I had a chance to be interviewed with Fred Wilson by Dave Morgan of Simulmedia (and Tacoda and and and…). The video is fun and ranges around from OpenCo to the future of the Web, so I thought I’d share it here:
I was interested to read today that Esquire is currently experimenting with a per-article paywall. For $1.99, you can read a 10,000-word piece about a neurosurgeon who claims to have visited heaven. Esquire’s EIC on the experiment: “…great journalism—and the months that go into creating it—isn’t free. So, besides providing the story to readers of our print and digital-tablet versions of the August issue, we are offering it to online readers as a stand-alone purchase.”
I predicted that payment systems and paid services/content were going to take off this year (see here), but this isn’t what I had in mind. But it did get me thinking. What if you added social and elastic elements to the price? For example, the article would initially cost, say, $1.99, but if enough people decided to buy it, the price goes down for everyone. The more people who buy, the cheaper the price gets. It’d never go to zero, of course, but there’d be some kind of a demand/price curve that satisfies the two most important things publishers care about: readership (the more, the better) and revenue (ideally, enough to cover the costs of creation and make a fair profit).
The tools to do this already exist. There are plenty of sites that crowdsource demand to create pricing leverage, and sites like Kickstarter have gotten all of us used to the idea of hitting funding goals. And the social sharing behaviors already exist as well: Nearly all content has social sharing widgets attached these days. Why not combine the two? Those who initially paid the highest price – $1.99 say – would be motivated to share a summary of the article with friends and encourage them to buy it as well. They are economically incented to do so – the more friends who buy, the greater the chance that their initial $1.99 charge will decrease. And they’re socially incented to do so – perhaps they could get credit for being one of the early advocates or tastemakers who recognized and surfaced a great piece of content before anyone else did.
Let’s break down the economics to see how it might work. A really great piece of long form journalism in a magazine like Esquire pays around $15,000 (sometimes more, sometimes less, depending on the author, subject, length, and title). But for this model, let’s say the payment to the journalist is $15K. Then you need to factor in the cost of the editor, copy editor, production, sales and design, as well as general overhead of the publication per piece. Let’s call that another $5K per piece (I’m spitballing here but probably not too far off). So for this article to make a profit, it needs to make $20,000 – or sell roughly 10,000 copies. Of course, the article is also monetized through the regular magazine and tablet editions, so the real number it has to hit is probably far less – let’s cut it in half and say it’s $10,000. Now to clear a profit, the article really just needs to sell 5,000 copies at $1.99.
Let’s not forget that Esquire also shows advertising against its articles. If it maintains a healthy $25 CPM, and shows two “spread” (two-page) ads between those 10,000 words, that’s roughly $100 per 1000 readers that Esquire can make. If it indeed does sell 5,000 copies of that article, that’s $500 of advertising revenue earned. And if it gets more readers, it can earn more advertising revenue – and decrease the paid content price in some correlated fashion. (No matter what, Esquire wants more readers – both to increase its advertising revenue, but also to accomplish its journalistic mission – all authors want more readers).
Perhaps a model could work like this: The piece costs $1.99 for the first 5,000 articles sold, garnering $10,000 in revenue (Ok, $9,500 for you sticklers). Once that threshold hits, the price adjusts dynamically to maintain at least $10,000 in overall revenue, but adjusting downward against the paying population as more and more readers commit (which also earns Esquire additional advertising revenue). A “clearing price” is set, perhaps at 50 cents, after which all profits go to Esquire. In this case, the clearing price kicks in at 20,000 copies sold – everyone would pay .50 at that point, and it’s a win win win for all.
Just spitballing, as I said, but I think it’s a pretty cool idea. What do you think?
It’s been quite a six months, I must say. Personally I took back the reigns at a company I founded in 2005, found a co-author for my book, and hired a CEO for the company I started last year (he starts next week). But I haven’t been writing nearly as much as I’d like here, and that sort of saddens me. However, one of my “half year” resolutions is to change that, and it starts with this review of my Predictions 2013.
This year’s predictions were a bit different in that I wrote about things I *wished* would happen this year, as opposed to those I thought most likely to happen. They were still predictions, but more personal in nature. So let’s see how I did, shall we?
