What To Do About the ‘Privacy Paradox’ Now that CCPA Has Launched

The following is my debut column for The Drum (US), newly-edited by my old Dentsu Aegis Network colleague Ken Hein in the U.S. On the occasion of the enforcement of CCPA and Apple’s IDFA bombshell (see below), I thought I’d dwell a bit on the strange way we humans try to make decisions about online privacy.

It’s already been a long, hot summer for advertisers. In addition to everything else, the CCPA was unleashed on a bewildered public. Plus, Apple announced a major change to its Identifier for Advertisers (IDFA), forcing users to opt-in to ad tracking in apps starting this fall and raising the specter of a flurry of GDPR-like consent screens tripping gamers on their way into Animal Crossing.

At the heart of this orgy of opt-ins lies a dark secret: people are not good at making decisions about privacy trade-offs. We just aren’t. Why? Because of a strange phenomenon called the ‘privacy paradox’.

What exactly is the privacy paradox?

Here’s the pickle: when we’re asked if we value our personal data, almost all of us say ’yes’. Yet our behaviors show otherwise. For example, in 2018, Facebook confronted a flush of bad PR after a public data scandal, yet its revenue grew 30%. We regularly surrender intimate information to platforms such as Google (searches), Facebook (party photos), Amazon (purchases), Stitch Fix (waist sizes) and so on, all without a squeak.

There is ample evidence that we appreciate relevant content: Amazon and Netflix both built a business on trenchant recommendations. After GDPR appeared in Europe, the cost of advertising to consumers who had opted in to targeting actually rose. And anecdotal evidence suggests that prices for comparable ads are about 50-60% lower on Apple’s Safari (which blocks most user-level targeting) than on Google’s Chrome browser (which does not, for now).

What’s a marketer to do? It turns out, there are a lot of theories about the privacy paradox – including one that it doesn’t exist. A detailed overview of the academic literature found 35 explanations packed into 32 studies. These and other briefs can help to point the way.

How do you solve the paradox?

Imagine the following: you arrive on a website or download an app and a pop-up appears saying something like, ’We’d like to track you so we can make your experience better – yes or no?’ In that moment, you haven’t experienced anything; you just got there. You can’t value a ’good experience’ because you haven’t had any experience yet.

So the trouble with ’rational choice theory,’ as it’s called, is that we’re usually forced to make decisions without enough information. Our ability to do continual ’privacy calculus’ is constrained. Common biases that plague privacy decisions include time constraints, lack of information or interest, immediate gratification and a tendency to think we’re ’giving up’ more data than we are.

Four tactics to try

Marketers and advertisers are going to have to master the art of gaining consumer trust. How? Some general guidelines from the research include:

1. Don’t talk about people behind their backs

It turns out that we don’t like this behavior online any more than we do at work or school. Our attitudes toward information sharing depend both on the type of information and the way it’s shared, what social scientist call the ’information flows’.

One study found we are much more comfortable with open, direct so-called ’first-person sharing’ than we are with covert ’third-party sharing’. The latter, when disclosed, actually drove down purchase interest by 24%. Conversely, using ’overt data collection’ can restore interest and rebuild trust.

Bottom line: tell people directly how you are gathering their data.

2. Give a sense of control

Like Janet Jackson, we really want ’control’. An alarming 81% of respondents to a Pew Research survey confessed they felt they had almost ’no control’ over companies collecting their data. This feeling is rife in the US. When consumers in the US and the EU were asked if they would opt out of data collection in future, US consumers were 1.5 times more likely to say ‘yes’.

Why? One likely explanation is that, for all its fits and starts, GDPR provides a sense of control. In America, our hodgepodge of legislation and tools does not. People have been shown to share data much more willingly when they believe they can control what they share, even if that control is an illusion.

Bottom line: make customers believe they control the data.

3. Explain the benefits in concrete, positive terms

It’s up to the marketer to describe the privacy value exchange as concretely and positively as they can. The insight here is that concrete benefits might often dominate abstract risks – and that privacy ’threats’ are usually abstract. But stay positive and benefit-focused, since there’s evidence that mentioning risks makes people nervous.

The idea is to give the consumer a sense of the awesomeness of your personalized experience, either in words or pictures. In one study, for example, an ad for a rental company using a person’s physical location performed better when it was explained that location data was used specifically to mention services not available elsewhere.

Bottom line: paint a happy picture of tangible benefits for sharing data.

4. Remember, people are different

It is often assumed that attitudes to online privacy and ad targeting are demographically determined. Millennials and Gen Z are the cultural paranoids, while Boomers and Gen X are more relaxed. It turns out these attitudes are more a function of our personalities than our demos: they’re a state of mind.

A few years ago, the Advertising Research Foundation released a report on ’ad receptivity’ that concluded that the anti-ad crowd were more likely to be ’suspicious’ and ’headstrong’. And a different study, published earlier this year, identified about one-third of the online population as ’privacy actives,’ more informed and aware. Rather than retreating from data sharing, these ’actives’ were two time more likely to share their purchase history in exchange for better recommendations.

So, the privacy conversation will be different with different groups, and these groups are likely not segmented by age, gender or income. The ’actives’ just need more information, and the more the better. The ’rejecters’ need their suspicions allayed. It’s up to the marketer to figure out which psychographic segment each consumer inhabits.

Bottom line: throw your customer insights and data science teams at the problem.

And remember, you can always try something new. Ask people to share data after you’ve given them something of value. Be explicit. Ask them how they feel. Give them the remote. The human rules still apply: trust is something that is earned, not just given.

Google Experiments Hint at Cookie-Free Future

The following column first appeared in the mighty AdExchanger on June 16, 2020.

In late April, Google announced in-market tests for some of the proposals in its Privacy Sandbox, where the cookie-free web is being born. In a Github post about the tests, Google’s “RTB team” said it wanted to poke at the “viability of … proposals via small-scale real-world experiments conducted by exchanges and bidders.”

Still sketchy and short, the Sandbox proposals are debated in forums such as the W3C’s Privacy and Web Incubator Communities and its Improving Web Advertising Business Group. So far, these forums are dominated by highly credentialed, privacy-focused software engineers and not advertising boosters.

That’s why Google’s experiments are so important. They represent a tangible Phase 2 in the rapidly moving rollout of the post-cookie web. And the specific proposals in question point the way toward what that web may actually look like in 2022, when the last holdout – Google’s Chrome browser – finally empties the cookie jar.

In a phrase: It will be very different.

Shepherd of the FLoC

Among four Sandbox proposals singled out for testing, two are most relevant for ad buyers: “Federated Learning of Cohorts” (FLoC) and the colorfully named “Two Uncorrelated Requests, Then Locally-Executed Decision On Victory” (TURTLEDOVE). Both were proposed by Google engineers.

Federated learning is a technique that lets a bunch of different nodes – such as browsers or smartphones – build machine-learning models and upload parameters to a master model without sharing user-level data. In one application, Google used it to train smartphones to predict text messages – you know, the guess-the-next-word feature – while keeping individual texts on the phone.

