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An Apology To My RSS Readers – But I Had To Do It. (Updated)

By - February 22, 2013

Some random site running my last post without asking.

If you’re a fan of this site, you’re also probably a fan of RSS – a once-ascendant technology that has been on most everyone’s deathwatch for five or so years. According to Google’s (almost totally outdated) Feedburner service, nearly 450,000 people subscribe to this blog via RSS – although the number of you who actually read my posts is far smaller (according to Feedburner statistics, which I’ve never fully understood).

In any case, from time to time I’ve poked at you poor RSS readers, just to find out if you’re alive. Remember this piece – Is RSS Really Dead? Or this one - Once Again, RSS Is Dead. But ONLY YOU Can Save It!?

In those posts, I asked if my beloved RSS readers were really out there. Turns out, I got tons of comments back – a very high number given the work involved in declaring fealty to the creaky old standard. (It kind of felt like a reshoot of that wonderful final scene in Horton Hears a Who – “Everybody yell real loud, and maybe Google will hear, and not deprecate Feedburner…”  But I digress.)

I’ve always kept my RSS feed “full text” – which means the entire post, pictures, words and all, goes out over RSS, and can be picked up by any RSS reader anywhere on the planet. I always have held the belief that it’s more important that my work get distributed than monetized. But not everyone can afford such high minded principles. Many publishers cut their feed short, teasing folks with headlines and a snippet of the story in the hopes that people will click through to the site, where their visit can be properly “monetized” via advertising.

My new feed (sadface).

After much thought, I’m going to do the same. But not for the extra clicks and ads. It’s due to the fraud that’s taken over the content space in the Indpendent Web. Untold legions of bad actors use RSS to scrape “real” sites like this one, then wrap them with ads from exchanges to make a quick buck. The rise of programmatic fraud has made this even worse (see It’s Time To Call Out Fraud In The Adtech Ecosystem for more on this). And no, I’m not going to link to examples – but you can Google “Content Scraping” if you want to learn more.

So, consider this an apology. I am very sorry that you have to click a link to get to the content I make here every day. But also consider this a plea – as in, please do click that link at the top. I very much want you to be part of this conversation.

(And if enough of you complain, you know I’ll listen, and figure out some way around this).

 

UPDATE: I turned full feed back on. Thanks for all the input.

  • Content Marquee

The iWatch: What I Hope Apple Actually Does (But Probably Won’t)

By - February 21, 2013

(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.)

- Sensors and software that make the device the equivalent of the Fitbit or the Jawbone Up.

- 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?

That Guilty Pile of Outdated Technology

By - February 20, 2013

(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….

When It’s This Easy To Take Someone’s Money…

By - February 18, 2013

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.

Reporters Need to Understand Advertising. But Should They Be Making It?

By - February 17, 2013

(image) I know that when I do write here, I tend to go on, and on – and those of you who read me seem to be OK with that. But sometimes the best posts are short and clear.

That was my thought when I read Journalists Need Advertising 101 by Brian Morrissey, writing in Digiday last week. In fewer than 500 words, Morrissey issues a wake up call to those in journalism who believe in the old school notion of a Chinese wall between editorial and advertising:

What’s crazy is journalists seems almost proudly ignorant of the business of advertising. …it’s time journalists take a real interest in how advertising works. I’d go even further. It’s time they get involved in making it. Hope is not a strategy, as they say, and it’s better to deal with the world you live in rather than the world you wish you lived in.

Morrissey goes on to state that the banner ad – the staple of content-based business models for the past 20 years – is “going to zero,” and that the future of the business is in native, integrated content marketing. Journalists, he reasons, need to understand this and get with the program – which means helping to create the content for advertising.

Now, if you’re read me closely, you probably can imagine me nodding my head enthusiastically (though I think display is here to stay, in a renewed model). After all, I’m the one who wrote On Thneeds and the “Death of Display”  and The Evolution of Display: Change Is Here, For Good last year. I’ve been on about “native” for more than six years. The company I started in 2005 has been executing native programs since 2005. FMP has a “CM” practice that works with nearly half of the Fortune 100 doing content marketing and native advertising placements. Scores of our top publishers regularly make content for brands. And now that I think about it, it was a decade ago that I taught courses on the business of journalism to graduate students at Berkeley – because I believed that ignorance of business models spells doom for the fourth estate.