1. We figure out what the hell “Big Data” really is, and realize it’s bigger than we thought (despite its poor name).
Halfway into the year, I think there’s no doubt this conversation has picked up speed dramatically. The PRISM program, in particular, has thrown new light on how “big” big data really is, and what kind of a society we’re becoming as we all become data. I’d say that on this prediction, which was pretty easy to make, we’re well on our way to checking the box as “true.” The bigger point of my prediction had to do with how we, as a society, are coming to grips with the more far reaching implications of all this data. I’ll report back on that at year’s end.
2. Adtech does not capitulate, in fact, it has its best year ever, thanks to … data.
I think so far, I’ve been proven right here. Terry Kawaja, he of the famous Lumascape, has revised his charts to show a more than doubling of the companies in the space this year. While there have been plenty of deals, it doesn’t look like adtech is capitulating at all.
3. Google trumps Apple in mobile
I predicted that Google would come out with an iPhone killer this year, so far, this hasn’t happened (though many do view current Google phones as equal.) There are still six months to go, with the crucial holidays to come.
Also, there are many ways to measure “trumps Apple,” including market share (where Google has already surpassed Apple), profit (where Apple is still killing Google), and the softer “buzz,” which I have to say, Google is winning in my small world. For now, I think the jury is out.
4. The Internet enables frictionless (but accountable) payments, enabling all manner of business models that previously have been unnaturally retarded.
This is a “slow burn” issue, and I think we may look back at 2013 as the year payments got really, really easy. Square, Stripe, and Braintree are leaders here, and I really do sense a breakthrough happening. But I can’t quite prove it at midyear. Many, many startups are using these services as base ingredients for their business models, I can say that.
Related, I also predicted that major consumer-facing online platforms based on “free” – Google and Facebook chief among them, though Twitter is a potential player here as well – will begin to press their customers for real dollars in exchange for premium services. This is undeniably true. Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn have all been asking me for money for premium services this year – for advertising my account, or upgrading to “pro” services. This trend is well underway.
5. Twitter comes of age and recommits itself as an open platform.
I just don’t know about this. Honestly, I don’t know. On the one hand, the company has deprecated RSS to the point of it not being usable. On the other hand, the company stands for free and open speech like no other. What do you all think?
6. Facebook embraces the “rest of the web.”
Well, as I said in the beginning, this was a set of predications based on what I wished would happen. I predicted that Facebook would “make it really easy to export your identity and data.” I’m not really seeing anything that merits a “win” here, but maybe I missed a memo.
7. By the end of the year, Amazon will have an advertising business on a run rate comparable to Microsoft.
I think this has already happened if you take out Microsoft’s search business, but we don’t know it for sure because Amazon won’t break out its ads business. More here and here. Anyone have any more insights?
8. The world will learn what “synthetic biology” is, because of a major breakthrough in the field.
Well, given I’m not steeped in current research, I better ask my friend David Kong if this is true yet. David? Hopefully it will be by year’s end!
All in all, I think the predictions are faring well halfway through the year. What did I miss?
Last week LinkedIn asked me to post a commencement speech, if I had given one, as part of a series they were doing. Turns out, I’ve given two, but the one they wanted was at Berkeley, my alma mater. If you want to read the one I gave at my high school, I’d be happy to post it (I think it’s better), but since I already have the Berkeley one at the ready, here it is. I want it to be on my own site as well, just for the record.
Back in 2005, as Web 2.0 was taking off, I was honored to be asked to give the commencement address at UC Berkeley’s School of Information Management, or SIMS. It was a perfect day, and the ceremony was outside at the base of the Campanile, which is Berkeley’s proudest monument. As a double Cal graduate, and three-generation legacy, this was a crowning moment for me. Below are some excerpts, edited for clarity given the time that has lapsed since.
I have a feeling that I was chosen to make these brief remarks because I deeply believe in the following statement: The field you’ve chosen is the most important and interesting line of inquiry to be found at this great University, and one of the most important new schools to emerge since the rise of computer science in the middle of last century.