In the FLoC version, each browser captures data on its users’ behavior: websites she visited, the content of those websites and her actions. That data is used to build a model whose parameters are shared with a master model on a trusted server. In this way, each browser can be put into a cluster (or “flock”) based on its user’s browsing behavior.

Flocks have random labels such as “43A7.” To use them for targeting, an advertiser would have to discover which flocks contain target customers and which do not. Armed with such info, the advertiser could bid appropriately on RTB exchanges when an impression with a particular flock label appears.

Some obvious questions: How many flocks will there be? And how do we decode the labels?

“How many?” is a statistical question with no easy answer. Given the scale of the web, many thousands are feasible without threatening anyone’s privacy. What the flocks mean is more ambiguous. In machine-learning terms, each flock is a cluster, so its definition is opaque. Flock labels could be semi-public information, similar to mobile IDs, shared with the websites we visit. Sites with a large number of visitors could analyze the behavior of individual flocks – perhaps using Google Analytics – and start to see patterns.

In a simple scenario, a retailer might notice high-end suit buyers tend toward flock “22H8,” while sale-priced sweat-suiters lean to “17C9.” If the correlation is strong, bidding strategies could be developed and campaigns be – ahem – tailored to either flock, or both, as the label is exposed in the bid stream.

As the author points out, there’s a challenge with sensitive data and what labels consumers will accept. And companies, publishers and ecosystems with more traffic will see more flocks and behaviors. The data-rich will get richer. It is easy to imagine a thriving market around identifying what flock labels mean. Those that point to, say, insurance buyers or swing voters could be very valuable to certain parties. Existing data management platforms could become a kind of phone book for FLoCs.

Flying with the TURTLEDOVE

Assuming some version of FLoCs passes into production, flock-level bidding might not be all that much different from audience buying today. After all, no advertiser runs a different campaign for each person; we always deal with aggregates. The biggest difference between 2022 and today is the end of user-level targeting.

Unfortunately, advertisers have come to rely heavily on user-level targeting for results. Those techniques hardest-hit by the end of the cookie will be difficult to replace:

  • Retargeting
  • Frequency capping
  • Exclusion
  • User-level attribution

TURTLEDOVE is an ingenious attempt to enable some form of retargeting and shows how the browser could subsume ad tech. Its main moves are to separate data about behavioral intent (what the user wants) and context (where the user is now); and to run the ad auction inside the browser itself.

As with FLoC, the browser is the sentinel and lockbox, watching what the user does and storing observations locally. Say a user visits Widgets.com. The browser will label that user in a Widgets “interest group,” based on her behaviors and will store that label; it can also pull information from the brand (Widgets Inc.), such as bids, bidding logic, ads.txt sellers and ad units – in short, everything needed to run a campaign.

Later, when that same browser appears on Pub.com (or an ad network), then Pub.com will send contextual data to the browser, which will run an auction and declare a winner. By separating the “interest group” from the context, neither the advertiser nor the publisher learns anything much about the person seeing the ad. At least, that’s the idea.

Challenges abound. For example, interest groups aren’t updated in real time (there’s a time lag, for privacy), so retargeting is less timely. Brand safety is difficult to enforce. Complex auctions and logic may be a burden. There will certainly be fewer “interest groups” than there are retargeting options today. How many is enough?

Answering these and other questions is the purpose of the experiment phase.

Two conclusions and a question

Where does this leave us in our attempt to foresee the web of 2022? Some conclusions are clearer than others, at this early stage:

  • Personas: The future is aggregate, not individual. Tactics such as retargeting will have to be designed for larger cohorts, not at an item level. These cohorts will need detailed models of behavior and actual lifetime values. Bids will be based on better models of expected value.
  • Customer data: Lacking third-party data, advertisers need another way to build personas. The answer – as everyone is telling you – is first-party data. Most advertisers are going to need more of it, collected with consent, both pseudonymous and known. They are going to need more partners willing to share special data sets. Otherwise, they’re going to have to be very good at market research, pay a premium and waste a lot of impressions. It’s difficult to see how big publishers and walled ecosystems with large data sets don’t win.

And a final question. Many of the Sandbox proposals rely on a “trusted server” (or brain) to act as coordinator and conductor. This server could hold the keys to wisdom and wealth. Who owns it? Is it Google?

That too may be a message in the Sandbox.

AdExchanger Webinar – “Future Shock: An Aggregate & API-Led Future”

Aloha! Those of you who missed my recent AdExchanger Innovation Labs webinar on the future of the browser — or were unable to access it due to janky registration pages — are in luck: I re-recorded the exact same content for the people on Zoom. Partly, this was an experiment in webinar creation as a dry run for a series of greatest-hits videos I’m going to post this week under the rubric #BackToWork webinars. All <20 mins, free & easy for the people. I’ll put them up here too, amigos. I give.

For now, I offer up the longest and nerdiest webinar I’ve ever done – “Future Shock: Preparing for an Aggregate & API-Led Future” … it’s about Google’s Privacy Sandbox, Differential Privacy, Federated Learning, TurtleDov, the cookie-free internet, and more.

Enjoy! (It’s on my YouTube channel, which I’m just booting up; there’s a few things there and more to come. Please subscribe.)

4 Advertising Strategies That Work in a Downturn

My article on advertising in recessions (and pandemics!) was published on the Salesforce Marketing Blog on June 18, 2020:

The world’s largest cosmetics company is touching up its advertising strategy.

L’Oréal saw global sales fall slightly in the first quarter because of store closures, so it cut back on advertising spend. CEO Jean-Paul Aron says demand for the company’s products remains high, but the supply is constrained. Ecommerce sales are up more than 50% compared to last year but don’t replace the in-store experience.

“It can be even frustrating to advertise on products that consumers just can’t buy,” he explained.

Across the world, advertisers are moving fast. Total ad spend was down about 15% compared to last year, according to Numerator, while categories such as travel and auto cut budgets more than 50%. Commuter-driven channels such as radio and out-of-home were down 30-50%, while digital outlets such as search, digital video, and mobile were up, driven by a surge in homebound usage.

Advertisers like L’Oréal are adapting on the fly to unprecedented changes in economics and buyer behaviors, shifting channel preferences, formats, and creative tactics. And while there’s no formula for advertising during COVID-19, the best advertisers use battle-tested strategies.

Based on the experience of Salesforce customers and members of The CMO Club, we assembled a brief pandemic playbook for advertisers. We call it the “Four I’s” Framework.

1. Insight – listen with empathy

All crises change customers’ attitudes and spending patterns in ways that are not always easy to predict. Leading advertisers stay very close to their customers, listening with empathy to understand how to adapt their strategies.

In a recent survey, consumers said the messages they’d like to see from advertisers now should be “safe” and “hopeful.” One ad agency creative director summed up the shift in consumer attitudes like this: “The anxiety, the fear, the isolation, the lack of routine …. people want to see the soul of the brands – they want to feel comfort.”

In the early days of the crisis, brands scrambled to pause long-planned campaigns that suddenly seemed tone-deaf. Triage is now complete, and brands are focused on longer-term responses. Customer research tools such as surveys and online focus groups can yield insights. Social listening to understand what your audience says about you, your competition, and your industry is critical for brands, and that’s part of the reason Salesforce made listening products available as part of the Work.com initiative.