So I generally agree with Morrissey’s points – but with one possible caveat. I fully believe that great creators of content should be, well, creating great content on behalf of brands. The best filmmakers are also the best creators of 30-second spots, after all. But I wonder whether journalists – if defined as reporters who cover beats on a full time basis – should be making branded content if it conflicts with what they cover. A reporter’s contract with their audience is this: I will give you straight information about my beat, and I will not be unduly influenced by those I cover. It’s very hard make that promise if you are also being paid to make content for the brands you cover. Of course the truth is that anyone being covered by a reporter will try to influence them in any number of ways. But money complicates everything. The conflicts are deep – and it puts your audience’s trust at risk.

So should a reporter who covers, say, the auto industry full time, be creating marketing content for auto industry brands? I think we can debate this question. We used to live in a world of hard and fast, hierarchical rules. Now, we live in a world of communities who can and do attempt to understand each other. This is a good thing – a reporter can make his or her own decisions, explain them to an audience, and if the community accepts the result, all is well.

Whether or not you think it’s OK for reporters to create branded content about the industry they cover, I absolutely believe that reporters (and their editors, if they have them) certainly should be reviewing content created for that industry, and providing input on whether the content will resonate with the audiences and markets those reporters know best. And any media company that employs reporters should certainly have a content marketing function (if you don’t, why, give me a ring). Without input from publishers, branded content can fall flat, and fail to truly connect with an audience.

Branded content has to match its audience, and it must add value to the conversation. And most importantly, sponsor relationships must be clearly communicated. So how to do it? Branded content needs an understanding of the market, the talent to create content in that market and the ability to place its content in front of the market. If you want to be in a fast moving conversation, it’s damn hard to do all that without editors and reporters. As Morrissey points out, the flat-footed Scientology mess shows what happens when the Chinese wall between advertisers and publishers is overly imposed.

But let’s address the elephant in the room: should brands be asking reporters to make content for brands they directly cover? It’s debatable, but I’d argue it’s probably not a good idea.

Of course, this may be a question of degree. Is it OK for a reporter to write branded content if it’s not about the brand, but merely underwritten by the brand? That happens a lot already, to the point where it seems almost uncontroversial (although many “traditional” journalists decry the practice). What if the reporter writes content for a brand they don’t cover directly, but is in the industry they cover? Can auto industry reporters, for example, create content for other areas not on their specific beat, like say, for an auto insurance brand?  Is it only OK if they write whatever they wish to, editorially, but not alright if they are told what topics to cover?  I could go on for quite a while…

I’ve given a ton of thought to these issues, but it strikes me our industry hasn’t really codified a clear set of principles on the matter. And for content marketing to really thrive, we certainly should.

Perhaps a start to this conversation is the distinction between a reporter who covers a beat full time with a promise to an audience of unbiased point of view, and a strong voice in the industry who lives or dies based on their individual point of view, but isn’t a full time reporter working for someone else.  This has been a long standing point of contention since the rise of bloggers – what is a journalist, anyway? Is a blogger who regularly expresses a strong point of view on a particular industry a journalist?

Lord knows tons of folks have weighed in on this topic, but here’s my shorthand: I think everyone and anyone can be a journalist, especially bloggers. But not all journalists are reporters. There’s an important distinction here, and it’s one worth maintaining. I write a journal – this site. It has my opinion, my point of view, my voice and analysis, and every so often, a piece of reporting. But I am not a full time reporter. I believe readers are smart: They understand when someone (like me) is a voice in a particular industry. They also understand that someone with a passion who writes a site on food, or style, or entertainment, isn’t a beat reporter covering those issues full time, but rather a smart voice saying whatever they care to say, whenever they care to say it. If that person decides to take on sponsored work, that’s fine. If  the content they create is disclosed, of high quality, adds value to their community, and puts food on the table, everyone wins.

This is naunced stuff, and worth airing out. As content marketing becomes a standard in our industry, we need to open up this dialog and be willing to learn from each other. I look forward to the ongoing conversation.

