The other day, I jokingly said to a friend that the side benefits for working at Google would be free access to their search engine, YouTube videos and Gmail. I'm recalling this now to make a point -- the Internet is free, yet it is not free.
You may have seen the latest take from NY Times regarding the FTC’s proposal for a “Do-Not-Track” list. This particular piece points out the negative impact a ruling like this could mean for online publishers.
There are shortcomings of using “Do-Not-Call” as a philosophical model for “Do-Not-Track.” Here is why relating the two is a mistake:
+ The nature of communication and delivery: Do-Not-Call was designed to stop an intrusive way of marketing. People did not look at their phones as an ‘ok’ channel of reaching them for marketing. The fact that they pay for phone service makes them even more annoyed that companies are using it to sell them something. By contrast media consumption (whether it is online, TV, or print) is a form of engagement we dictate. When we look at media, we implicitly say it is ok to advertise to us there because we, as consumers, know it is a give an take – give me content for free (or low-cost) and you can take my eyeballs and sell it to your advertisers.
+ The calls come at the worst time of day: Telemarketers always call at the most inopportune moment in people’s lives – when they are home and they want downtime or just a general break from a busy workday. It is a time when we don’t have 15 or 30 seconds to spare. In online advertising, you only need a couple of seconds to consume an ad. Plus, most of it is passive consumption and when you actually like an ad, you have the choice to spend more of your time on it. There is no such thing as an online ad coming at the worst time of day.
+ The calls were untargeted: Most telemarketers get their information from lists where most consumers have no idea how they got on those lists in the first place. This results in a very untargeted call. In contrast, most online ads have optimization that helps identify what users are interested in. There will be times when users see random ads, but this is quite different experience from getting the random telemarketer call constantly – which is what most people had to deal with before Do-Not-Call.
+ The experience sucked: Many telemarketing companies hire low-paid workers with little training to speak with customers to sell them something. It’s a bad formula and makes for a bad experience. Meanwhile, online advertising is constantly trying new ways to engage consumers. It doesn’t always work, but tons of investment and technology have been put into online advertising to make the experience great, and we are seeing examples of that through ads that incorporate more interactivity and better visuals for users. Or maybe it’s as simple as serving an ad with the right message consumers want.
People, the Internet is not free. You get free content in exchange for getting ads. The more data publishers have on users, the higher they can charge for those ads. If publishers don’t make money from highly targeted ads, they could run out of business, and your free content goes away. Then advertisers will definitely not be able to track you.
In part 2, I’ll lay out a scenario where Do-Not-Track comes into effect, and what may become of the industry because of it.