ad targeting and the benefit of your bargain

"Derby prefers the Carrot AND the Stick" by Carly Lesser & Art DrauglisWhen we launched our beta a few weeks ago, the New York Times was kind enough to describe our basic philosophy that you should get rewarded for your personal data.  It’s still so early on that many people aren’t sure just what that reward is supposed to be.

My favorite comments come from overseas.

I love this German statement, which appears to translate as “Privacy is Dead. Register to attend the funeral at Bynamite.

A Brazilian commentator suggests, “I feel prostituted in this new possibility of arranging the business of social networks. The good thing is that I will choose who can take advantage of my gorgeous little body!

Er . . . these are perhaps interesting directions for future versions of our product.  Let me just clarify the bargain that Bynamite makes for you right now, even in the beta version.

We offer the advertising world a simple proposition on your behalf:  “Give me control, and I’ll give you better data – but on my terms.

You’re making a bargain for better control, and there’s a carrot-and-stick approach that might not be obvious at first.  The carrot is that when they give you control, you will give them info they can’t get without your help. The stick is that we opt you out of ad networks that don’t give you control – over a hundred different ad systems – they have to give respect to get respect.

So right now, the benefit you get is mainly the recognition that you are a force to be bargained with.  Over time, we’d like to see a world where you can get additional tangible benefits, like better recommendations, special deals, and even plain and simple money.  But the bargain starts with control – as a consumer, you’ve got to establish that the trade for your information is on your terms.  Get control first, and the world will follow. Well, maybe not the whole world . . . might have to be careful in Brazil . . .

actions in the face of the cookie monster

"Domino Theory" by John MorganThis week the Wall Street Journal launched a big series about targeted online advertising.  In some corners, the “news” that advertisers track consumers was derided as breathlessly naive.  Others thought the WSJ missed the real story, studying only the supply of advertising and missing the consumer demand side.  Scott Rosenberg does a nice job of putting the various views in a ladder of reaction from ignorant fear to enlightened futurism.

We founded Bynamite because we believed that consumers would eventually see the “cookie monster” that is online advertising, but we felt that this monster doesn’t have to be feared if it can be tamed.  We knew that this year would bring a period of highly varied reaction to the increased consumer awareness of the issues – and when emotional reactions of fear and derision settle down, people will move beyond mere reaction to find clearer paths of action for consumers.  A lot of the commentary and analysis about online advertising focus on what advertisers, governments and advocates want.  But what will consumers actually do?

For consumers, there are only four kinds of actions when you see the cookie monster coming:

Block Everything

Some people will just want to block out all advertising, and anything that enables it.  For these folks, there are AdBlock, NoScript, BetterPrivacy, and a host of other tools, most of which are free.  But acting only to block advertising will never be successful, because it’s like trying to win an arms race with only a shield.  And a flimsy shield at that – truly blocking information from getting to advertisers would require “going off the grid” in a way that few people are willing to do.  Unless you are willing to stop using the Internet, cell phones, bank accounts, credit cards, loyalty cards, coupons – you are not going to avoid giving your information to advertisers.

Trust Everything

There are two kinds of people in the “trust everything” camp, and ironically they don’t even know they’re in the same camp – if they did they’d probably object to each other’s cooties.  One kind are the folks who loudly claim that “Privacy Is Dead” so you might as well just give all your information to everyone anyway.  The other kind are folks who remain ignorant, for whatever reason, of everything that is going on around them.  What these people have in common is that they’ll let anything happen to their information, and whether the reason is sophisticated futurism or hopeless ignorance, the outcome is the same:  Advertisers get the information easily and do whatever they want with it.  We think both views here make unrealistic assumptions about how most people think of their online lives.

Appeal to the Government

Some people, when faced with commercial developments that don’t align with their own judgments of fairness, will look to the government to impose laws and regulations to protect a certain view of consumer interests.  We think that’s admirable behavior in many cases.  But it doesn’t happen to be our cup of tea. Government regulation is definitely part of the equation, but we’ve always been folks that like to compete to serve customers, not have the government decide what customers should have.

Choose a Better Mousetrap

"statue 2" by Les HutchinsGiven the understanding that blocking is imperfect, that promiscuous trust is unsatisfying, that the government rarely provides the fastest or best solution – we believe that consumers will choose a commercial product that restores their power, that turns advertising from a nuisance to a mutually beneficial engagement.

This is certainly an unfinished puzzle from our point of view, but we believe that if someone builds a better solution, consumers will choose it.  We believe all this talk about privacy is merely an expression of market demand that continues to go unfilled.  That demand is too great to go unfilled for much longer:  someone is going to figure out how to build a revolutionary mousetrap here – one that turns the consumers from mice into the kings of the advertising jungle.

how to win the cookie wars

You might think you know everything you need to know about “cookies,” but have you ever thought about what it would take to make them work for consumers rather than advertisers?

In the simplest terms, cookies are tiny pieces of information that enable websites to remember something about a web browser. Some people think that cookies are evil, though the adverting industry wants you to think of them more like a friendly waitress that knows what you want.  Some people just hate advertising and want to block anything that enables any kind of ad.