The right response always starts with the customer’s reality. Knowing many are worried about their financial outlook, Ford launched a campaign promising payment deferrals to people who lost their jobs. Aware that St. Patrick’s Day needed a makeover this year, Guinness retooled its message to focus on communities and offered donations to affected neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, many advertisers are learning shelter-in-place leads to both literal and psychological nesting behavior. Advertising that emphasizes home and hearth almost tripled in the last two months compared to last year. Baby-related advertising doubled. And despite ubiquitous mask-wearing and social distancing, categories such as skincare and hair dye are booming.

Harvard researchers studied the patterns of companies that succeeded during downturns. They found leading brands were those that were most in tune with “customers’ changing needs.” Audience segments changed based on stress-driven attitudes, as some consumers reduced spending, others shifted priorities, and still, others spent more on categories such as “affordable luxuries.”

No single strategy sufficed, but empathetic listening always paid dividends.

2. Impact – focus on what works

A crisis can be seen as “an abrupt and brutal audit,” separating effective from ineffective tactics with precision. The same is true for advertising, as marketers improve efficiency by focusing more on tactics known to work.

For example, consumer products leader Unilever has seen sales remain steady, said chief executive Alan Jope in a recent earnings call. But it’s halted ad production in many areas and shifted spending out of channels such as out-of-home. Jope says the team is “dialing up areas with strong ROI.”

Many brands are seeing strength in ecommerce, and are shifting ad spend to support it. According to the Salesforce Q1 Shopping Index, ecommerce was up 20% on average, driven by essential goods and discounts. Even nontraditional categories benefit. Beverage manufacturer AB InBev’s direct-to-consumer Ze Delivery service in Brazil reported more orders in April than in all of 2019.

And many direct-to-consumer (DTC) brands are also winning. Despite shuttered outlets in Ulta and Nordstrom, DTC skincare brand Tula reported record sales last month. They’re investing in influencer marketing and are testing over-the-top connected TV ads tied to news cycles.

Conventional wisdom holds consumers are less loyal and more price conscious during crises. Some brands report success combining promotional bursts with lower prices on direct-response channels such as paid search and social. (Ad prices on Facebook and Google are reported to be up to 30% lower than last year, in some categories.) “Simple promos combined with low CPCs [cost-per-clicks] are getting explosive results,” said one agency exec.

3. Improve – test and fail to learn and scale

Failing to plan is planning to fail, but there is a downside to carefully-cultivated plans during a major crisis: they provide a false sense of security.

Organizational theorist Karl Wieck, an expert in corporate resilience, says a trait shared by all high-functioning companies in a crisis is an ability to be nimble, improvise, and learn.

“I advise leaders to leap in order to look,” says Wieck.

Now is a time to test new ideas without harming the brand. McDonald’s displayed a spirit of adventure when it separated its “Golden Arches” logo to illustrate social distancing in Brazil. Burger King lit up social media with a subtle stunt, liking influencers’ social media posts from 2010 to promote the relaunch of its funnel fries. Proctor & Gamble succeeded on a larger scale with a dance-themed campaign featuring TikTok influencer Charli D’Amelio, also promoting social distancing, that had 10 billion views.

Test and learn is a culture rather than a tactic. It requires a structured approach. For example, the food company McCormick analyzed Pinterest search results to discover consumer trends. It identified a strong interest in bread making – not surprising to those of us who find ourselves overloading on carbs. It fielded recipe ads using its products and adjusted based on consumer response.

And Finnish retailer HOK-Elanto combined nimble messaging with social responsibility in a campaign that ran an optical-illusion ad in newspapers. The catch: the message was only clearly visible from six feet away.

4. Investment – stay strong over the long term

It is almost always a mistake for advertisers to neglect the long-term view in a crisis. While short-term tactics can yield results, it is more effective for long-term health to invest in upper-funnel campaigns and brand building. This is particularly true when competitors are cutting back and ad rates are lower than usual.

One critical review by researchers at U.S.C. concluded: “Firms that increased advertising during a recession experienced higher sales, market share, or earnings during or after the recession.” Why? Researchers cited less “noise” in the market, lower ad rates, and the fact that simply maintaining a presence in tough times sends a signal of strength to potential customers.

These findings are well-known among advertisers, and many got the message. Spending on “brand image” advertising is up significantly, particularly on TV and radio, much of it displacing more promotional campaigns. And spending on public service announcements (PSAs), some brand-sponsored, has more than doubled.

For example, Toyota swapped a campaign promoting a sale event for an optimistic brand-centric one stressing families at home with the tagline “We Are Here For You.” And GSK, another major global advertiser, continues to invest in supporting new product launches, remembering that many successful new products – such as P&G’s Swiffer WetJet – were launched during downturns.

What does the future hold? Nobody knows, exactly. While there are some signs that ad spend may have bottomed out in April, hope is not a plan. Smart marketers stick to the “Four I’s” to maintain their clear-eyed vision in the storm.

Watch Martin Kihn’s webinar, “What’s the Future of Ad Targeting and Measurement?”

Bouncing Back in Tough Times: Lessons from the Past

This column on #resiliencetheory first ran in the mighty AdExchanger on April 13, 2020.

NASA director: This could be the worst disaster NASA’s ever experienced.
Gene Kranz: With all due respect, sir, I believe this is gonna be our finest hour.
– “Apollo 13”

Recessions in 2001-02 and 2008-09, persistent trade wars and pandemics in 2003 (SARS), 2009 (H1N1 “swine flu”) and 2014 (Ebola) are just the more recent examples of events that hurt our communities and working lives.

What do companies and people who survive – even improve – during crises actually do? What can we learn from the past?

It turns out that “waiting out the storm” doesn’t work. Successful organizations “react to threats as opportunities, adapting to survive and prosper,” according to an overview of the new-but-thriving discipline known as resilience theory.

Here are four things resilient types did in the past to survive and thrive in the storm.

1. Do a check-up from the neck up

Classic mindfulness is a theme: an ability to notice facts without catastrophizing them. It is applied to organizations, notably by theorist Karl Weick, who describes corporate mindfulness as “the ability to size up and act on unexpected threats before they escalate out of control.”

Unfortunately, most people have a negativity bias. Pessimism, like love, is all around us. Consumer confidence dropped 25% in March, according to Ipsos – more than any time since the banking meltdown. Most ad professionals expect layoffs. And we were all gloomy about our future before the pandemic appeared.

Much resilience theory emerged from studying high-reliability orgs – such as EMTs, firefighters, investment bankers – that don’t have the luxury of pessimism. Lives (and fortunes) depend on their ability to function in trouble. Ironically enough, researchers found that what makes them work (those that do) is not a focus on reliability but on unreliability – in other words, removing sloppiness.

That includes sloppy thinking. A lot of resilience coaching is based on cognitive behavioral therapy, which encourages challenging negative thoughts. Cognitive behavioral therapy helped inform the US Army’s Master Resilience Training curriculum, which has graduated 50,000 soldiers and reserves, who in turn trained many more on techniques proven to lessen stress disorders.

