Posts about advertising

The Flight to Quality is on the Runway

Sometimes, things need to get bad before they can get good. Such is the case, I fear, with content, conversation, and advertising on the net. But I see signs of progress.

First let’s be clear: No one — not platforms, not ad agencies and networks, not brands, not media companies, not government, not users — can stand back and say that disinformation, hate, and incivility are someone else’s problem to solve. We all bear responsibility. We all must help by bringing pressure and demanding quality; by collaborating to define what quality is; by fixing systems that enable manipulation and exploitation; and by contributing whatever resources we have (ad dollars to links to reporting bad actors).

Last May, I wrote about fueling a flight to quality. Coming up on a year later, here’s what I see happening:

Platforms:

  • Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey recently posted a thread acknowledging his company’s responsiblity to the health and civility of the public conversation and asking for help in a bunch of very knotty issues balancing openness with civility, free speech with identifying and stopping harassment and disinformation. It is an important step.
  • Facebook made what I now come to understand was an unintended but critical mistake at the start of News Feed when it threw all “public content” into one big tub with few means for identifying differences in quality. Like Twitter and like the net culture itself, Facebook valued openness and equality. But when some of that content — especially Russian disinformation and manipulation campaigns — got them in trouble, they threw out the entire tub of bathwater. Now they’re trying to bring some of the better babies back by defining and promoting quality news. This, too, involves many difficult questions about the definitions of quality and diversity. But when it is done, I hope that good content can stand out.
  • In that post last May, I wrote about how Google Search would thenceforth account for the reliability, authority, and quality of sources in ranking. Bravo. I believe we will see that as a critical moment in the development of the net. But as we see in the news about Logan Paul and Alex Jones on YouTube, there is still work to be done on the ad side of the company. A system that enables platforms to give audience and major brands to give financial support to the likes of Jones is broken. Can we start there?

Advertising:

  • Through the News Integrity Initiative,* we helped start an effort called Open Brand Safety to identify the worst, low-hanging, rotten fruit of disinformation sites to help advertisers shun them. It’s still just a bare beginning. But through it, we have seen that not-insignificant amounts of ad dollars still go to known crap sites.
  • That is why I’ve joined an effort to organize a meeting later this month, bringing together the many organizations trying to identify signals of quality v. crap with representatives from platforms, ad networks, ad agencies, brands, NGOs, and others. I do not believe the solution is one-size-fits-all black lists and white lists, for it is impossible to define trust and quality for everyone — Gerber and Red Bull have different standards for advertising, as they should. What I’ve been arguing for is a network made up of all these constituencies to share signals of quality or a lack of it so each company can use that information to inform decisions about ranking, promotion, ad buys, and so on. I’ll report more when this happens.

I’ve spoken with the people in these companies and I believe their sincerity in trying to tackle this problem. I also see the complexity of the issues involved. We all want to preserve the openness of our internet but we also have to acknowledge that that openness makes the net vulnerable to manipulation by bad actors. So, to start, we need to recognize, reveal, and counteract that manipulation while also identifying and supporting good content.

It is because I believe in the need for openness that I will continue to argue that the the internet is not a medium and the platforms are not publishers. When the net is viewed as a next-generation medium like a newspaper or TV network, that brings perilous presumptions — namely that the net should be edited and packaged like a media property. I don’t want that. I treasure the openness and freedom that allow me to blog and say whatever I want and to find and hear voices I never was able to hear through the eye of media’s needle.

I also think it’s important to recognize that scale is a double-edged sword: It is the scale of the net and the platforms that enables anyone anywhere to speak to anyone else without need of capital, technical expertise, or permission. But it is also scale that makes the problems being addressed here so difficult to attack. No, the platforms should not — I do not want them to — pass judgment on everything that is posted on the net through them. I do not want the platforms to be my or your editor, to act like media or to build a Chinese internet.

But the platforms — and media companies like them — can no longer sit back and argue that they are just mirrors to society. Society warped and cracked itself to exploit their weaknesses. Facebook is not blameless in enabling Russian disinformation campaigns; YouTube is not blameless in creating a mechanism that allows and pays for Alex Jones to spew his bile; Twitter is not blameless in helping to foster incivility. Add to that: news organizations are not blameless in helping to spread disinformation and give it attention, and in fueling polarization and incivility. The ad industry is not blameless in helping to support the manipulators, spammers, trolls, and haters. Law enforcement is not blameless when it does not alert platforms and media companies to intelligence about bad actors. And you — yes, you and I — are not blameless when we share, click on, laugh at, encourage, and fail to report the kind of behavior that threatens our net.

