Marketers – especially brand marketers: Too many of you have lost the script regarding the critical role you play in society. And while well-intentioned TV spots about “getting through this together” are nice, they aren’t a structural solution. It’s time to rethink the relationship between marketers, media companies (not “content creators,” ick), and the audience.
If you’ve read Shoshana Zuboff’s Surveillance Capitalism, you likely agree that the most important asset for a data-driven advertising platform is consumer engagement. That engagement throws off data, that data drives prediction models, those models inform algorithms, those algorithms drive advertising engines, and those engines drive revenue, which drives profit. And profit, of course, drives stock price, the highest and holiest metric of our capitalistic economy.
So when an upstart company exhibits exponential growth in consumer engagement – say, oh, 3,000-percent growth in a matter of two months – well, that’s going to get the attention of the world’s leading purveyors of surveillance capitalism.
As the coronavirus crisis built to pandemic levels in early March, a relatively unknown tech company confronted a defining opportunity. Zoom Video Communications, a fast-growing enterprise videoconferencing platform with roots in both Silicon Valley and China, had already seen its market cap grow from under $10 billion to nearly double that. As the coronavirus began dominating news reports in the western press, Zoom announced its first full fiscal year results as a public company. The company logged $622.7 million in revenue, up 88 percent from the year before. Zoom’s high growth rate and “software as a service” business model guaranteed fantastic future profits, and investors rewarded the company by driving its stock up even further. On March 5th, the day after Zoom announced its earnings, the company’s stock jumped to $125, more than double its price on the day of its public offering eleven months before. Market analysts began issuing bullish guidance, and company executives noted that as the coronavirus spread, more and more customers were flocking to Zoom’s easy-to-use video conferencing platform.
But as anyone paying attention to business news for the past month knows, it’s been a tumultuous ride for Zoom ever since. As the virus forced the world inside, demand for Zoom’s services skyrocketed, and the company became a household name nearly overnight. Zoom’s “freemium” model – which offers a basic version of its platform for free, with more robust features available for a modest monthly subscription fee – allowed tens of millions of new users to sample the company’s wares. Initially, Zoom was a hit with this new user base – stories of Zoom seders, Zoom cocktail parties, and even Zoom weddings gave the company a consumer-friendly vibe. Just like Google or Facebook before it, here was the story of a scrappy Valley startup with just the right product at just the right time. According to the company, Zoom’s monthly users leapt from 10 million to more than 200 million – an unimaginable increase of 2,000 percent in just one month.
Google’s (and now Alphabet’s) CEO opines in the FT (sub required) on why AI needs to be regulated, joining the chorus of tech leaders who have taken the apparent high road when it comes to regulation, even as governments around the world have shown next to no ability to actually regulate anything (well, I guess the Chinese have certainly regulated tech…in a not so great way). Astute readers will note that an op-ed in a paywalled publication, on a holiday no less, is not exactly placed to go viral. However, look a bit deeper, and you’ll realize that the Financial Times is very well read by Wall St., number one, and number two, it ain’t a holiday in Europe, where the most powerful people on the planet are gathering for Davos this week. Indeed.
While most of the op-ed is pretty weak sauce, a predictable call for governments to “work together” to “harness this technology for good,” I found this quote the most interesting: “Companies such as ours cannot just build promising new technology and let market forces decide how it will be used.” I wish Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple had that point of view before they built the AI-driven system we now all live with known as surveillance capitalism.
If predictions are like baseball, I’m bound to have a bad year in 2019, given how well things went the last time around. And given how my own interests, work life, and physical location have changed of late, I’m not entirely sure what might spring from this particular session at the keyboard.
But as I’ve noted in previous versions of this post (all 15 of them are linked at the bottom), I do these predictions in something of a fugue state – I don’t prepare in advance. I just sit down, stare at a blank page, and start to write.
At dinner last night with my wife and our 14 year-old daughter, I noticed a circular table of four teenage girls eating alone. They were about the same age as my daughter, who wasn’t exactly thrilled to be stuck with her parents as company on her first weekend of the school year. As we ate, I paid attention to the group’s dynamics, imagining them to be a possible reflection of what my daughter would be doing once she started going out alone with friends in New York City.
The most striking characteristic of the group was how they used their phones. The default position for each of them – their resting state, if you will – was to hold their device at chin level while gazing into the blue grip of its screen. They looked away only to point out something happening on that screen – at no time during an hour or so of observation did any of them put their phones down to simply talk to one another.
“We weren’t expecting any of this when we created Twitter over 12 years ago, and we acknowledge the real world negative consequences of what happened and we take the full responsibility to fix it.”
That’s the most important line from Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s testimony yesterday – and in many ways it’s also the most frustrating. But I agree with Ben Thompson, who this morning points out (sub required) that Dorsey’s philosophy on how to “fix it” was strikingly different from that of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg (or Google, which failed to send a C-level executive to the hearings). To quote Dorsey (emphasis mine): “Today we’re committing to the people and this committee to do that work and do it openly. We’re here to contribute to a healthy public square, not compete to have the only one. We know that’s the only way our business thrives and helps us all defend against these new threats.”
(image) Today I had a chance to testify to the US Senate on the subject of Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, and data privacy. It was an honor, and a bit scary, but overall an experience I’ll never forget. Below is the written testimony I delivered to the Commerce committee on Sunday, released on its site today. If you’d like to watch, head right here, I think it’ll be up soon. Forgive the way the links work, I had to consider that this would be printed and bound in the Congressional Record. I might post a shorter version that I read in as my verbal remarks next…we’ll see.