The 2013 Summit Arrives: Bridging Data And Humanity

By - February 11, 2013

Some of the more than 25 speakers already joining us at the 2013 CM Summit.

Over on the brand spanking new CM Summit website, we’ve announced our initial speaker lineup and progam theme for the 2013 event – Parting the Clouds: Bridging Data and Humanity.

This is the seventh annual CM Summit, the fifth as an anchor conference for New York’s Internet Week. It’s a direct result of nearly a year of work on my book, and inspired by research into the programmatic, data-driven world of advertising technology as well as some very deep roots in brand building and digital media.

The speakers are an extraordinary bunch – and this is just the first group. There are many more to come. For any of you who have been to previous events I’ve curated, you know we really sweat the details – in particular the intellectual framework of the program itself.

More on the theme:

In a scant few years, data has become a critical driver of business decisions – and increasingly, a fundamental currency of all human endeavor. But to marketers and consumers alike, “data” is often a poorly defined term that can elicit confusion, anxiety, and even fear.

Our society has embarked on a historic conversation around the role of data in business, government, and our personal lives. In the seventh annual CM Summit, we’ll seek to define just what data really is, and how we might bridge the concept of data to not only marketing, but to a deeper understanding of culture and humanity.

We will create more than 3.6 zettabytes of data in 2013 – roughly 565 gigabytes per person on earth. And that rate is doubling every two years as we adopt ever faster and more innovative devices – in particular, mobile devices untethered to one “desktop” or even one “phone.” Ten years ago, the very idea that someone might map their “social graph,” tweet their “status,” or “check in” at a location was unthinkable. Now it’s commonplace. What might be common ten years from now, as we begin to monitor our health in real time, and place sensors in our homes, automobiles, clothes and wallets?

How do we get our arms around such abundance and complexity? And how can businesses position themselves to compete in such an environment? 2013 will mark the CM Summit’s most ambitious and far reaching program. Rooted in the firmament of digital marketing, the event will reach out to explore the human implications of data, algorithms, mobility, and technological progress. In the past ten years, the marketing industry has built one of the most intricate ecosystems imaginable, with real-time bidded exchanges and powerful layers of algorithmic logic, all driven by massive storehouses of data. And while this ecosystem began with the desktop web, it’s spread to encompass mobile, video, and even search. At the Summit, you’ll meet the people behind this world, as well as the agencies, marketers and brands who power it.

We’ll continue our tradition of rigorous, in depth interviews, practical case studies, and eye-opening “high order bits” that will challenge traditional thinking and provide context for doing business in a data-driven world.

We work hard to earn your time and money, and I hope you’ll consider supporting this, the only executive conference I’m doing this year. It’d mean the world to me. Register here. I hope to see you in New York!

An Embarrassment of Pitches

By - February 07, 2013

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.

It’s Time To Call Out Fraud In The Adtech Ecosystem

By - January 26, 2013

A confusing landscape = ripe opportunities for fraud.

As part of research I’m doing both for the book and for my upcoming conference (the CM Summit, more on that soon), I’ve been in pretty extensive conversations lately with dozens of key players in the advertising technology industry. I find the ecosystem that has developed  to be fascinating, complex, and ripe with opportunity (and deeply important to the future of our society, not just marketing). I’ll be writing about it quite a bit in coming months. But before I do, I wanted to call out a growing issue that our industry will have to tackle sooner rather than later.

Just as in the early, wild west days of search (1999-2004), the programmatic advertising business – a multi-billion dollar marketplace growing faster than search, video, or anything else for that matter – is riddled with fraud.

That’s what many very reputable sources have told me in great length over the past few months. It’s something of an open secret, and more and more people are speaking out against it. Here’s Federated Media’s Walter Knapp on the problem, back in March of last year:

The great thing about the Internet is that it is built on the foundation of openness — from the way the domain system works to the way content and publishing are increasingly democratic. The core technologies embrace openness, sharing, linking and the ability to consume content across devices and across wired or wireless connections. Unfortunately, the openness we depend on in the digital media business is also available to people who can (and will) take advantage of this openness and exploit it for their own selfish wants.