Every effort I mention here is just a beginning. Every one of them is entangled with knotty questions. We need to help each other tackle this problem and protect our net. We need to discuss our mutual, moral responsibility to society and to an informed, civil, and productive public conversation.

There is much more to be done: Journalists and news organizations need to help the platforms define quality (wisely but generously to continue to encourage new and diverse voices). Journalists should also get smarter about not being exploited by manipulators. And news organizations need to do much more to build bridges between communities in conflict to foster understanding and empathy. The platforms, researchers, law enforcement, and NGOs should share alerts about manipulation they see to cut the bad guys off at the pass. Ad networks and platforms have to make it possible for advertisers to support the quality not the crap (and not claim ignorance of where their dollars go). Consumers — now banded together by campaigns like Sleeping Giants and Grab Your Wallet — need to continue to put pressure on platforms, brands, agencies, and networks and thereby give them cover so they are empowered to do what’s right.

Above all, let’s please remember that the internet is not ruined just because there are a few assholes on it. This, too, is why I insist on not seeing the net as a medium. It is Times Square. On Times Square, you can find pickpockets and bad Elmos and idiots, to be sure. But you also find many more nice tourists from Missoula and Mexico City and New Yorkers trying to dodge them on their way to work. Let’s bring some perspective to the media narrative about the net today. Please go take a look at your Facebook or Twitter or Instagram feeds or any Google search. I bet you will not find them infested with nazis and Russians and trolls, oh, my. I  bet you will still find, on the whole, decent people like you and me. I fear that if we get carried away by moral panic we will end up not with a bustling Times Square of an internet but with China or Singapore or Iran as the model for a controlled digital future.

The net is good. We can and should make it better. We must protect it. That’s what these efforts are about.

*Disclosure: NII is funded by Facebook, Craig Newmark, the Ford Foundation, AppNexus, and others.

Quality over crap

We keep looking at the problems of fake news and crap content — and the advertising that feeds them — through the wrong end of the periscope, staring down into the depths in search of sludge when we could be looking up, gathering quality.

There is a big business opportunity to be had right now in setting definitions and standards for and creating premium networks of quality.

In the last week, the Guardian, ad agency Havas, the UK government, the BBC, and now AT&T pulled their advertising from Google and YouTube, complaining about placement next to garbage: racist, terrorist, fake, and otherwise “inappropriate” and “offensive” content. Google was summoned to meet UK ministers under the threat they’ll exercise their European regulatory reflex.

Google responded quickly, promising to raise its standards regarding “hateful, offensive and derogatory content” and giving advertisers greater control over excluding specific sites.

Well, good. But this seems like a classic case of boiling the (polluted) ocean: taking the entire inventory of ad availabilities and trying to eliminate the bad ones. We’re doing the same thing with fake news: taking the entire corpus of content online and trying to warn people away from the crap.

So now turn this around.

The better, easier opportunity is to create premium networks built on quality: Not “we’ll put your ad anywhere except in that sewer we stumbled over” but instead “we found good sites we guarantee you’ll be proud to advertise on.”

Of course, this is how advertising used to work. Media brands produced quality products and sold ads there. Media departments at ad agencies chose where to put clients’ ads based on a number of factors — reach, demographic target, cost, and quality environment.

The net ruined this lovely, closed system by replacing media scarcity with online abundance. Google made it better — or worse, depending on your end of the periscope — by charging on performance and thus sharing risk with the advertisers and establishing the new metric for value: the click. AppNexus and other programmatic networks made it yet better/worse by creating huge and highly competitive marketplaces for advertising inventory, married with data about individual users, which commoditized media adjacency. Thus the advertiser wants to sell boots to you because you once looked at boots on Amazon and it doesn’t much matter where those boots follow you — even to shite like Breitbart…until Sleeping Giants comes along and shames the brand for being there.

So why not sell quality? Could happen. There are just a few matters standing in the way:

First, advertisers need to value quality. There has been much attention paid to assuring marketers that their ads are visible to the user and that they are clicked on by a human, not a bot. But what about the quality of the environment and its impact on the brand? In our recent research at CUNY’s Tow-Knight Center, we found that brands rub off both ways: users judge both media and brands by the company they keep. This is why it is to the Guardian’s benefit to take a stand against crappy ad adjacencies with Google — because The Guardian sells quality. But will advertisers buy quality?