Of course, it’s also misunderstood, miscategorized, and poorly defined, but that’s to be expected. Just 10 years ago, “information management” was still a fancy way of saying “librarian.” While librarians knew better, many others had not caught on to this basic truth: the most valuable resource in our culture is knowledge, and as SIMS graduates, you are not simply becoming knowledge workers, you are becoming builders of knowledge refineries—the architects who drive how knowledge itself is created.
SIMS suffers from something of a definition problem, doesn’t it? Is it computer science, anthropology, or journalism? Is it library science, architecture, design? Of course, this is the same problem that plagues the Internet—what exactly is it, anyway? It seems there is no area in our culture that is not touched, changed, even swallowed by the Internet. It’s both medium and message, mass and personal, social and solitary. Like SIMS, the Internet is a study in interdisciplinary mechanics.
At various times, the world has declared the Internet dead. Fortune 500 executives— particularly in the media and communications business—were thrilled that their monopolies were safe from what appeared to be a very real threat. They and the press declared the revolution stillborn. They wrote the Internet off as just another distribution channel and, for a while, it seemed that was a pretty safe assumption.
But a funny thing happened around the time this graduating class applied to SIMS—Google began turning a profit. Yahoo, Amazon, and even Priceline shook off the snows of 2002 and began to grow again. And the collective wisdom of thousands of geeks began expressing itself in myriad and wondrous ways—in new photo tools like Flickr and in new social networking applications like LinkedIn.
And millions of people kept using the Internet, and millions more joined. As they used it, they changed it, making it their own and building a medium not only in their own image but in the likeness of the culture they were becoming. It’s a culture driven by knowledge and shaped by relationships and community. In short, while most folks weren’t paying attention over the past few years, the Web was reborn, not as a repository of information, but as a creation engine of knowledge.
Most graduates face the world with an equal sense of optimism and trepidation—this ceremony, after all, marks a major transition for you all. But now comes the rest of your life, and with it uncertainty and the terrifying joy of starting all over once again.
My advice to you, insofar as I can give any, is simple: Hold onto this feeling you have right now. Rinse and repeat as often as you can. Get used to it but don’t take it for granted—it’s how the world is evolving. Every few years, if you’re not leaping into a new project, a new and challenging startup, or a new challenge at a larger company, then you’re not really exercising the skills you all so clearly demonstrated with your Masters projects. The world wants more projects like yours, and it stands ready to fund them, tweak them, embrace them, and inspire you to build them again and again.
You are, all of you, entrepreneurs, deciding what vision to follow and what path to take toward it. It’s a rather addictive feeling, and I, for one, hope you keep making new stuff for the rest of your sure to be very long careers.
As I said earlier, the world of media and business you are entering is very different from that of just five years ago. The Web 2.0 world is defined by new ways of understanding ourselves, of creating value in our culture, of running companies, and of working together.
Companies in this world are run more like artist studios or graduate projects—they are lightweight – they leverage the work of thousands that came before them and potentially millions who use their products or services over the Web. Craigslist, for example, is challenging the entire newspaper industry not by hiring thousands of workers and taking on publishers on their turf, but by reorganizing how people find, create and use classifieds. How they turn information into actionable knowledge. A very simple idea, but also very powerful.
These companies thrive by innovating in assembly—they find new ways to sort, organize, and present options to their customers. Information is a commodity, after all. Knowledge is king. If you can help someone refine information into knowledge and if you help them make sense of the world, you win. And it takes a special kind of person to do that—a knowledge architect—exactly what you all have chosen as your field of study, and, I hope, your careers.
I’ve noticed that the best companies and ideas are driven by these knowledge architects who realize that in an information age, the best business to be in is that of refinery.
Each of you has the chance to make this your life’s work. I say, well done—and don’t let us down. For as Nikola Tesla, hero to Google co-founder Larry Page, once said:
Of all the frictional resistance in the world, the one that most retards human movement is ignorance, what Buddha called “the greatest evil in the world.” The friction which results from ignorance can be reduced only by the spread of knowledge … No effort could be better spent.
I’ve been a bit slow to update this site lately, as my return to Federated Media, and preparation for the CM Summit and OpenCo NYC, have pretty much eaten up all my time lately. But I did want to repost a few things I have written elsewhere, starting with this article in Ad Age, written two weeks ago.