Co-developed by psychologist Martin Seligman’s Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, the program trains fighters to use rationality to combat negative bias, “thinking traps” such as overgeneralization based on little evidence, “icebergs” (deep assumptions) and black-and-white thinking.

These traps can paralyze us before we even get into gear.

2. Focus on the bigger picture

Research shows companies that survive crises practice long-term behavior, informed by their values. Values are not a corporate mission statement; they’re a company’s existential reason for being, something bigger than quarterly reports. Knowing their values puts short-term pain in context.

Values give work meaning in good times and bad. For example, advertising oils the engine of commerce, creating desires that drive 70% of GDP. It spreads information and inspires creative thinking. That’s all bigger than one delayed Olympics or a canceled Cannes Lions Festival.

Crises favor focus. As one rather poetic resilience theorist put it, a crisis can be seen as “an abrupt and brutal audit” – laying bare hidden faults snowed over during a boom. For example, after the dot-com meltdown, DoubleClick under then-CEO David Rosenblatt divested ancillary businesses such as email and consumer data, focusing on the core ad server.

Values also lift companies out of short-term measures that can hurt success in the long term. They expand the horizon of interest. One well-documented example is that cutting ad spending in a recession is often a mistake. David Ogilvy joked that brands shouldn’t advertise during good times but instead “set aside the money in a reserve for advertising during recessions.”

A well-designed study showed that firms that increased ad spend during a recession had lower short-term profits but gained both mind and market share after it. When good times returned, brands that increased spend 48% had twice the market share gains of those who spent less.

Other studies found that layoffs can hobble a company’s rebound. For example, airlines that laid people off after 9/11 had a harder time getting profitable in recovery because they’d damaged relationships with partners, suppliers and customers.

3. Act like a jazz combo

We all remember where we were when we first saw “Apollo 13” – the movie, that is. Tom Hanks as astronaut Jim Lovell turned a suicide mission into a triumph with nothing but duct tape and charm. It’s no surprise that the most often-cited feature of truly resilient organizations is their ability to improvise.

Under threat, we become more rigid and fixed on short-term solutions. For prolonged threats, like the coronavirus, that rooster won’t crow. Weick points out that firefighters are most likely to be killed in their 10th year on the job, not their first – likely because they’re less open to learning.

On the other hand, resilient organizations are more – no surprise – agile and organizationally decentralized, empowering employees to do what it takes to get the job done.

Weick calls this trait “galumphing” – improvising, trying things out. Action itself throws off data that makes more sense possible. In crisis, plans can provide false security, even be counterproductive. “I advise leaders to leap in order to look,” he says.

4. Defer to the experts on the team

Finally, a crisis is the time to abandon rank and let the experts roll. Just as it was astronaut Ken Mattingly and not then-president Richard Nixon who coached Jim Lovell from the ground in “Apollo 13,” the best ideas in bad times come from those with real knowledge.

This is intuitive, but not natural ­– especially for big organizations. Processes and systems designed to improve efficiency, such as command-and-control or standardized processes, can do more harm than good. “It is vital that a leader resist centralizing control” in a crisis, says Manley Hopkinson, who has led expeditions to the North Pole. “Precisely the opposite is needed.”

Optimistically, crises also strip away the inessential, laying bare our truest selves and giving us empathy for our rivals. After all, they are in as much pain as we are.

That’s probably why tough times often encourage transformation and cooperation. They’re a rare moment when warring sides can come together, as the post-Civil War recession forced a standardization of rail gauges in this country, enabling transcontinental railroads.

In fact, a crisis is an ideal time to build cooperative standards for such ad tech hot topics as the third-party cookie replacement, privacy standards and identity frameworks. An outcome like that would be a very resilient use of our current #QuarantineLife.

Follow Martin Kihn (@martykihn) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

Google Chrome: The Next Chapter Has Yet To Be Written

The following appeared in the mighty AdExchanger on Jan. 27, 2020:

Google’s blog post last week announcing a two-year experiment to replace third-party cookies in Chrome shocked very few but was treated like a tweet from Mount Doom.

It’s no coincidence that digital ad spend surpassed offline, the California Consumer Protection Act went live and Google’s Privacy Sandbox became a meme all in the same quarter. This is the final scene.

But of what? Now that the lava has settled and everyone and their favorite influencer has weighed in on the news, there are many reasons to be optimistic. Here are three:

We need a better cookie anyway

The internet was not designed for advertising. It was intended as a tool for academic links and was purposely “stateless” – each message between browser and server is self-contained. Thus, the cookie.

It was also not intended for ads. As written by an affable 23-year-old Netscape engineer named Lou Montulli, the original spec describes what we would call a first-party cookie that stored information for a shopping cart. Expanded a few years later, the standard guaranteed users “control” over data collection but left the details up to the browsers. And in fact, the whole ethos of the cookie – the fact that it’s an anonymous ID and the user could delete it – was to provide a better internet without invading privacy.

Over the years, of course, a $100 billion-plus business developed on top of techniques such as the “pixel” and “piggybacking” – but these are basically workarounds. Think about it: The “pixel” is an image that is purposely invisible, requested solely so that a third party can establish a connection and retrieve a cookie in the browser. “Piggybacking,” where tags call other tags and so on (and so on), is even more confusing.

What if we could get a do-over? Look at mobile app advertising, which appeared in the 2000s and has thrived without cookies. What about some kind of token similar to Apple’s Identifier for Advertisers (IDFA) or Android’s AdID for browsers? Like the in-app version, it could be issued only to approved publishers that really sell ads. It could be randomly changed every hour or two. This isn’t where the “sandbox” appears to be going, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

Consumers need more information

You’ve probably noticed that the ad tech industry is playing defense. Google’s provided a chance to do what “I [Heart] NY” did for Manhattan: clean up the streets, get control of traffic and improve the image of the brand. Make it morning again.

It would probably surprise many to learn that most people in the ad business are hard-working, well-meaning, creative and technical women and men who are just trying to push commerce along. Advertising isn’t evil, and it isn’t mind control. Some of it is even hilarious.

Advertisers need a counternarrative, one that explains exactly how little most of them actually know about consumers and how pseudonymous it is. Far from “tracking you around the web,” that retargeter likely knows just two things about you, not including your name: that you looked at a particular item in the past, and that you are on this website now. That’s it. You might even welcome the reminder.

We need an image makeover; now is the time. If Times Square can do it, anybody can. The steps are admitting the problem, eliminating defects and providing opt-outs. Consumers are smart enough to understand that ads support the open web and services they value, including Google and Facebook. Examples of GDPR and IDFA hint that only about 20% of users are unwilling to consider a value exchange. There are plenty who will.

There’s still time to influence the outcome

The two-year debate may seem long, but at least there’s an end. It gives an agenda and a deadline. After all, the third-party cookie has been “dying” for at least 10 years, and uncertainty is not good for anyone’s blood pressure.