Second, there’s the question of who defines and determines quality. Over the years, I have seen no end of attempts to automate the answer to this question, whether by determining trust in news or quality in media. Impossible. There is no God signal of trust or virtue. The decision in the end is a human one and human decisions cost money. Besides, there is no one-size-fits-all definition and measurement of quality; that should vary by media brand and advertiser and audience. Still, the responsibility for determining quality has to fall somewhere and this is a hot potato nobody — brands, agencies, networks, platforms — wants because it is an expensive task.

Third, there’s the matter of price. Media companies, ad agencies, and ad networks will need to convince advertisers of the value of quality and the wisdom of paying for it, returning to an ad market built on a new scarcity. With fewer avails in a quality market — plus the cost of monitoring and assuring quality — the price will rise. Will advertisers give a damn if they can still sell stuff on shitty but cheap sites? Will the cost of being humiliated for appearing on Breitbart be worth the premium of avoiding that? On the other hand, will the cost of being boycotted by Breitbart when the advertiser pulls ads there be worth the price? This is a business decision.

I always tell my entrepreneurial students that when they see a problem, they should look for the solution, as an engineer would, or the opportunity, as an entrepreneur would. There are many opportunities here: to create premium networks of quality and trustworthy news and content; to create mechanisms to judge and stand by quality; to audit quality … and, yes, to create quality.

Our opportunity is not so much to kill bad content and bad advertising placements and to teach people to avoid all that bad stuff but to return to the reason we all got into these businesses: to make good stuff.

Native advertising: Another false messiah?

I’ve been waiting for this: the leak in the native advertising balloon.

Tablets were going to save the news business. Not so much. Paywalls were our salvation, damnit. Nope. Native advertising is our future. Think again.

Digiday reports on the latest problem with the native advertising strategy:

Digital ad sales intelligence platform MediaRadar said the average renewal rate for sponsor content this year is 21 percent. Meanwhile, native ad tech company Polar recently described renewal rates as “weak,” with 40 percent of the publishers it surveyed showing renewal rates below 50 percent.

Native advertising isn’t going to cure all our problems because:

1. The ROI is debatable. Says Digiday: “Behind the low renewal rates is the fact that advertisers are uncertain about the return they’re getting on native advertising.” This has been my worst fear. We give the advertisers what our standards and ethics forever forbade — confusing our readers about the source of content — and then the advertisers wake up and say, ‘Well, that was fun. But we’re bored with that. What can you sell us next?’ Except with badly done native advertising, we’ve already sold our brands, our souls, our seed corn. We have nothing left. Jack, you gave away our only means of support for what? Magic beans?

I have long wondered whether native advertising would do what advertising is supposed to do: drive sales. What is the efficacy of replacing five-word banners with 500-word stories? Perhaps we are beginning to find out.

2. Competition is rushing in. Digiday: “Three years ago, there were about 15 companies helping brands produce sponsored content, according to MediaRadar CEO Todd Krizelman. Today, there are more than 600, and the number is growing.” I have long said that in media need to compete with creative agencies but we can’t imagine that they won’t fight back. Content is a commodity. Anybody can make it. That is the key lesson of the internet for media. So we surely couldn’t believe we’d hold onto the business of “telling brand’s stories” for long.

3. It’s expensive. It takes a lot of resources to make content for finicky advertisers.

4. It’s no longer enough to write a “brand’s story” and put in in our editorial space (barely camouflaging it as an ad). Media’s audience is insufficient. So media has to spend money (a) placing ads elsewhere to drive traffic to our native ads, (b) placing the native ads we make at other media sites, and (c) trying to buy social traffic. That, too, is expensive.

So what is the profit margin on native advertising after we are left marketing our services to replace the clients who churn out, after spending a fortune on making native advertising, and after spending another fortune advertising the advertising? Native ad distributor Polar says it’s a high-margin business still and that’s good. But where do those trend-lines fall given the news above?

This is the moment where you say, “Goddamnit, Jarvis, you shoot down tablets, paywalls, and native advertising, not to mention programmatic advertising (because it commodifies media) so what do you expect us to do?”

Mind you, I am not against doing native advertising well. See Quartz, for example. I am in favor of media companies competing with ad agencies for both creative and media business. What I object to is the idea that this could have been our sole salvation, any more than our earlier magic beans, without embarking on the much harder work of reinventing ourselves.

Our only salvation will be to question *everything* about our mass-media business models as we enter a new reality, starting with the value of reach in an age of abundance and endless competition. Yes, reach matters but only if we have something of value to convert all those folks to. We have to shift from reach to relevance, volume to value. We have to rethink the essence of what news and media are. That’s why I wrote this: to begin questioning and exploring.

