Attention Advertisers: the medium is the message

Way back in the sixties, the writer and philosopher Marshall McLuhan became known for the expression “the medium is the message.” Every new communication technology has its own particular character, and each affects the way its users think, their social interactions and society in general.

When the Internet, and especially the World Wide Web, came along, many marketers thought it would be a new kind of TV. But it quickly became apparent that it didn’t work that way. Radio and TV demand only passive attention. The web requires active attention, more analogous to print media, where you have to decide to pick up something and read it.

Print media typically carry what are known as “display ads.” The ads take up part or all of any page. The experience of reading a physical magazine or newspaper is that you flip back and forth between pages with little effort, and when you are reading an article any ads on the page don’t seem to be actively trying to grab your attention. You are free to direct your attention, glancing at ads, reading articles, back and forth as you wish.

The web is different. There aren’t any fixed “pages” as such, and moving through the material requires much more actively clicking on things and mentally keeping track of where you are. Display ads, originally in the form of “banner ads,” don’t just sit there and politely wait for your attention, they are placed in your visual frame in a way that tries to grab and capture your attention. They distract from the content you came for, and what’s worse, they feel manipulative. It’s rather like being forced into the same space with someone else’s annoying undisciplined child.

People don’t like having their attention manipulated – they actively avoid it. Web advertising, what’s become known as “adtech,” has a different character than print advertising. To quote Doc Searls:

“… adtech did not spring from the loins of Madison Avenue. Instead its direct ancestor is what’s called direct response marketing. Before that, it was called direct mail, or junk mail. In metrics, methods and manners, it is little different from its closest relative, spam.”

Doc goes on to say that “direct response marketing has always wanted to get personal” and as the public has begun to understand how much spying, tracking and malware is involved in adtech, their annoyance is beginning to turn to outrage. Thus we have GDPR, California’s new CCPA, and more efforts sure to come. Indeed the UK Information Commissioner recently made clear that ‘real time bidding’, a process used by much the adtech industry, is currently significantly in breach of GDPR. The industry has been given 6 months to clean up its act.

Even worse from the business perspective, adtech not only delivers steadily diminishing value, in many cases it actually delivers negative value, damaging the reputation of the brands involved. Doc Searls and Don Marti have had much more to say about that, well worth reading.

The one industry that has grasped how to use the web for marketing in a way that leverages the intrinsic character of the medium is online dating. No, seriously – online dating is a form of marketing. The population of people looking for dating partners are a market, and the online dating apps are a marketing tool.

Of course, one difference is that dating apps are peer-to-peer marketing, facilitated by a neutral party. But that’s what makes it perfect for the web. People are in control of their attention, what they want to see more of, and what they don’t want to be bothered with. And they can control how much they reveal about themselves progressively, as they build trust.

Marketers – imagine if you were offering people something they actually felt was fun, instead of annoying and creepy – if your audience began to think of you as useful information services rather than as adversaries. How much more effective could that be?

JLINC is the first online dating app for brands and their customers!

Online “data-ing” for Alice and Bob

How do we accomplish that? First, the JLINC protocol calls for two separate software agents, one representing the interests of the business organization, and the other the interests of the individual person. These agents run on separate servers, which may be operated by distinct entities at different locations on the Internet.

Secondly the agents establish a relationship by mutually (cryptographically) signing an information sharing agreement. This agreement establishes the confidentiality and fiduciary responsibilities of the company with regard to any data, which the individual will subsequently share. The agent for each party keeps a copy of the agreement, and both parties send a copy to external audit ledgers. Individuals are identified only by pseudonymous cryptographic keys.

Once this relationship is established between parties, data may be sent in either direction accompanied by a signed cryptographic hash of the agreement, indicating that the data is being sent under the context of the agreement. Audit records are kept of each data event.

What sort of data? The possibilities are endless, but at the very least data about the individual’s preferences as to what kind of communications they would like to receive, especially regarding their buying intentions, existing products and services and renewal dates. The individual can change their preferences as often as they wish. They have no need to request what information the company may have on them – they can see it at a glance on the portal display from their own agent. They can correct it as necessary, or issue GDPR-style “forget me” instructions via their agent, on any part of their data, or all of it.

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Victor Grey

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