Titled Publishers, Ad-Tech Firms, Marketers Need to Connect, Build Trust (no, I didn’t write that headline, if I was in charge, it might have been “Hold Hands or Die Apart” – pageviews, ya know?), the article argues that our industry is not yet prepared for what the market is going to demand – solutions that integration adtech and brand marketing. Here’s a sampling:
Something troubling has jumped out at me. There’s an extraordinary asymmetry of information among these three important players in our industry, and a disturbing sense of distrust. Brand marketers don’t believe that ad-tech companies view brands as true partners. Ad-tech companies think brand marketers are paying attention to the wrong things. And publishers, with a few important exceptions, feel taken advantage of by everyone.
Here’s a representative sample of things I’ve heard:
“If I had it to do over again, I am not sure I’d be in publishing. You can’t win over the machines.”
“Brand marketers are wasting their money. If they’d just get smarter about data, they’d realize content doesn’t matter — what matters is leveraging what you know about a customer. They’ll never get it. “
“The Lumascape has devolved into a pay-per-click machine. Tech companies are too full of themselves. I don’t trust them. It’s a “black box.’ “
“Agencies and technology companies are leveraging their data advantage to arbitrage publishers’ inventory — and even their marketing clients’ spend — so as to pad their bottom lines.”
“I won’t put any of my inventories on exchanges — the last time I did, CPMs were so low it was embarrassing.”
This isn’t a pretty picture. But even as I hear statements like these, I also hear story after story about how data-driven marketing practices are working. Publishers like Forbes, Ziff Davis and Weather.com have seen revenue from “programmatic premium” rise to as much as 20% of total top line, up from 5% or so just a year ago. (Programmatic premium is the practice of running premium inventory through programmatic channels in ways that “protect” that inventory, such as building private marketplaces or adding publisher first-party data.)
Smart marketers are leveraging ad tech to drive real brand lift, conversion and sales. And a platoon of top ad-tech companies are preparing to go public in the next 12 months, hardly a sign that they have business models built on shady business practices. (We’d do well to recall that Google went public one year after “click fraud” was considered pervasive in the search marketplace.)
What we have here is a failure of communication and shared values. The brand marketers I speak with acknowledge that they don’t understand how to map their brand-building skills to the offerings of ad-tech companies. The ad-tech companies confide that they don’t understand the motivations of brand marketers (nor do they believe it would be profitable to try).
For more, head to Ad Age.
(image) Last week I was in Salt Lake City for the Adobe Summit, on a stage the size of a parking lot. After some opening remarks about how the world is increasingly lit with data, I brought out Adam Bain, President of Global Revenue for Twitter. (He Vined it, natch.) Five thousand or so folks in the Internet marketing and media business were in attendance, behind us was a 7,000 square foot HD screen (I kid you not). I’ve been in front of a few big crowds, but this one was enormous. You could have parked a few 787s in the space.
My point is this: Bain knew he was in front of a lot of people, including nearly 200 journalists. As we worked our way through any number of predictable but important topics – Twitter’s revenue (growing but no numbers), the acquisition of BlueFin (TV analytics and more), etc. – I asked Bain to distinguish between Twitter and its competitive set. This was a relatively politic way of asking the inevitable “What about Facebook” question. It was then that Bain uttered what I thought was the most interesting comment of the day: “[With Twitter,] there’s no algorithm between you and your feed.”
Facebook’s “Edge” rank has once again been in the news, as one writer or journalist after another discovers what most of us already knew: Facebook filters what you see in the Newsfeed, and the algorithm that determines that filter is a black box (one that you can influence with money, of course).
On Twitter, there’s no filter between you and your feed. If, like me, you follow 1,200 or more people, your feed is a hopeless firehose, and that’s just the way it is, Bub.
My Twitter feed is a blur to me, I dip in and out, but I never consistently gain value from it. I know there’s so much more I could be learning from it, but so far, no dice. (Four or so years ago I even asked our tech team at FMP to build a Twitter parser, we used it for a while…that’s another story…)
I’ve always been on the lookout for tools to surface the best stuff shared on the service – and I’m still looking. Summary services like Percolate are too high level (only five or so stories), and curation through tools like Tweetdeck work to a point, but require too much input and are not dynamic enough. I recently tweeted out a request for new filtering tools, and got back this list:
- Twitter’s daily email digest (which I’m not getting for some reason, so I’ll turn that on)
- Tweetdeck (which I have used a lot, but stopped using when Twitter bought it, more on that below)
- Cronycle (still in private beta)
- The Tweeted Times
- And of course Flipboard.
