them change their interests rather than opting out.

Once again, we see a product delivering enough value and certainly enough relevance to overcome any ire users might have about the ‘auto’ opt-in. In fact, the product produces such relevance (as seen by the high CTR) that most users simply think the ads are getting better. They’re not giving much thought to the how, just that it’s a better experience.

What about Privacy?

I still believe in privacy. I actually have Web History turned off and I don’t share much on Facebook. I consciously made those choices. Just like I make the choice not to give my name and address away at the drop of a hat to enter to win the new car parked in the middle of the mall. There’s a certain level of personal responsibility and common sense that must be levied on the user.

I believe that you would see users opt-out of these services if they didn’t provide the requisite relevance and value. Right now, Google and Facebook do for the majority of users.

Marketing Privacy

Google has been careful, outside of Buzz, to not provoke negative user interest. Instead, they’ve worked and publicized their attempts to make opt-out and privacy settings more available. Why? They’ve seen that users are willing to give up a certain amount of privacy to engage in their products. So they’re happy to have 100,000 people a day visit their dashboard.

Facebook, on the other hand, has provoked negative user interest. They make broad sweeping changes that highlight the exchange of privacy for value. Coupled with a poor user interface for the various opt-out settings and Facebook has caught substantially more flak.

Google has been marketing privacy while Facebook has been marketing value.

Intravenous Permission

Have Google and Facebook killed Permission Marketing? Not really. Google, and Facebook to a lesser degree, has short-circuited the natural progression of permission and achieved a type of intravenous permission (the highest level) through the release of great and free products. (Free is important. It creates a subtle user obligation.)

Users can always revoke this level of permission. It will take a break in trust, an abuse of permission, to force users to evaluate their exchange of privacy for value. Even then, that balance will have to be substantially different for users to make a change.

Display Advertising and SEO

March 25 2010 // Advertising + Marketing + SEM + SEO // Comment

A new study by .Fox Networks and comScore shows (again) the positive relationship between display advertising and search.

Video and display advertising both successfully increased brand engagement in each of the four campaigns analysed. The average uplift across the campaigns saw site visitation increase by more than a factor of seven over a four week period following exposure to an ad, with consumers three times more likely to conduct search queries using brand or relevant generic terms in the same time period.

display advertising and seo

Advertising Attribution

These studies all point to a synergy between advertising channels. That’s not ground-breaking, though the measurement of it is innovative. What marketers have been trying to figure out is attribution. What channel or channels should get credit for a sale or lead? It goes to the heart of the old marketing adage: I know I’m wasting half of my marketing budget, I just don’t know which half.

Impact on Display

Many advertisers and agencies still measure success of a display campaign based on traditional click through rate (CTR) and ROI. The low CTR of display ads makes marketers suspicious. The concept of a view-through conversion made sense to some, but it still seemed like a bunch of hand waving and didn’t solve the problem of attribution. New services like Vizu also go beyond clicks and provide measurable brand lift based on display campaigns.

Studies and tools that provide multi-channel insight into conversion will help advertisers move beyond antiquated success metrics and increase their display advertising budgets.

Impact on Search

Convincing advertisers of the relationship between display and search is only half the battle. How will advertisers respond? The obvious knee-jerk reaction is to increase their display advertising spend. But is that really where advertisers should start?

If display generates more search volume, wouldn’t you first ensure search was optimized to convert that additional volume? Even within search, would you allocate more dollars into PPC or SEO? Would you prefer to pay for that customer twice or once?

Display and SEO

I’d argue that the first action item based on this study would be to invest in SEO. We already know that the vast majority of search clicks come from organic listings. The importance of rank cannot be denied, even with recent studies showing interesting behavior around brands.

Display primes the pump and generates intent. But you could be generating that intent for your competitor if you haven’t done enough SEO. Branded terms are likely safe, but the ‘relevant generic terms’ are a battlefield.

For example, if Best Buy ran a display campaign for HDTVs, this would create additional search volume for branded searches (Best Buy) and relevant generic searches (HDTVs). A brand search works out just fine. But a search for hdtvs returns Walmart as the first retailer result. Best Buy could wind up spending advertising dollars to drive sales for Walmart.

