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The New Media "American Problem"

The New Media "American Problem" Jerry Courtney

My senior year of high school, I took a class entitled “American Problems,” taught by Mr. Drake. It took a look at the complex issues of the day in our country, encouraging young, fertile minds to take a position and engage in healthy debate. 

When things became especially heated, Mr. Drake would step in with a seemingly innocuous phrase that would make the quarreling parties stop and think -- some sort of phrase that had been completely overused, that seemed to have lost its meaning somewhere along the way; something you really couldn’t respond to. Usually, it ended the debate just prior to the bell ringing. The man was a master manipulator that way.

Although the phrases seemed practically meaningless, a little meditation on what Mr. Drake said usually led you to realize you had the necessary intellect already in place to comprehend the issue at hand. I also liked the way it brought about the abrupt end to unwanted conversation.

Recently, these phrases got me thinking about the relationship between all things that are deemed “new media.” Right now, there is much consternation about what, exactly, “new media” is and how and when it should be used. Indeed, an “American Problem,” if there has ever been one. Allow me to share a few of these time-honored phrases and explain the connections I made.

“We’re talking chicken and egg.”

More than likely, when Moses came down from the mountain after carving the Ten Commandments, one of the wayward souls in the valley was probably angling for a way to sponsor this tablet that would obviously have such mass appeal. And, hey, it would allow Moses to cover the cost of the hammer, chisel and labor he’d just used to produce the document.

I use that example to point out the sacrilegious way we can tend to assume that every new device or mechanism for delivering and consuming media was put there for us to better reach our target audience. Also, to reinforce that although technology makes consumption and delivery of content seem “new,” when you boil it down, it’s still about reaching the correct audience at the correct time with the correct message.

Let us keep in mind that the best examples of devices and mechanisms for content delivery and interaction (the chicken) are created with the idea that it will be easy for the user to get to the content (the egg) they desire with as little impediment as possible. Keeping this thought in mind will allow us to stay consumer-centric, not media vehicle-centric, in our communications planning.

“Is that a means to an end, or are you justifying the end with the means?”

Doing something new because it’s new is not the answer if it’s not grounded in an over-arching objective. Additionally, latching onto a new media vehicle as a tactic then retrofitting an objective around it will not deliver against your clients’ desires. 

In our post-Subservient Chicken media lives, let’s keep in mind that the idea (the end) was subservient to the execution (the means), and that when it came time to execute, there was a plan in place for getting it done.

“That’s neither here nor there.”

Once upon a time, there were simple rules to media consumption. Everyone watches weeknight primetime. Most people are listening to radio during their commutes. Newspapers are the best mechanism for fast-cume, daily reach.

Now we talk about things like time-shifting, co-media usage, on-demand, consumer-generated media, wireless access, content integration, and on and on. Our formerly rather stationary, predictable targets (we knew if they were here or there) are now empowered to have their media the way they want to have it when they want to have it (here or there could be practically anywhere at any given time). Oh, and now they feel so bold as to even create their own media (would that be it’s neither who or whom?). 

Although this is a relatively new phenomenon, there’s no need to panic and start throwing things at the wall to see what sticks. We do plan media for a living after all. And, for the most part, we are rational people.

We simply have to put more thought into the context of the media usage as it is occurring and how our product or service fits into that context. Does the product or service contribute to or, at least, flow with the content being consumed? What is the target’s situation as they are consuming the message -- in a taxi cab, playing a video game, at work, in a movie theater? And, for a common sense test, would you as a consumer be willing to receive a message on a particular device or via a particular medium at that particular time? No one likes a focus group of one, but sometimes common sense is a good gut check on your media tactics.

“It’s six of one, half dozen of another”

Our ultimate goal as media planners is to stimulate some sort of action or reaction from our intended target. If what we deliver is useful and in context, the target does not care that the message comes via their wireless device as they walk down the street, while playing a video game, prior to watching a VOD piece, or even within the confines of some sort of ubiquitous “traditional” media vehicle. If that target is engaged in an activity and receptive to the message being delivered while in the flow of that activity, we are providing a benefit to the target while achieving our objective. At that point, for our target and our media plan, it’s six of one, half dozen of another.