From a quick look at these services (some of which I’ve tried), I don’t think any of them do quite what I want them to. And that’s kind of my point. It’s great that Twitter doesn’t filter my feed, but it’s a bummer that third parties haven’t been able to solve for my problem. And of course, there’s a reason for this. Developers have left the consumer space mostly alone – Twitter has made it very clear that they don’t want anyone creating new interfaces for the consumption of your feed, and filtering services – in particular ones like Flipboard – come dangerously close to that line.
The enterprise, on the other hand, has benefitted from the unfiltered feed – that’s where Percolate is focused, as well as Salesforce, Adobe, and many others. Gnip has a good business selling access to Twitter’s firehose, but overall, as one might expect, the use case is more aggregate and less individual in nature.
That’s a dilemma. One the one hand there’s Facebook, which has “placed an algorithm in between” us and our feed. Facebook is controlling our experience on our behalf – and it’s questionable whether that really scales. Then there’s the noisy mess of Twitter, where I could imagine any number of super-wonderful third-party apps, yet so far Twitter has kept that ecosystem at bay.
It’s clear that Twitter will soon offer more controls to its users – giving us various ways to filter our feed. The company recently dropped support for its recently acquired Tweetdeck apps – clearly it plans on folding that kind of functionality into its core services. Once it does, I hope the company will relax a bit and give developers the go ahead to create real value on top of an individual’s raw feed. No one company can boil the ocean, but together an ecosystem can certainly simmer the sea.
(image AppleInsider) Back in April of last year, I pondered Pebble, the then-wildly successful darling of Kickstarter fame. Pebble is a wristwatch device that connects to iPhones and displays various smart things. In the piece, Does the Pebble Cause a Ripple In Apple’s Waters?, I asked whether Apple would allow such third-party hardware to play in their backyard. It struck me Apple’s entire business was about hardware. Pebble, I figured, was in for a tough road. No wonder it went to Kickstarter, I mused. VCs would never back something so clearly in Apple’s target zone. From the post:
If you watch the video explaining Pebble, it become pretty clear that the watch is, in essence, a new form factor for the iPhone. It’s smaller, it’s more use-case defined, but that’s what it is: A smaller mirror of your iPhone, strapped to you wrist. Pebble uses bluetooth connectivity to access the iPhone’s native capabilities, and then displays data, apps, and services on its high-resolution e-paper screen. It even has its own “app store” and (upcoming) SDK/API so people can write native apps to the device.
In short, Pebble is an iPhone for your wrist. And Apple doesn’t own it.
If we’ve learned anything about Apple over the years, it’s that Apple is driven by its hardware business. It makes its profits by selling hardware – and it’s built a beautiful closed software ecosystem to insure those hardware sales. Pebble forces an interesting question: Does Apple care about new form factors for hardware? Or is it content to build out just the “core” hardware platform, and allow anyone to innovate in new hardware instances? Would Apple be cool with someone building, say, a larger form factor of the iPhone, perhaps tablet-sized, driven by your iPhone?
Fast forward to now. The month’s Apple rumors have all been about the “iWatch” – the company’s next big innovation. Apparently reliable sources – most likely now muted thanks to Apple’s exceptional PR machine – have said that 100 people are working on the device inside Apple’s HQ. And this week came news that Apple has even filed for a patent around the concept.
If I’m Pebble, I’m not sleeping well at night.
I have no idea if Apple will actually create such a device – though I’m certain it must be testing one.
However, if Apple really wants the device to take off, the company should incorporate more than just iPhone connectivity. Here’s my wish list:
- Open platform for connectivity. Any device can connect to the device, not just iOS. I know this is wishful thinking, but…for example, Google has opted for glasses as its next big thing in wearable computing. I certainly would like the two to work together. (And how cool would it be if it worked with Android? OK, sorry. Just had to ask.)