At Bynamite, we don’t hate advertising – we just think that much of the Internet has become a giant battleground over consumer data, and the consumers have no voice in this war.  We have watched advertisers, websites, and marketplaces battle over the cookie, each one claiming that they own the data and should get the economic benefit from that data.  But whose data is this, doesn’t it really all come from the consumers? What would have to happen to make the Internet treat consumers as the true masters of their own information?

We don’t think the answer is to hide from advertisers.  Millions of people use tools like AdBlock, NoScript, BetterPrivacy, Ghostery and TACO to prevent seeing online ads and block advertisers from personalizing ads. We think these are great tools, but they are only playing defense in a battle that requires offense to win.

Consumers can only compete by uniting in a give-and-take with the advertising world.  So you have cookies? Use them for you, not just for what they want.  Bynamite uses cookies and tracks online purchases, but does so in a way that gives you more control over the information that advertisers have about you.  We only work with advertising systems that give consumers transparency and control, and we opt you out of over a hundred systems that don’t allow you to easily see and change the information that they have about you.  We’re trying to make a fair trade that will bring some balance to the Internet advertising world, so that consumer interests are at least as powerful as advertiser decisions.

We’re interested in changing the landscape for everyone, not just for sophisticated users who manage their cookies and install blocking tools.  The more people who use Bynamite, the more advertisers will want to change their systems to give consumers more transparency and control – and even people who don’t use Bynamite will benefit from that.

should you be afraid of advertisers?

Internet advertisers are constantly watching your web activity, recording where you’ve been, what you’ve bought, who you’ve contacted.  Should you be afraid of online advertisers?

In a word:  No.  At least, I don’t think so, and of course there are people who disagree.  But I don’t like fear, I don’t like scare tactics, and I’d like to explain why I don’t think fear is the best choice here.

Some people seem to think there’s only two choices, two ways to respond when you find out just how much advertisers are tracking you.

One response is to try to block out tracking and advertising as much as possible.  Although there are some tools to help with this, it’s a neverending battle against a multi-billion dollar industry.  You’d have to go “off the grid” to fully prevent advertisers from knowing anything about you.  This kind of response is driven at least partially by fear.  Like I said, I don’t like fear.

The other response is to just let whatever happens, happen.  This is saying, “I don’t know and I don’t care what is happening with my information.”  Some people say this kind of response is about embracing the glorious future, but to me it seems like embracing apathy and ignorance.  I understand why this kind of response can be attractive, but it’s not for me.  I guess I like apathy and ignorance even less than fear.

I’d like to offer a third way:  Find out what they know, and use that information to make them help you.

What's in that notebook?

People describe online advertisers like this:  It’s as if there’s someone following you everywhere you go, writing down everything you do in a little notebook, so they can use those notes to sell stuff to you.

My response to that isn’t to run away from the guy with the notebook.  I’m not going to run and hide, but I’m also not going to stop caring that this guy with a notebook is following me around.  Instead, I want to look at the guy and say, “Hey buddy, what’s in that notebook?”  And then I’d like to tell him that he works for me now, he should be doing what I want him to do.

who watches the watchers?

Before I say anything else, let me say that I believe that advertising on the Internet enables a lot of good things. Since websites can make money from advertising, people get lots of great stuff for free on the web.  I like free news and reference, free photo and video sharing, free games and social networking – I understand that it’s all free because advertisers pay the websites instead of me.

But some advertising can get pretty creepy.  I don’t like the feeling that I’m being watched all the time, without any control over my own information.  Sometimes it seems like the advertisers follow me everywhere I go.  Do you ever get that creepy feeling?  When you visit a website about sports, how come the next website you’re on knows that you like sports?

Advertising that is based on watching your Internet activity is called “behaviorally targeted” advertising.  Most people do not like the idea of behavioral ads, and even the ad industry admits these ads can be creepy.  The Federal Trade Commission has taken a strong interest in this topic, spurred on by various consumer groups.  Aware of the concerns, the ad industry is trying to stay ahead of government regulation, with voluntary principles and awareness campaigns.  But none of this will stop the growth in behavioral ads:  this year, online advertisers will spend over $1 billion on “behaviorally targeted” advertising, and that amount is expected to double in the next four years

The government, the ad industry, and even consumer groups offer incomplete solutions.  The focus that they have is on “transparency” and “choice” – but what will that mean for you?  The best possible outcome of all their work is that hundreds of ad networks make it very clear that they are watching you.  And then you get to go to 400 different websites, read thousands of words, and make hundreds of choices.  That’s not easy – you probably can’t take the time to watch who’s watching you.

Bynamite is taking a different approach to the problem of creepy advertising – we think it should be easy for you to be in control.  We accept that advertising can lead to good stuff, even when it involves tracking consumer behavior.  But we insist that consumers should be in control of their own information – you should always be able to see, change and delete what advertisers know about you.  We’ll be launching a preview of our service in the coming weeks, so stay tuned . . .