Knapp notes two forms of fraud – ad injectors, fraudulent browser plugins that take over ad calls; and the practice of inserting an entire site into a 1×1 pixel hidden on high traffic but low quality sites featuring porn or music lyrics. Both are examples I’ve heard about over and over in my reporting. A third involves “stacking” ads one behind the other, all playing video to completion, often playing in inactive tabs. A fourth features refreshing ad calls on accelerated schedules or in inactive tabs. Yet another involves running as many ads as possible out of view, simply to gain “view through attribution” on a closed loop success metric.

More people are starting to call these practices out. AppNexus CEO Brian O’Kelly prominently featured the issue of fraud in his blog post celebrating his company’s recent $75 million funding, and what he intends to use it for:

Quality We will continue to invest in cleaning up the advertising marketplace. We’re proud of our anti-piracy stance, and our 5x volume growth this year indicates that you don’t need to serve on BitTorrent sites to be an ad platform company. We are investing heavily in fighting fraud, porn, malvertising, and malicious toolbars, and we are actively working on viewability tools.

Programmatic industry watcher AdExchanger puts it this way:

AppNexus’s pledge to invest money in ad quality issues is worth calling out. The issue is becoming more pervasive as companies emerge to exploit the vulnerabilities of real-time traded inventory to data and impression fraud, malvertising, and other nefarious practices. Fraudulent activities aside, the emergence of robust ad verification and viewability tools means display ad marketplaces and buying platforms must keep a clean nose.

It’s true that many folks are working on addressing the issue, including the IAB. But the bad actors are currently far ahead of the good guys, and worse, many in our industry are turning a blind eye, hoping the problem goes away in time, without too much publicity. Why? Well, nearly everyone gets paid from fraud – the publishers, the exchanges, the data providers, and the agencies. Even the marketers,who are footing the bill, feel like they are getting value – because the success metrics they’ve set up are being  met.

But fraud hurts the ecosystem in a massive way. It means that low quality, invisible, or purely fraudulent inventory is holding down the average value of the entire marketplace – hurting high quality, engaged publishers in the process, stunting investment in quality content.

Over and over, I hear that the reason CPMs (the amount of money a marketer is willing to pay for one thousand advertising impresssions) are so low is because “there’s infinite inventory.”

Hogwash. There’s only so much time in the day, and only so many pages where actual human beings are really paying attention, and the web (including mobile) is growing at a finite pace. There are even fewer places where marketers can be assured of quality, engagement, and appropriate context. It’s time we focus on identifying them, and ridding ourselves of the true source of “infinite inventory” – fraud.

The 140 Character Video Is Six Seconds Long

By - January 24, 2013

Twitter announced its integration of Vine today, and to put not too fine a point on it, the service is, in essence, a way to create a video tweet. If a text tweet = 140 characters, then a video tweet = 6 seconds. More details over at TNW, but this announcement is quite consistent with my post earlier this week: Portrait of Twitter As A Young Media Company.

I’ve long pined for the time when video enters the grammar of our ongoing communication on the web. This is Twitter’s bid to frame how the medium might join the conversation. It’s not a new idea – I guess 12 Seconds was three years early and six seconds too long – but it’s an idea whose time may have come. I’ve seen the iOS app, and it’s very slick, allowing for seamless pauses and cuts. And man, is the example on Twitter’s blog (embedded here) cute. I could stare at it for a long time…well, no, wait, I did stare at it for a long time. I bet you are too. Video is very … engaging when done well.

Advertisers, sharpen your six second pencils. Here’s another native format for you to consider….

Portrait of Twitter As A Young Media Company

By - January 21, 2013

Last year I predicted that Twitter would become a media company. However, I focused mainly on the new “Discover” functionality, and I probably should have gone a lot further. In this piece, I intend to.

So I’ll start with this: 2013 will be the year Twitter starts to create, curate, and co-create media experiences on top of its platform. I hinted at this in my brief coverage of Twitter’s Oscar Index (see Twitter’s Makin’ Media), but allow me to put a bit more flesh on the bones.