- Integration with those apps, so that users don’t lose their data if they want to move to Apple’s hardware platform.
- As with Pebble, an open app ecosystem for the device, not one locked down into iOS. (I know…)
- A warranty on breakage. It’s one thing to ignore the criminal cracking that happens with nearly every iPhone in existence, because you can blame the consumer for dropping the damn thing. But if this thing is on somebody’s wrist, it’s going to get smacked around. And if Apple takes the same approach to breakage as it has for the iPhone, the device will be a failure.
That’s my major wish list. What would you want from the device?
(image Wired) Way back in the day when I was making magazines, I was buried in print. I subscribed to at least twenty periodicals, easily twice that many came my way without my asking. It made for a huge pile of printed material on the end of my desk (stuff I really should read), and it creeped into the horizontal spaces behind me (stuff I think I should read, in case I get the time), or on my shelves (stuff I can’t throw out yet), and the damn things even spilled onto my floor (stuff I probably will never read, but feel too guilty to toss out).
I dubbed this mountain of print The Guilt Pile. Every so often, usually when it was time to move offices, I’d take inventory of the pile, and toss most of it. It always felt so good – a fresh start, a new day, this time, I promise, I’ll not let that pile accumulate again!
Then digital took over my print life, and the pile vanished.
At least, the pile of print vanished. But a new scourge of guilt-inducing matter has now taken over my desks, shelves, and storage spaces, and I’m finding it damn near impossible to toss it out. Devices: phones, tablets, webcams, gee-gaws and dongles, power cords and hard drives – I’ve got drawers full of the stuff. And every time my eye rests upon them, I feel terribly. The device stares back at me, baleful. I somehow owe it my attention, my time and energy – I feel I’m failing at some implicit contract. It’d be simply irresponsible to toss the stuff – it’s probably full of hazardous materials, and most of it is worth something, and at the very least, I should give it to someone who can make use of it. But who? And how? Much of it is…shudder…outdated! Not to mention, many of the devices have my digital fingerprints inside – I couldn’t toss them, recycle them, or sell them without first firing them up and figuring out what’s on there, and how to transfer or erase that data before sending the item to its next phase of life.
And for a significant portion of these technological devices, I’m not even sure I could find the power cords, dongles, and accessories that would make the damn things useful in the first place. The idea of getting all this sh*t ready for sale on eBay feels like Way Too Much Work.
A quick inventory around my home office turns up a couple iPhone 4s, one with a broken home button and the other with a cracked screen, a brand new Sony Internet TV, a BlackBerry Playbook (also never used), five digital cameras of various capacities and ages, four years worth of external storage devices, each smaller and higher capacity than the one before and all obviated by the one sitting next to my Mac as I write this, three old MacBook pros, two of which I’m not sure will ever boot again due to age or infirmities of one kind or another, an old webcam, two Android tablets (the old ones, not the new one), two cracked Kindles, scores of power cords and dongles, a couple of outdated Fitbits, some older Sonos gear, two ancient Airport routers, at least six old iPods, a few feature phones from the pre smartphone era, and ten or so other gadgets (GPS, digital recorders, etc).
And that’s just what I can see. I have boxes of even older stuff in my garage.
Now, I’m probably an edge case, because I buy a lot of this stuff, and I also go to a lot of swell conferences where they give a lot of this stuff away in the goody bags. Plus, companies sometimes send me things to evaluate (which I rarely get around to doing). But such is not the case for my son, who has a similar, if smaller, cache of technology guilt sitting up in his room right now, all of it collected over ten years of Christmases, birthdays, and allowances.
It all seems like so much work. So I ignore the growing pile of tech, hoping that at some point, someone or something will come along that will solve for my Guilt Pile. I’m not sure it ever will.
But wouldn’t it be grand if you could just sweep all of it into a big box, and send it to a service where they categorized it, valued it, listed it on eBay or gave it to charity, all the while wiping your data (but sending it back to you via some cloud storage link)? They’d then ask what you wanted to do with the money – Send it to charity, buy some groceries, pick up the tab at dinner next time or….get some new devices, perhaps?
Fantasy? Or does this business already exist?
Please, someone, start it up! There’s gotta be a business model in there somewhere….