My fear is that instead of investing in SEO advertisers will simply throw money at the problem through PPC. Never mind that you’ll still only capture a small segment of that additional search volume, it’s also eating into your overall ROI.

2010 Internet, SEO and Technology Predictions

January 03 2010 // Advertising + Marketing + SEO + Social Media + Technology // 5 Comments

As we begin 2010, it’s time for me to go on the record with some predictions. A review of my 2009 predictions shows a few hits, a couple of half-credits and a few more misses. Then again, many of my predictions were pretty bold.

2010 Technology Predictions

This year is no different.

The Link Bubble Pops

At some point in 2010, the link bubble will pop. Google will be forced to address rising link abuse and neutralize billions of links. This will be the largest change in the Google algorithm in many years, disrupting individual SEO strategies as well as larger link based models such as Demand Media.

Twitter Finds a Revenue Model

As 2010 wears on Twitter will find and announce a revenue model. I don’t know what it will be and I’m unsure it will work, but I can’t see Twitter waving their hands for yet another year. Time to walk the walk Twitter.

Google Search Interface Changes

We’ve already seen the search mode test that should help users navigate and refine search results. However, I suspect this is just the beginning and not the end. The rapid rate of iteration by the Google team makes me believe we could see something as radical as LazyFeed’s new UI or the New York Times Skimmer.

Behavioral Targeting Accelerates

Government and privacy groups continue to rage against behavioral targeting (BT), seeing it as some Orwellian advertising machine hell bent on destroying the world. Yet, behavioral targeting works and savvy marketers will win against these largely ineffectual groups and general consumer apathy. Ask people if they want targeted ads and they say no, show them targeted ads and they click.

Google Launches gBooks

The settlement between Google, the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers will (finally) be granted final approval and then the fireworks will really start. That’s right, the settlement brouhaha was the warm up act. Look for Google to launch an iTunes like store (aka gBooks) that will be the latest in the least talked about war on the Internet: Google vs. Amazon.

RSS Reader Usage Surges

What, isn’t RSS dead? Well, Marshall Kirkpatrick doesn’t seem to think so and Louis Gray doesn’t either. I’ll side with Marshall and Louis on this one. While I still believe marketing is the biggest problem surrounding RSS readers, advancements like LazyFeed and Fever make me think the product could also advance. I’m still waiting for Google to provide their reader as a while label solution for eTailers fed up with email overhead.

Transparent Traffic Measurement Arrives

Publishers and advertisers are tired of ballpark figures or trends which are directionally accurate. Between Google Analytics and Quantcast people now expect a certain level of specificity. Even comScore is transitioning to beacon based measurement. Panel based traffic measurement will recede, replaced by transparent beacon based measurement … and there was much rejoicing.

Video Turns a Profit

Online video adoption rates have soared and more and more premium content is readily available. Early adopters bemoan the influx of advertising units, trying to convince themselves and others that people won’t put up with it. But they will. Like it or not, the vast majority of people are used to this form of advertising and this is the year it pays off.

Chrome Grabs 15% of Browser Market

Depending on who you believe, Chrome has already surpassed Safari. And this was before Chrome was available for Mac. That alone isn’t going to get Chrome to 15%. But you recall the Google ‘What’s a Browser?‘ video, right? Google will disrupt browser inertia through a combination of user disorientation and brand equity. Look for increased advertising and bundling of Chrome in 2010.

Real Time Search Jumps the Shark

2009 was, in many ways, the year of real time search. It was the brand new shiny toy for the Internati. Nearly everyone I meet thinks real time search is transformational. But is it really?

A Jonathan Mendez post titled Misguided Notions: A Study of Value Creation in Real-Time Search challenges this assumption. A recent QuadsZilla post also exposes a real time search vulnerability. The limited query set and influx of spam will reduce real time search to an interesting, though still valuable, add-on. The Internati? They’ll find something else shiny.

Yahoo Strong-Arms comScore

December 22 2009 // Advertising + Technology // Comment

The other day I received an interesting email from Yahoo!

Yahoo and comScore beacon

It’s pretty easy to read between the lines here. In fact, little line reading is necessary. The new comScore beacon is providing more accurate results. Yahoo is not currently participating in the beacon program. Yahoo wasn’t keen on the “apples-to-oranges” comparison that “could create confusion for advertisers” because it would likely negatively impact their display business.