Meanwhile – despite what you might think from scrolling through Twitter – nobody was really blindsided. Smart publishers have been building up their first-party data assets and improving the ad experience. Many already run successful private marketplaces. Vendors such as data management platforms and demand-side platforms embraced IDs beyond the traditional cookie years ago and – like publishers – shifted to managing first-party keys and consent frameworks. Measurement vendors moved from traditional multitouch attribution to supporting hybrid multitouchpoint methods that are probably more accurate anyway. The only thing that’s “dead” is 2008.

Industry standards are generally good. Case studies from the width of train tracks before the Civil War to the Motion Picture Association of America’s movie-rating system of the 1960s and the internet itself prove that widely-shared standards encourage efficiency and growth – and minimize political problems. We should welcome efforts like the ANA and 4A’s outreach to Google.

It would take a game theorist to predict what will happen. History tells us the “rule of three” probably applies, with three platforms (and some high-margin niche players) controlling the field. It’s up to advertisers, agencies and vendors, interested consumers and their advocates to make sure that they do the right thing.

Follow Martin Kihn (@martykihn) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

Lou Montulli: The Man Who Invented the Cookie

Lou Montulli

The #2 aquatic-themed celebrity site on the Web in 1997 belonged to red-suited Baywatch babe Pamela Sue Anderson.

The #1 site featured a live cam mounted on an SGI workstation in the office of a 23 year-old University of Kansas “Jayhawk” named Lou Montulli.

It was pointed at a pod of exotic fish in a 90-gallon, fluorescent-lit acrylic tank. The fishes’ (rather repetitive) antics played out on the “Download” page of Netscape.com, which offered the first widely-adopted portal into this thing called the World Wide Web.

And it says something about the pace of change in our time that Lou Montulli – one of the pioneers of so many foundational elements of the internet – is still only in his 40’s.

Here are some of the things Montulli engineered or helped prod into life:

Yet Montulli laughs when I ask the obvious question. “No,” he says, “I don’t feel I’m a legend. And there are a lot of people around me who’d agree.”

The most notorious of his inventions is of course the browser cookie. Montulli has mixed emotions about his spawn, although it’s a durable solution to a serious problem with the web.

WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO INVENT THE COOKIE AT NETSCAPE?

It came out of the problem that HTTP is anonymous. People were anonymous all the time. But there was an obvious need sometimes to recognize them when they came back to a site.

The web came out of universities and academics, and we were all pretty distrustful of government. You could call us Libertarians. We didn’t want anyone to be able to track people. So we needed a mechanism that allowed you to be remembered without being tracked.

There wasn’t a lot of impetus at first for anyone to solve this. I finally got around to it because [Netscape’s product team] wanted a shopping cart. If you have a shopping cart and put something into it, obviously you have to recognize the person when they return.

The trouble with HTTP Basic Auth[entication] is it’s ugly. It’s not friendly. You have to create an account up front. We needed something besides that. The cookie was a general mechanism that allowed people to create interesting apps on the web.

SO IT WASN’T FOR ADVERTISING?

No.

HOW DID IT GET TO BE USED FOR ADVERTISING?

Cookies can be used for tracking only if you have the combined efforts of a lot of websites that participate in one giant … [wink] … conspiracy. In order for an advertiser to track someone across sites they need a relationship with all the sites. They use cookies and referrer fields and JavaScript.

Which is of course our beloved ad tech: the labyrinthine mosh pit of ad servers and platforms and data brokers and analytics that arose to do exactly what Montulli describes: track people across multiple sites. The DoubleClick ad server was born in Kevin O’Connor’s basement in Alpharetta, Georgia in 1995.

But the humble remit of Montulli’s original cookie was to allow a single domain to create “sessions” and also recognize a person if they returned to that domain. One popular early proposal in WWW design groups was for a persistent browser ID; Montulli opposed it.

He admits that third-party cookies, which piggyback on embedded page content like image tags, were “a problem that I missed.” And he has written about a fascinating moment in 1996 when he – all by himself – decided the browser would not block third-party cookies by default. In a way, Lou Montulli created ad tech 1.0.

DO YOU THINK THE COOKIE IS DOOMED?

No. It’s fundamental to the web and most apps won’t work without it. There’s been a lot of time and effort spent trying to improve it. But nobody’s come up with anything better. It likely won’t be replaced with something else.

It could be removed from ad tracking. I’d like that so people would stop blaming me for it. [laughs] Advertisers won’t let it die. If it was [outlawed], they would just move to another technology. There are other technologies that would suffice, but they would remove transparency. That would remove the ability for the end user to control it.

Montulli is referring to techniques such as ‘fingerprinting,’ using data such as browser settings and response times to identify a device or person; and methods such as “JavaScript sending secret codes to other browsers” and so on.

WHAT DO YOU PREDICT WILL HAPPEN NEXT?

We’re in an interesting stage right now with advertising and the ability to disclose [tracking], and your ability as a consumer to control it. It’s built up over years of trial and error. Like it or not, if you want to see content for free you are going to have to put up with ads.

You can give up free sites, give up the cookie – and go into the black hole of [secret tracking]. That’s the worst case, I think. We could also legislate so there’s no more personalized advertising. But that would kill advertising on the web. We’d be forced into paid content. These are not easy solutions.

Apple started this war with the Safari browser. A bunch of companies sprung up with alternative [tracking] models. There are a lot of methods that would work. But they’re all worse for the consumer.

An affable, hard-working music- and MAME-enthusiast, Montulli’s lived in Northern California since moving out for Netscape. He spent his childhood following his father around military bases and stayed in Lawrence, Kansas after graduation to work in the University of Kansas computer lab.

He monitored tapes and dot-matrix printers and was promoted “out of the basement” onto the school’s I.T. help desk. It was there he got involved in the proto-web.

HOW DID YOU START GETTING INTERESTED IN WEB BROWSERS?

I was using software called ELM for email on UNIX. Every time you logged out of ELM it printed out the author’s name. I was not a particularly good student. So I thought, if I had a program with my name on it, I’d probably get a better job.

There was this project kicking around to build a campus-wide information system. In those days, we used BBS’s and networking was primitive. I stayed up all night and made this prototype program using Gopher and HyperRez – an open source hypertext reader. Gopher had terrible UI but did networking. So putting the two together was a good solution and became the first version of Lynx.

Lynx was a text-based browser that was widely adopted by universities, in particular. Montulli was working on a graphical version when he saw an announcement that Marc Andreessen and a team at the University of Illinois’ National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) had released a browser called Mosaic “that did exactly the same thing.”

WHAT DID YOU DO WHEN YOU HEARD ABOUT MOSAIC?

I converted Lynx to HTTP and HTML [protocols]. It became one of the three parts of the web ecosystem. The other parts were Mosaic and [Thomas Bruce of Cornell’s] Cello browser for Windows. By the time I left Kansas we had over a million people using Lynx. It was the most popular browser by number of users.

DID IT MAKE YOU A RICH YOUNG MAN?

[Laughs] No. It was free open source software. The university was kind enough to pay me $8 an hour for 20 hours a week to work on it.

These were the days when HTML and HTTP were in active development. The internet was still an academic exercise. Off-campus connections were made over phone lines and modems. Long distance charges applied. Graphics were a rare luxury. And the foundations for the Web were being laid by a small cadre of workaholic dreamers perched around the globe.