Earlier in the month I wrote about fraud in the advertising technology ecosystem – a post which has spawned dozens of fascinating conversations that I will continue to write about here and elsewhere. But this past weekend I encountered another kind of scam – a combination of time-honored phishing (online identity theft via social manipulation) and good old-fashioned wire fraud.
My family has been going to a small island off the coast of Massachussets for my entire life – my grandparents are buried there, my great grandmother moved there around the turn of the century (1900, not 2000!). My mother owns a cottage near the beach, a cottage that my great-grandmother purchased nearly 100 years ago.
Suffice to say, I have a deep history with the place. But with a bevy of kids and friends descending upon us each summer, my family has outgrown the cottage, so we’ve started looking for a larger place to rent. Like most folks these days, we turned to the Internet. We fired up VRBO.com, a popular marketplace for quality vacation rentals. It’s a great site for checking the market, and my wife and I figured we might get lucky and find just the right place.
We refined our search to mid-sized homes in Edgartown, MA available on the dates we wanted to stay. Most of the good places were above our desired price range, but one listing really stood out:
We are very familiar with the location of this house, having stayed nearly across the street a few years back. And boy, was the price right – about one-third that of similar homes in the neighborhood. This was a “new listing,” VRBO told us, meaning we were one of the first folks to find it. We better act quick, before this deal goes away!
We emailed the owner using VRBO’s contact widget (shown at right in the screen shot). Within hours, the “owner” had contacted us back. She was ready to send us a contract with payment information right away.
Now, I’ve been around long enough to sense when something wasn’t quite right. First off, she was using a non-personal email from Yahoo (the handle was “livinghome1234″ or somesuch). And the owner’s last name (her first was Kathy) seemed vaguely machine-generated – I won’t repeat it here just in case a real person’s identity has been stolen and re-used to portray the “owner.” When I put the name into Google, I got the kind of results that aren’t exactly comforting – a barely used Facebook page of a person in rural Pennsylvania, and a ton of “find this person” websites. It struck me that someone who owned a million-dollar home on Martha’s Vineyard probably had more of a digital footprint than this.
Secondly, the deal did seem too good to be true. Was I about to take advantage of some poor elderly woman who didn’t understand the true value of her home? Given my history with the island, I didn’t want to be the guy who did that. I decided to cross check Kathy’s name with public real estate records for the address in question.
Turns out, they didn’t match. The real owner of the property was a very nice-looking older woman who was obviously a real person – a year or so ago she had penned a sweet obit in a local paper for her dearly departed poodle. (I know the type very well, she reminded me of my Mom, who spends a lot of time on the island with her beloved golden retriever). Hmm. Well, could be that the person who contacted me – Kathy – was just an agent working on the owner’s behalf. That certainly happens a lot. I called the real owner’s number (it was listed in public real estate records), but got a full answering machine. Darn.
Cautious but still optimistic, I told “Kathy” to send me the contract.
It was about this time I got the following email from VRBO:
Ah, drat. The listing was believed to be a fake.
But hope springs eternal, no? I awoke the next morning to a contract from Kathy. It included wire transfer instructions for the full amount of the rental, to a bank based, interestingly, in the same town as the rural Pennsylvanian’s hollow Facebook page. And it had a phone number at the top – which, when dialed, informed me that the Google Voice subscriber I had called was not available.
At this point I abandoned all hope of snagging that swell house in Edgartown, and called VRBO’s fraud department. They were nice, but not very helpful, reminding me that the site is “just an advertising service” that does its best to protect its users, but, to summarize: Buyer beware. I asked what made VRBO suspect that the listing was fraudulent, but the nice man on the other end of the phone refused to give any more information, citing privacy concerns.
So, why am I writing all of this up? Isn’t this just another pedestrian case of Internet fraud? Well, yes, and that’s kind of the point.
Think about how easy it was for the fraudster to run this scam. First, scrape all the information from a real listing (probably last summer’s in this case), and resubmit it under a different identity. Second, create a free email account and Facebook page for an owner’s identity, just in case a renter Googles the fraudulent name (as I did). Third, leverage Google’s free phone service to provide a contact number. And fourth, set up a bank account to collect the dough. Lather, rinse, repeat! After all, if only one in 10,000 attempts gets you a hit, it costs you nothing but time to create those 10,000 opportunities. And with some simple programming scripts, even your time isn’t really that taxed.