So what might one make from the fact that your platform captures hundreds of millions of individuals declaring what’s going on at any give time? Well, let’s break down some of the signals in all that supposed noise. As I’ve written over and over and over in the past several years, Twitter presents a massive search problem/opportunity. For example, Twitter’s gotten better and better at what’s called “entity extraction” – identifying a person, place, or thing, then associating behaviors and attributes around that thing. This (among other reasons) is why its Discover feature keeps getting better and better. Another important signal is location – Twitter is increasingly focused on getting us to geolocate our tweets. A third signal is the actual person tweeting – his or her influence and interest graph. Yet another signal is time – when was the entity tweeted about?

Real time entity extraction crossed with signals like those described above is the Holy Grail – and I’m guessing Twitter is almost, if not already there.

Once you get good at all these things (and more), a number of really interesting possibilities open up. Identifying “big things” that are going on at any given time is something that Twitter already does – though not particularly well (the best window in is the “Trends” box on the left of the page). Regardless, Twitter has become a go-to service for quick updates about news events (Sandy, Newtown, etc), entertainment events (SuperBowl, Oscars, Grammys, etc), and well….pretty much any kind of event.

But so far, it’s not exactly easy to get the big picture of what’s really going on for any given event on Twitter. In fact, it’s rather difficult. You can search for a hashtag, or keywords you think are associated with an event, but no matter what, it’s extremely difficult to makes sense of it all. For a big event like Sandy Hook or the Oscars, there are literally millions of tweets to sift through. And those tweets have millions of pictures, links, and videos. How can you know what’s important?

This is exactly the problem that  media experiences are designed to solve. By combining intelligent algorithms (these tweets are retweeted more than others, this video is linked to more than all the others, etc) and some smart editors, Twitter can (and most likely will) surface instant windows into events as they unfold around the globe. I imagine logging into Twitter at some point in the future and seeing a dashboard not of Trends, but of “Happenings” – Events edited to my interest graph, location, and the like. When I click on on of those events, I enter a meticulously edited media experience – a pulsing, ever changing feast of information tailored around that event.

So, put in one sentance: Twitter’s going to do events soon.

What other media experiences might Twitter create? Well, extending the logic, it only makes sense that Twitter will curate media services, just as LinkedIn and now Facebook are starting to do (I argue that Graph Search is a media play here).

“Just Landed” – from 2009.

As Google has proven, words have a lot of power on the web. They have even more power when put in context at scale. Consider what happened when a data artist asked a simple question: Where are people when then tweet that they “just landed”?

Now, imagine Twitter stands up a service that allows you to see patterns around phrases like “looking for someone to…,” or “just got a job,” or “python developer,” etc. Yep, lurking inside all that Twitter data is a pretty powerful job service. And I’m only using jobs as a straw man (and because it’s a driving force of LinkedIn’s success, of course). When you have humanity whispering into your ear at scale, you can tune in any number of valuable signals. Getting a job is one important signal. But so is getting married, buying a house or a car, graduating, and, and and….well you get the picture. Standing up “media services” around these life milestones is what media companies do. They used to be called magazines. What might Twitter call them? In 2013, we’ll most likely find out.

So far I’ve proposed two new media features of Twitter: Events and Media Services. I’ll round out this post with a prediction around a third: Video. Video is a vastly under-leveraged asset on Twitter, but people are sharing millions of links to video clips every day on the service. I imagine that Twitter will soon offer some kind of video curation feature – giving its base the ability to find the most popular videos based on pivot points of time, interest, and people. Surfacing and creating more video on the Twitter service has got to be a major priority at the company. And let’s not forget that Twitter bought Vine, after all…

After all, everybody loves video. In particular, advertisers love video. After all, Twitter is already working with Neilsen to become the official barometer of television conversations.

Which brings me to the “stick the landing” portion of this particular round up. Twitter is going to make much more media this year, because Twitter is going to make much more money this year. Each of the features I described above – Events, Media Services, and Video – bring with them inherent business models. I don’t expect they’ll look like traditional display models, of course, but I would not be surprised if they strayed a bit from Twitter’s current Promoted Suite products. With new media products come new advertising products. And new revenue.

Time will tell if I got this one right. Meanwhile, what do you think?