WHAT WAS THE WEB DEVELOPMENT COMMUNITY LIKE IN THOSE DAYS?

There were basically three camps that could move things forward. There was Tim Berners-Lee and the people at CERN — they gave feedback on specs and worked on server software. Then NCSA was developing clients [like Mosaic]. And there was me working on Lynx … There weren’t any standards bodies. There were maybe twenty people involved and only three or four were developing code.

SO HOW DID YOU FINALLY DECIDE TO JOIN NETSCAPE?

Well, Marc [Andreessen] left NCSA and met Jim [Clark, SGI founder and serial entrepreneur] through friends. Marc told Jim about the Web, and he got excited about it. We all met in Illinois – all of the developers – in March of 1994. We started the company with guys from Mosaic, from CERN, and some engineers Jim knew from SGI.

Inspired by Mosaic, Netscape Communications became the fastest-growing company in the history of the world. It soared from a dozen people in 1994 to about 4,000 by 1996. It broke $100 million in revenue within one year. (This story has been told with his usual flair by Michael Lewis.)

Any of us who were sentient in, say, 1995 remember Netscape. It inspired us to buy modems and “log on” to the web for the first time. By 1997, more than one in three U.S. households had a home computer. So it’s surprising to learn that its financial success was a kind of accident.

WHAT WAS NETSCAPE’S BUSINESS MODEL SUPPOSED TO BE?

Basically, we were going to give it away to clients and sell the servers. It was razors and razor blades. We were going to sell enterprise software, because those were the people who can afford it. But as they say, no plan survives contact with the enemy. You could download it for free, but businesses wanted to pay for the client [browser]. You could also buy it shrink-wrapped in a store.

Businesses were unclear about whether they had to pay for it. We were willing to let them think they had to pay. And we got addicted to the “crack” of client revenue. It actually killed the company when we were forced by Microsoft’s aggression to give it all away for free. We got addicted to revenue we weren’t supposed to have. It sucks we didn’t succeed as much as we should have – but we made a big impact.

We basically implemented the foundations for the [Web] app development environment that’s taken over programming today.

WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO BE IN AN ENVIRONMENT LIKE THAT?

It was a very exciting time. We hired almost all the people who were building the Web, and we worked non-stop. Some survey agency called me up at the time and asked me how many hours a week I worked. I said 120. The fields [in the survey] only went up to 99. I only slept every other day for ten hours.

And it was good software. It was stable, fast and looked good for the time. Functional software … needs to be seamless, beautiful, something the user wants to use. We took over the market within months because we created the most stable, elegant application. We were way bigger than Word and everything else at the time.

BUT WHY THE ‘FISH CAM’?

I had been an a aquarist at college. I basically spent all my waking hours in the office. So I brought my fish tank in. My SGI Unix workstation had a very rare camera on it — the first of its kind. SGI wanted to do videoconferencing. And I saw the Coffee Cam [at Cambridge] and decided to do a version. We used it as a test bed for a lot of advanced features.

WHICH FEATURES?

The idea of images refreshing in the background. That led to animated GIFs. The first animated GIFs ever were of the fish. Dynamic HTML was first tested there. The ability to move HTML elements around on the screen. The early web was very static.

fishcam

Netscape became the cynosure of the Dot Com Bubble, going public in 1995 – it’s said – so Jim Clark could build a yacht. The stock quadrupled on day one and Marc Andreessen appeared on the cover of Time magazine, barefoot and grinning.

And then it all fell apart for reasons both internal and external, but many of which can be summed up in one word: Microsoft. Montulli cashed out in 1998 and went on to work at a couple of startups emerging from the Netscape talent pool: Epinions and Shutterfly. He spent a couple of years in Tahoe living the dream, “skiing and mountain biking every day” before getting lured back into the Bay.

Today he’s co-founder of JetInsight, a management system for charter fleets.

WHAT TECHNOLOGIES ARE YOU MOST EXCITED ABOUT NOW?

On-demand services are totally transforming service economies. Everything is getting swallowed up [by them]. Apps make things more efficient, and existing companies are slow to adapt to change.

Blockchain ought to revolutionize anything that deals with escrow services. A lot of Wall Street is just very sophisticated escrow services, so blockchain should have a big effect there. It will be slow because it’s such a regulated industry. But I don’t expect to make any money on bitcoin. [laughs]

WHAT ARE YOU MOST WORRIED ABOUT?

Well, I’d say the moral implications of automation on society. We might be approaching a tipping point where automation permanently replaces jobs. We’d be foolish as a society not to prepare for the impact, maybe through some universal basic income tests, creating a society not entirely based on your worth as a worker.

And I’m aware of the impact of the ad economy on media …. I’m paying for newspapers. I hope they survive.

Back at the University of Kansas, Montulli’s signature block contained a quote from Machiavelli. It captures the pioneer mind.

“For how we live is so different from how we ought to live that he who studies what ought to be done rather than what is done will learn the way to his downfall rather than to his preservation.”

[Auth. note: I originally wrote this piece as part of a series of interviews with luminaries connected to the history of ad tech when I worked at Gartner. It ran in in 04/28 on the Gartner blog.]

Does Advertising Really Work?

Much of the screech about Cambridge Analytica, foreign actors and bots swaying elections via the medium of advertising seems to me naive. (And I’m not the only one.) Setting aside the ethical oompus boompus, it betrays a touching optimism about how advertising works.

Generations of geniuses have worked heroically to get you to consider — at that Zero Moment of Truth, when it’s just you and the shelf in the store — maybe, possibly, trying a different detergent.

Ads have also been known to get people to overpay for their footwear.

To assume that a few 300×250-pixel ads — no matter how well-targeted and -timed — could cause someone to change her basic values or her vote is to mistake paranoia for the world.

Advertising doesn’t work that way. It hardly works at all. It’s a cumulative enterprise that is both mysterious and trivial. Since the days of The Hidden Persuaders, we’ve assumed it has magical powers even as we’ve almost totally ignored it.

Yet it is important for capitalism and, as Anton Chekhov said, “is the essence of democracy.”

THE TROUBLE WITH ADVERTISING

The real trouble with ads is that they happen in the mind. They are a form of sensory input intended to influence neurons and, in time, behavior. To ask how advertising works is to ask how learning works. How would you answer that question?

The human brain itself is the reason brand advertising is so difficult to measure. It’s a long-term proposition whose immediate impact sits in pathways that can’t normally be seen. We end up asking people to describe their own opinions — this process is called “brand tracking” — but it’s a very approximate science.

So how does advertising work? A few years ago, a great overview of the state of the art appeared. It’s called The Advertised Mind: Groundbreaking Research Into How Our Minds Respond to Advertising and was written by Erik du Plessis of Kantar Millward Brown, a research agency.

I’ll hit the highlights here. (But really, you should buy the book.)

THIS IS YOUR BRAIN ON ADS

So this is your brain:

image 1

Not really.

Without getting into deep water, let’s assume that inputs to this organ come via the senses. First they go into the limbic system, where they’re processed by the amygdala. This is the piece of our heads that formed first, before we had data science boot camps or even junior high schools — the piece responsible for keeping us alive in situations far more dangerous than most of ours.