When it’s this easy to set up fraudulent transactions, they will flourish – and indeed, within a few hours of my being told about the listing’s suspicious nature, it was up again on VRBO, under a new listing number but otherwise unchanged. (I told VRBO about the new listing, and they once again banned it. But apparently, they don’t have any way to stop someone from listing it yet again.)
A quick perusal of the community boards on VRBO (or any other rental marketplace) reveals that this kind of scam happens a lot in the listings business. And there are some pretty basic steps one should take to insure you don’t get fooled. But to my mind the larger story here is one of incentive, trust and identity. If you take a look at the incentives working on VRBO, it becomes clear how easy it is to game the platform. VRBO wants to make it as frictionless as possible to list hot properties on its site. Renters like me want to quickly score the best deal on a hot property. And owners want to connect to VRBO’s vast market of potential renters.
But VRBO’s business model is also based on trust – as consumers of the service, we want to trust that the identities of those listing their homes for rent are in fact authentic. And clearly, for the vast majority of listings, that is the case. But given how easy it is for scammers to game the system with false listings, I don’t think I’ll ever be sending money to anyone I’ve met via their platform. And that’s a shame – because if VRBO and others took the time to qualify their marketplace up front, this kind of fraud would be far less rampant.
I think there’s a lesson here for all of us in the marketing industry. There are always going to be bad actors trying to game complex systems. Back when click fraud was a major issue, our industry had one major player who had the incentive to clean it up – Google. Google was the dominant player in search, and was a newly public company that couldn’t afford to be seen as profiting from fraud. But the programmatic adtech space is deeply fragmented, with scores of players, all of who are – according to many sources – reaping untold millions in revenue from fraudulent behavior. In short, the incentives to clean this up aren’t exactly aligned.
But imagine if just one major marketer – playing the role of the defrauded rentor – decides to make a public stink about fraud in programmatic exchanges, declaring they’ll never again spend money there. When that happens, our burgeoning ecosystem is imperiled. So once again, I say: It’s time for us to get further out in front of this problem. I’ll have more on how we might do so in future posts. Meanwhile, wish me luck in finding a place to stay this summer – from now on, I’ll be working with real humans who work on the island and know the owners personally. It might cost me more, but at least I’ll have a place to stay at the end of the day.
Man, sometimes you have to venture out onto the real web to realize how far much of the “professional sites” have to travel before they have a viable model.
Case in point: The San Jose Mercury News. Today the paper (yeah, I’m calling it that) published an interesting-sounding piece entitled Silicon Valley job growth has reached dot-com boom levels, report says. It was widely retweeted and otherwise socially circulated. It’s been a while since the Merc has mattered in my world, and I was pleasantly suprised to see the story pop up in my feeds. So I clicked through to the Actual Web Site to Actually Read The Story.
LordInHeaven I wish I hadn’t. Look at what I saw:
Now, it’s going take some work to break down this hot holy mess. So stay with me.
First off, believe it or not the belly flab ad isn’t the worst part of this experience (it’s close, believe me). The worst part is the layout, which looks like – well, something you’d wrap a fish in.
There there are the ads. As the Grinch might say…the ads ads ads ads. Six or more of them in this screenshot, and three more below the fold. There’s a Verizon site wrapper (on either side of the page), an expandable top banner, and three medium rectangle units crammed in there. Not one of them is what you might call a “quality” ad – at least by most standards. (Do you think Verizon is happy that their site takeover is overrun by social media buttons and competing with belly flab, diabetes, Frys’ Electronics and travel pitches?) If you bother to scroll down (who would?) there are three more pitches waiting for you there.
And check out the number of beacons and trackers on the right, in purple. That’s Ghostery, which I run on my browser to see who’s laying down data traps. Man, Merc, that’s a lot o’ data. Are you doing anything with it? (I’m guilty of the same, as a commentator points out below.)
It’s late, I’ll stop. But before I go, one more thing: I just don’t believe that’s the same person Before and After in that belly fat ad. Oh, and what was I reading again? Ah, never mind.