Mr. Drake, if you’re out there, you can be proud of my application of what I’m sure was an unintended lesson. 

But, to keep this conversation percolating, let’s reframe it in one of our industry’s phrases that’s being kicked around more and more lately: The message is the medium, and the medium is the message. (Sfx: bell ringing)

Jerry Courtney is the Associate Interactive Media Director at GSD&M in Austin, TX. Courtney oversees the Interactive Media Group at GSD&M, ensuring successful integration of work and process with the Media Planning Department. Clients include SBC, MasterCard, US Air Force, UnitedHealth, AARP and SAM'S CLUB.

Expectations of privacy

Much of the future of online advertising may hinge on that phrase, "expectation of privacy." It first cropped up in 1967, in a Supreme Court opinion establishing boundaries around unconstitutional government searches; then again, notably, in a 1979 decision, in which the Supreme Court found the phone company does not violate a "legitimate expectation of privacy" when it uses devices to record dialed phone numbers.

More recently, in a motion last fall to dismiss a class action suit claiming its Gmail service violates the Federal Wiretap Act, Google lawyers rejected the "legitimate expectation of privacy" claim. Instead, they took the stance that automatic processing of email content is implicitly accepted by anybody who uses Gmail or sends a message to a Gmail account.

Never mind the infelicity of publicly stating that user privacy is a core tenet of its services while relying on a legal argument to assert that privacy doesn't always apply to its services. What's more troubling is that sites like Google and Facebook have allowed themselves to become swept up in debates about government spying and citizen mistrust. Despite arguments to the contrary, profiling for marketing purposes and profiling for government purposes are distinct activities. Advertisers, for the most part, don't want to know who you are -- they're only interested in whether you might buy their product. Advertising should not be a primary concern in consumer-advocacy discussions, but it's become one.

The perversity of Google's position is that, to satiate its advertisers, it must collect more specific and nuanced data, but doing so necessarily butts up against basic concerns about controlling and sharing personal information. Equally confounding to the online ad giants are indications that members of the online populace are more willing than ever to disclose information about themselves -- and, in fact, that they demand a similarly personalized experience from the sites they frequent.

A Pew Internet and American Life poll taken last fall confirms this conflicting position. In the survey, 68 percent of internet users said it is very important that they control access to the content of their emails, but only 44 percent felt as strongly about others accessing search content without authorization. And only 33 percent told Pew it was very important that they authorize access to the times of day they are online.

On one hand, this seems to indicate a diminishing resistance to information sharing based on the perception of the information's individuality. It also suggests an expectation of privacy does exist -- or at least an expectation that our information will not be used in a manner different from how we intend it to be used.

Most internet users share concerns about online privacy, but these concerns do not primarily center on large advertisers. The Pew study found that of those who have tried to hide their online behaviors, the majority have done so to protect themselves from hackers and criminals. And internet users between 18 and 29 are just as likely to want to mask their online actions from friends and other acquaintances as they are from marketers.

For the most part, consumers are oblivious about which details of their online profiles are shared with advertisers. It's become abundantly clear that this confusion has not served digital publishers well. While in the past it may have been beneficial to suppress the details of privacy disclosures in favor of feel-good generalities, companies now face unpleasant associations if they don't get in front of their messages. In the public's mind, secrecy is the playground of government agencies and thieves. But transparency is just one part of the challenge.

A cookieless internet

Last May, Apple announced its app store had registered more than 50 billion downloads since opening just four years earlier, and total Google Play app downloads were on pace in 2013 to surpass this total. If nothing else, these staggering numbers affirm the deep level of trust consumers have in the mobile software Apple and Google make available. It also represents an unprecedented trove of user information for marketers.

For its part, Apple has made strides toward anonymizing phone data, though not without prodding. Last year, largely in response to pressures following shady data collection practices by a few app developers, the company announced it would no longer allow apps to access a device's universal device ID. Google has followed suit by requiring Android app developers to ditch Android ID for its new advertising ID by August.