Two things to know about this sub-rational gatekeeper:

  • It is EMOTIONAL — about feelings, not reasons
  • It is BINARY — hot/cold, pleasure/pain, love/hate

It is also SELECTIVE … because, apparently, we have always been overwhelmed by sensory data and can’t begin to notice it all. Even before Snap and the iPhone X, our brains said: “Too much! Give me the bullets!

For advertising, the implications are obvious. To rise from our sensory swamp, an ad must be EMOTIONALLY INTENSE. We assume the binary default is positive, but there is evidence that negative works as well. This study (from a consultancy now called System 1) showed that ads we hate are more likely to get us to buy a product than ads we don’t notice:

image 2

As du Plessis says:

“The first task of advertising it to ensure that it is noticed, and to this purpose it has to be designed to attract an emotional response from us.”

THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS NEXT

So we have our hard-hitting emotional sense-eliciting object, aka, an ad. Now an aggressive direct response marketer stops here. If you’ve ever watched Home Shopping Network late at night and seen all those other people swooping in on your Plaid Snuggie and TIME IS RUNNING OUT! and you only have 4 LEFT AT THIS PRICE! and it’s … well, you feel me right now.

Most ads aren’t so demanding. At least, they want to linger in the mind long enough to get you through a browsing stream, or into a store. And brand ads will need to wedge themselves into your mind somehow for the haul, when you’re ready for a new car in a year or two, when your lease runs out.

Here, we get into the realm of memory. Memories turn out to be unlike files in databases, where information has an address. They are a “gestalt” of neurons assembled into patterns and a web of eccentric associations.

Memories need the right conditions to form. They want a strong signal. They are correlated with frequency and repetition. And they are correlated with similar memories that pre-exist in the brain, a kind of starter-set.

All of which helps to explain your media planner’s insistence on reach AND frequency as KPIs — you need frequency to establish memories. It also argues that your campaigns should be consistent over the years or you won’t benefit as much from those starter-set associations.

Again, du Plessis:

“The second task of advertising is to ensure that it is remembered, and this is intimately tied in with how often we see it.”

SOME MORE GENERAL INSTRUCTIONS

We’re not quite as Cartesian as advertisers and their agencies thought. It’s not that we have emotion and reason as two parts of a body-mind. The body-mind is a thing in itself and our emotions ride over our reason without even asking. For proof here I’ll just point to how violently two intelligent people can disagree in our political climate. Facts can’t destroy feelings even if they’re true.

People in the ad business fall back on a few big studies or thinkers that seem to make sense. One was an ARF study that showed an ad’s “likeability” determined its success. This aligns with du Plessis’ argument about emotion but favors the positive spin. It’s probably right. Certainly, I’m more inclined to want to remember things I like to think about than vivid ads – like those Allstate Mayhem spots – that just stress me out.

Another was Al Ries’ assertion that P.R. works better than ads for new brands. Ries is a positioning pioneer who is usually right. He’s also agreeing with du Plessis’ insistence on (1) frequent exposure, and (2) a basis of memories to fertilize the ads to come.

In his influential How Brands GrowByron Sharp isolated two simple factors for a brand’s success:

  • Wide distribution
  • Recognizable packaging

Sharp described this packaging as “sensory and semantic cues” such as logos and celebrity spokesmodels that made a brand “easy to like, memorise and recall” [he’s from New Zealand]. Which lines up well with du Plessis’ blurb of memories as webs of emotion-laden, pre-primed associations.

Another instruction I’ll mention is that the most important task of an ad is not to be creative but to be remembered. It can do this best by evoking an emotion — let’s say a positive one — and adhering its sensory stimuli to the images, text and spokesmodels directly associated with the brand package.

It must also be repetitive. Frequency matters more than reach. Liking an ad is not liking a brand. And above all, don’t assume these secrets will help you win the next election. You might, but it won’t be because your ads changed peoples’ lives.

Taylor Swift: Master Marketer

Even as we learn that nearly half of Bay Area residents “want to leave,” at least 55,000 of them were screaming in place last year as Taylor Swift delivered what a dazzled critic called “pretty much a perfect pop spectacle.” Perfect! And as Tay conquers town after town in her six-month, 55-city global victory lap … I’d like to reshare a post I wrote when her last album came out. It’s about just how much we marketers can learn from this 28 year-old sensei of song.

Taylor Swift: Master Marketer

So we finally have it, Reputation, after waiting since the MTV Video Music Awards last August: Taylor Swift’s sixth album, a 55-minute oleo of fifteen tracks on the theme of a young woman’s broken, broken heart. We won’t comment on the songs, which make us nostalgic for 1989, but once again on the marketing.

For whatever you can say about Taylor Swift, woman and musician, she is a genius as a brand, a revelation, and she just wound up a very public six-month master class in the way a thoroughly modern marketer can be #NailingItDaily.

Last November, she easily became the first artist ever to have four million-selling opening weeks; no one else has even had three. Released at midnight on November 11, Reputation‘s first-day sales were 700,000. Loading up pre-sales, which only count on day one, is a standard move for entertainment properties; the number itself becomes a source of earned impressions (i.e., PR).

Yes, Tay had the year’s most successful record, and has launched what will obviously be this year’s most successful stadium tour, at a time when her personal popularity may be drifting. Our friends at market research firm CivicScience shared this disturbing image with us:

image1

So while Taylor Swift, 28 year-old Pennsylvania-born home-schooled female, is not what she was, “Taylor Swift(r)” the brand is still absolutely bulletproof.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Tay

What did Tay do to launch such a successful product?

You might say, what didn’t she do? We witnessed UPS trucks with her silhouette, TV spots, “secret” sessions with fans showing up on Good Morning America, videos and behind-the-scenes footage, even a widely-reported court case and more celebrity feuds …

We’ll break it down. Four themes here — as we admire Taylor Swift: Master Marketer.

They are:

  1. She is (still) an UnBrand
  2. She uses primitive psychology
  3. She forces fans to work
  4. She is a master of suspense

And now …

  1. She Is (Still) an UnBrand

I’ll say it again: Brand Taylor Swift does not actually exist. She never did. “Taylor Swift” is a blank space, a Durkheimian totem upon which fans can project pretty much whatever they want, but more important, themselves, their values and their wishes for their souls. By not having any edges, she presents a white widget with which we can work.

What? This is a theory I repeated coast-to-coast last year, numbing my victims into a state of gently nodding as they slept. If you’re interested in the original squib, backed up by data from CivicScience and Affinio, you can find it here.

An UnBrand is a mass-market brand that takes no position on anything and betrays no traits at all beyond the most generic. in this way, it lets different audiences with little in common other than their own humanity easily adopt the brand into their personal squad, or sociological “tribe.”

No matter what your social graph or favored fountain of fake news, Brand Tay fits because it fits anywhere. It is uncontroversial and so it is adaptable, like an attractive but polite person who is welcome to infiltrate your wedding.

We should not have been surprised — although, in fact, we were — that Tay herself knows this. She is unbrand-aware. She told us as much last August.