That’s also what I said to our incoming students at CUNY’s J-school last week. At the end of our week together, the students listened to voters about their needs in this election and their proposed solutions didn’t look like content-based mass media at all. They’re all journalists but they are learning to question their assumptions. We need to do the same with business people and reinvent what they do. Instead, we’re grabbing the deck chairs on the Titanic hoping they will act as flotation devices.

* * *

Content.ly — a reputable native advertising company (with whom we are doing at study at CUNY) just released some further data on media’s behavior. 68% of publishers have editorial staff make native advertising. Nooooo! 45% think the biggest threat to native advertising is the lack of separation between church and state. Jeesh.

Advertising sucks. Let us listicle the ways.

From my Observer column (read the whole thing here):

Advertising sucks, let us listicle the ways:

1. Advertising is almost always irrelevant.

2. Advertising is oppressively repetitive. That is only worse now that so-called retargeting advertising will note when you look at a pair of pants online so those pants can stalk you across the web for months.

3. Even with all its newfound data and artificial intelligence, advertising is still stupid. It doesn’t know that you already bought those damned pants and keeps selling them to you.

4. Advertising interrupts—first radio, then TV, and now our Facebook streams.

5. Advertising is intrusive of privacy. I will argue that the humble cookie has been unjustly demonized by the Wall Street Journal, for cookies do useful things like reducing the frequency with which ads are served to you (see complaint No. 2). Still it’s true that the advertising, media, and technology industries gather much data without giving their users any control or transparency into the reasons and consequences.

6. Advertising is irritating. It always has been. Go to anyone over the age of 50 and whine, “More Parks Sausages, Mom,” then watch them cringe.

7. Advertising is tacky, a glaring, blaring blight on the visual and auditory landscape. On most sites, there is just too much of it.

8. Advertising in inefficient. The only advance on the net is that marketers now have a better chance of determining which half of their dollars is wasted.

9. Advertising lies.

So how do we fix it? Not with native advertising. That is just another lie, designed to make us think an ad is not an ad. But we’re not as stupid as advertisers—and media companies—take us to be. As online metrics company Chartbeat has learned, users engage with a web page—that is, they scroll through it—71 percent of the time when the page contains real content but only 24 percent of the time when it carries so-called native advertising. And that leads me to one more complaint to fill out this listicle:

10. Advertising is an insult to our intelligence.

The column is devoted to fixing this.

Geeks Bearing Gifts: Advertising, the Myth of Mass Media, and the Relationship Strategy

OK, folks, now we are at the nut of Geeks Bearing Gifts: Imagining New Futures for News. This is where I begin exploring how the relationship strategy I advocate can bring business benefit to the news industry. Here’s the entire chapter, free on Medium. Here’s the start:

Screenshot 2015-03-15 at 8.19.14 PM

The myth of mass media, lovely while it lasted, was this: All readers see all ads, so we charge all advertisers for all readers. The unbundling of mass media and the rise of endless competition punctures that myth and robs legacy companies of the pricing power — and monopolies — they had so enjoyed. Today, I believe we need to shift to a business built on the relationship strategy I began outlining in the first part of this essay. There, I argued that knowing people as individuals and communities — no longer as a mass — will allow us to build better services, and that, in turn, pushes us to develop new forms of news. Now I will look at how that relationship strategy can form the foundation of a stronger advertising business for news and media.

To start, if we provide our users with better relevance and value, that surely will build greater engagement, loyalty, usage, and attention, and that in turn will create more ad inventory to sell (though, granted, hardly any media company sells all the inventory it has today anyway). More important, the relationship strategy gives us the opportunity to increase the value of what we sell to advertisers. By knowing more about who our users are, we can sell and deliver more targeted advertising that is more relevant to their customers and thus more effective. Rather than serving only one-size-fits-all “impressions” to anonymous “eyeballs” by the thousands as advertisers and media companies do now, we can offer more productive measures of value like attention, engagement, action, impact, and even sales. We can serve specific groups of users to advertisers who value them highly. With privacy properly protected, we have the opportunity to become a trusted broker of data we gather about our users. And if we get good at the relationship business, we have a brief window of opportunity to teach and sell these skills to advertisers as a service — presuming they don’t wake up and learn them before we do. We also have the opportunity to move past selling advertising to selling products and services directly to users, venturing into commerce — which really is just a truncated form of marketing and advertising. The relationship strategy is one defense against the commodification of media’s old content business by new competitors and new technologies.

Read the rest here.

If you can’t wait for the rest of the book, then you can buy it here.