These new mobile ad-tracking schemes allow device users to opt out of interest-based advertising and reset their identifiers at will. They also provide a way to circumvent an increasing norm among web browsers of blocking third-party cookies.

Rumbles of an in-development Google ad-tracking technology dubbed AdID herald a further evolution. The new ad identifier would reportedly anonymize personally identifiable data across devices and give users greater control over what information is collected from them.

On the surface, this news should be welcomed by consumer and privacy advocates. For the vast majority of advertisers, personally identifiable information is neither accessible nor an expected part of their marketing plan. In a survey conducted by Enliken, a company that allows consumers to sell their personal data in exchange for content, internet users deemed three-quarters of the information being recorded and sold by some of the largest data aggregators harmless. Further, only 9 percent of the information was considered sensitive (it's also worth noting that the survey takers found only 52 percent of this personal information accurate).

The implication of potential cross-device technologies like AdID is that behavioral tracking won't be limited to a discrete user-initiated action, but instead will become persistent. The difficult problems facing marketers in the mobile age pose a very real threat to the advertising profits of large publishers. For example, how can we account for a consumer who conducts research from a smartphone, then completes a purchase on a laptop? Or, an even thornier scenario: an online searcher who leaves his browser altogether and spends his money in a physical store.

Yet, persistent data collection is at stark odds with how internet users are used to interacting with search engines, or with other computers, for that matter -- an explicit request for information, which is duly returned as quickly and accurately as possible. We want to believe our information is being collected only when we provide it.

Also obfuscated is the idea that behind the mass of data collected are experiences. What online marketing -- and multi-device marketing, more explicitly -- offers is a greater understanding of how people interact with technology and their world simultaneously. Subliminal-seeming advertising that relies on data points to persuade is creepy and depersonalizing.

Yet the ideal of advertising technology seems to be the perfectly targeted ad, which would show without any apparent prompting. In this resides a paradox: Data glut simultaneously moves us closer to, and further away from, the individual -- a troubling prospect at a time when we're more alarmed than ever at being reduced to bytes on a remote server.

Expectations of security

Speaking at a Federal Trade Commission workshop in November, Vint Cerf, one of the founders of the modern web and now Google's chief internet evangelist, suggested that privacy is a modern construct. As population centers expanded following the Industrial Revolution, so too did the belief we could hide in plain sight. By comparison, then, the internet is urban sprawl, and our sense of anonymity online is just the result of the sheer size of the community. "The technology that we use today has far outraced our social intuition," he said, on the way to arguing that we'll need to continue overstepping acceptable bounds of privacy before identifying them.

As such, all of the current outrage over data mining could prove to be a watershed moment for online marketing. Acknowledging user data concerns and being transparent about what personal information is collected and how it's used is a good start. But if publishers truly want to make online advertising useful, they'll allow people to create and vet their own data profiles. If our privacy truly is in their best interests, then what's there to be concerned about? And even if companies ultimately reject assumed expectations of privacy when collecting data, certainly they can't deny that the security of user data and how it's shared with others remains a fundamental concern.

For marketers, the internet should not represent an opportunity to read the minds of its denizens and gain a mathematical advantage on competitors, but an approach to tapping into the greatest community in history. Data should inform marketing decisions, not dictate them, especially when the integrity of a brand and the protection of its patrons is at stake.

A renewed focus on experiential advertising places a human face on digital marketing, creates a sense of shared respect with consumers, and may very well usher in a new advertising renaissance.

We've become undeniably more comfortable sharing our information online. Our data are the currency of an exploding digital social and commercial economy. But we need meaningful assurances of security. It's only our trust in online providers that keeps us willing participants.

Matt Grebow is director of paid search at The Search Agency.

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"Portrait of a sexy woman" image via Shutterstock.

Jerry Courtney is VP within the Strategic Solutions Group at Ipsos Open Thinking Exchange.  His current focus is studying the dynamics of decision making from a people-centric perspective, understanding and visualizing paths to decisions as...

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