Don’t Forget Yahoo!

Bashing Yahoo! seems to be the cool thing to do these days, and they’ve certainly driven themselves into a ditch. But Yahoo! still holds a powerful position as a portal, content and email provider. This email seems like a not-so-gentle reminder that Yahoo! is still a 900 pound gorilla in some circles.

Beacons and Panel Data

The other takeaway here is the fact that beacons are fast becoming the best way to measure traffic. I see comScore’s introduction of beacon technology as a direct reaction to Quantcast.

The rise of Google Analytics allows more and more companies to know exactly how much traffic they receive. The result of this knowledge is a growing dissatisfaction with panel based measurements that aren’t just inaccurate but are sometimes flat out wrong.

No More Hand Waving

Whether it was the Web 1.0 darling Alexa or recent upstart Compete, panel based services continue to fail. The difference this time around is that we have beacons (like Google Analytics and Quantcast) that let us know when they fail and by how much.

So while Yahoo! has secured a 6-month repreive, the future will be in accurate and transparent traffic measurement.

Are you Canadian?

October 13 2009 // Advertising + Marketing + Web Design // 6 Comments

Two weeks ago my wife dug out some Fall felt stickers from the closet for our daughter. Delighted, my daughter stuck one of them on my shirt before I walked out the door to work.

It was a red leaf.

Red Leaf

Being a bit sentimental, I left the red leaf on my shirt for the day. That decision led to a renewed appreciation for the power of iconography.

Are You Canadian?

That was one of the first things a co-worker asked me that day. The question seemed rather random and out of left field. In reaction to my puzzled expression, he pointed to the red leaf.

Later that day another co-worker asked if I liked maple syrup. And yet another started up a conversation about the upcoming hockey season. (Go Flyers!)

The Power of Iconography

I suppose it does look like the Canadian maple leaf. And the sticker was out of place and likely attracted attention. But all that aside, I wasn’t wearing a Canadian flag sticker. It was a simple, small red leaf.

The meaning that this red leaf conveyed was impressive. A single red leaf created an instant association with Canada and then, like a needle skipping on a vinyl record, to maple syrup and hockey. A stream of data, of experience, of knowledge, was trapped inside that red leaf.

How does that happen?

Semiotics

Semiotics, or the study of signs, helps explain how a simple red leaf can have such a profound impact. The field of semiotics is both dense and ambiguous, filled with academic rhetoric and debate. Even a beginner’s guide to semiotics clocks in at over 5,500 words.

The main elements of semiotics are syntax, semantics and pragmatics, described in as follows in an icon design article.

  • Syntax: the internal grammar of parts that enable a properly formed sign to be parsable by someone or some system—think of the computer throwing a “syntax error”
  • Semantics: the intending meaning of the sign by the maker(s) of it
  • Pragmatics: how the sign is received, perceived, and acted upon by some person or interpreter by the confluence of syntax and semantics; the resulting effect

Pragmatics is where it really gets interesting in my opinion. Pragmatics deals with the impact of context and experience as it is applied to the perception of signs.

Now, back to the red leaf.

The syntax is fine. You know it’s a leaf. However, the intended meaning (semantics) changed through the prism of pragmatics.

The bag of colored leaves was intended to be a sign of Fall. Yet, the one red leaf taken out of context is instead perceived to be a sign of Canada, which opened up a whole new flood of associations based on personal experience and perspective.

Icons and Marketing

The Internet is a vast landscape of icons. My red leaf experience reminds me that iconography can be a very effective marketing tool. It is done wrong and badly for the most part, but when done well can have a tremendous impact. (For more on semiotics and advertising I recommend the retro semiotics hypercard essay from Thomas Streeter at the University of Vermont.)

The challenge is figuring out how to create icons that unlock that stream of data. Creating icons that tap into shared experiences and personal histories can deliver a tone to your website that you simply can’t convey otherwise.

The Icon Test

Sometimes you’re capitalizing on ancient archetypes and sometimes they can be recent and repetitive shared experiences. Don’t believe me? Lets try a little icon experiment. I’m going to show you an icon of sorts.

Tell me what you instantly think about after seeing it.

Twitter Bird Icon

Post the first three words that came into your mind in your comment.