All you have to do is change everything.
Another reminder that diagnosis is a very different thing than solution.
Last time I diagnosed a problem. This time we need to start the (I think harder) part - what we can actually do about our status quo of surveillance digital marketing.
It took me a literal month, and many conversations, to realize there’s a really easy answer: just make it opt-in.
By that I mean, invert the relationship: track to personalize, rather than to target. It’s not that crazy of an idea - it just fundamentally questions everything about the current digital media landscape, is all. This is how easy answers go - they are flawed and messy, but usually worth debating.
Are we even sure targeting helps anyone make money other than the ones running the auctions? Because it’s not significantly helping publishers, at least if one paper is to be believed, with being able to track a cookie netting a digital publisher only a $0.00008 increase in revenue per advertisement, while extending load times, increasing page sizes, and separating the relationship between audience creator and audience. Are we convinced that targeting is universally beneficial for advertisers? Because the numbers I see indicate banners only get clicked 0.05% of the time - making them effectively billboards. How sure are we they are more effective due to targeting that, as I mentioned last newsletter, is good at knowing what people do, but far from good at knowing why they did it?
For the sake of a thought experiment, let’s look at an alternative world, one where an all-powerful deity and/or government agency basically says “no using cookies to target advertisements without an opt-in for each brand entity”. (That is to say, Coke can’t target you unless you explicitly opt in to Coke (not AdWords), even if they use data from a site you opted in to. And you can retract that opt-in whenever you feel the urge).
Suddenly, building experiences you actually want to be part of, becomes hugely important for brands. More than that, the digital ad marketplace gets intimately tied to CRM, because if you really want to make the most of each of those opt-ins, you’d want to tell a cohesive story across all these platforms for this self-identified warm lead. You’d need to at least consider nurturing vs just harvesting.
Display still exists, but under an umbrella of publisher- / audience- centric categories; sites and publishers and creators being elevated as individual brands that you might want your product associated with, whether it be relevant to a specific demo, or interest - hell, package it with the advertorial deals that newsmedia brands use to stay solvent and consumer brands use to accrue some social capital. And let them sell targetable media-space at a true premium - it’ll be a valuable interaction when it happens, and rare enough that it’s actually interesting when a consumer sees it.
What if we actually needed to be as eye-catching and clever in these limited spaces, rather than (and this includes everyone in the equation, from clients to publishers) hiding behind targeting to pretend we don’t need to make stuff worth talking about if it’s ‘just’ a banner?
Retargeting is still around, but now it’s a button on product pages - ‘remind me’. Not everyone will click it, but that’s a good thing - the difference between a warm lead and being haunted by a product you either didn’t want, can’t afford, or couldn’t find in your size.
Search ads essentially work the exact same way, especially if you’re in a logged-in state (which many of us always are). But the way that paid placement has taken over the entire first section of results probably starts to look weirder given the different context.
Social ads? Make cool stuff, put the right hashtags on it, pay for either truly mass audiences (homepage takeover level ubiquity), buy access to your opted-in groups of interested folks, or buy key placement on topic searches.
Video ads / pre-roll? Put them in front (or middle) of stuff relevant to your assumed, non-targeted audience.
You can see how this (from a non-technical perspective, at least) is pretty straightforward. Would it be harder to do than what we do now? Maybe - so charge more for it, give more money to the media and publishers that need it.
The problem (and I’m going to paraphrase a thousand analyses of Facebook here) is that any digital marketing disarmament needs to be unilateral - because, judged on a short enough timeframe, the more socially viable / ethical choice almost always fails on performance metrics. A brand could just decide to do this, but they’d have to be a Death Star-level, Nike or Coca-Cola type of brand to not get devoured by competitors who haven’t made the same choice.
So, that’s the easy answer to make advertising in the internet age more benign - convince people to join in, instead of recruiting them without their permission, knowledge or understanding.
All it requires is completely changing the entire infrastructure of advertising in the internet age.
Next time: what do you do if you can’t (or won’t) change everything?