At the MTV Video Music Awards, she unleashed her first Reputation video for a song called “Look What You Made Me Do.” It contained a disturbing piece of theater. Fifteen different versions of Taylor Swift, pulled from the arc of her career, stood in a line on a horror film set.

image2

There was a Tay from the 2009 VMAs (when her speech was remixed by Kanye) and Tays from various videos, including “Shake It Off.” There’s crying Tay and the circus ringmaster Tay from her “Red” tour. And so on.

Which one is Taylor? She says it herself: all of them and none of them. Brand Taylor is a shapeshifter.

  1. She Uses Primitive Psychology

Marketing is primitive psychology, and Brand Tay’s insights into the minds of her (young, female) fans is poignant. What do we fear the most? Hunger? Not most of Tay’s fans; no, we fear being abandoned, alone, left out. We exist in a state of hypertensive, continuous #FOMO.

Tay taps into this by delivering a path to inclusion. Think of her launch campaign as a video game; the prize is that you are part of the squad. And our anxiety starts with an explosion set off at the VMA’s in August, when her team revealed a very odd animated TV spot introducing its masterstroke:

“Taylor Swift Tix”

The VMA ad showed cats (good) vs. robots (bad) in a fight to the death. Its message was simple: there is an army of robots out there that are competing with you (cats) for tickets to Tay’s upcoming concert tour. You have got to fight back. One way to do this is to sign up with TicketMaster and become a “Verified Fan” (not a “Verified Robot”).

If you don’t, this terrible fate awaits:

image2 terrible fate

Of course, we see here the marketing equivalent of calling a bug a feature and charging for it. TicketMaster might have felt it was its own responsibility to combat bot fraud, the way ad tech providers do. But then again, verification is free and evil bots are a timely nemesis.

That’s just the start. Once you’re Verified, you are in line. But you still might not get a ticket. There are human adversaries, millions of them, all vying for a chance to invade the MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ next July 21st, and points west.

That’s a long … long … line.

Then the magical “Taylor Swift Tix” program appears. It turns out the line is not first-come-first-served, as lines usually are, but can be played. If you do certain things, you can improve your position in this line. Two points to note, as master marketers:

  • This line is imaginary
  • Tay is channeling #FOMO

Last time I looked, the MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ was pretty big. It fits a lot of Swifties, who are small anyway. I’m not sure so many of them won’t get in … but there’s a chance that we just might be excluded, abandoned, alone in our silent oblivion, playing “Our Song” over and over and sobbing … or, we can do any number of on-brand activities, all of which give us a LOW / MEDIUM / HIGH level of “Boost” in the line:

  • Watch designated videos on Tay’s fan site
  • Sign up on Tay’s official mailing list
  • Refer many friends to the program
  • Buy merchandise from the Taylor Swift Official Store ($50 t-shirts! $60 snake rings!)
  • Pre-order the album (before 11/9 only) or buy it up to 13 times

The program is not universally beloved, but it’s most excellent marketing. Our friend Jess Vogol at Movable Ink — a true Swiftie — tried an A/B test with the program. You can see from the image below that a relatively low number of Boosts (arrow “A”) does appear to lead to a lower place in the line (arrow “B”), which ranges from “Priority” (although not guaranteed) down to the dreaded “Waitlist” … which is puzzling, if you ponder it, because stadium concerts do not have waitlists … but that’s #FOMO for you.

image4 position in line

There are more ways to boost and boost until your eyes hurt. The official “program terms” don’t specify them, but Tay’s FAQ site promises that “activity boosts will come in all shapes and sizes.” Whew.

Such shapes and sizes all relate to social media, where Brand Tay has discovered just about every method of encouraging her followers to talk about her and keep talking until they’re comatose. She hands out random boosts for social activities like a Medieval churchman strewing indulgences:

image5 tweet

And the ultimate in #FOMO fomentation are the so-called “Secret Sessions” — which aren’t all that secret — in which Tay invites a select group of superfans to private listening parties before the release. There, they sometimes meet Tay herself or chat on video. These sessions are then burnished into marketable objects on “Good Morning America,” say, or YouTube.

So perfectly pitched are Brand Tay’s tactics with respect to inclusion, exclusion and tribalism that it makes me wonder if they have a sociologist on staff. And some of the most #FOMO-firing moments struck me as staged … not quite real. For example, I ran across this “fan” who made a bold claim last month:

image6 tweet

Which was paid off in an epic photostream of heartfelt tears and triumph as this “Ellie” meets her idol in the #reputationSecretSession in London:

image7 tweet

Which of course you and I were not at — #FOMO! — and perhaps did not pause a moment to reflect that, amid all her no doubt inhumanly demanding prep for her marketing master class and album launch, Taylor Swift had time to “stalk” a random English girl’s Twitter for a “year” … but who knows?

  1. She Forces Fans To Work

It’s hard work being a fan of Taylor Swift. Between buying merch and pre-ordering thirteen copies of “Reputation,” there’s barely time to decipher all the clues she’s left in her videos, lyrics and Instagram captions.

Oh, yes, clues. Tay’s realized we are a culture absolutely riven with conspiracy theories and nothing makes a fan base more engaged than an endless micro-debate over what might (or might not) be a hidden message in a blurred image, casual post, or backed-up audio file.

Mainstream fans don’t know this, but Tay has long embedded Baroque ciphers into her marketing materials. She does this to encourage — yes — social media activity, speculation, posts and counter-posts, raging debates and trenchant denials … and, finally, to repay those who put a lot of time into Tay with the knowledge that they’re in the inner ring of fire, closer to the flame.

To take one example, the video for “Look What You Made Me Do” contained the following, according to NME:

  • Her dress from the “Out of the Woods” video
  • A tombstone with the name “Nils Sjoberg,” a pseudonym she used to write “This Is What You Came For
  • A $1 bill in a jewel-filled bathtub, referring (perhaps) to the $1 she won in that trial last summer
  • Snakes and tea, related to her feud with various Kardashians
  • An army of models which might refer to her Squad
  • 8 “I [heart] TS“-shirt-sporting dancers that could be her 8 famous exes
  • 15 Tays that could (or could not) refer to the 15 songs on “Reputation”

And so on. At one point she says, clearly:

“I would very much like to be excluded from this narrative.”

Which is a puzzling meta-statement in itself unless you followed the Kim Kardashian video-leaking scandal related to the permission that may or may not have been granted to Kanye for mentioning Tay in his song “Famous.” For that is what Tay said (cleverly) when asked to comment on the incident.

There’s a lot more to say about hints and conspiracies and so on, but we master marketers can conclude here: a great way to encourage social engagement among your customers is to toss a few ambiguous secret messages into the mix. They’ll meet you half way.

In fact, they will go too far. A lot of the Swiftian sherlocks in the past few months were totally wrong.

Rational choice theory. There is an influential hypothesis in social and religious studies called Rational Choice Theory. One of its tenets, advanced by the great Rodney Stark, is that religions that are the most successful are not the easiest ones to join but rather the most difficult: those that make the greatest demands on their members.

Think of the LDS, with its two-year missionary postings, or even A.A. with its coffee-making and unpaid sponsorship. The more a group demands, the more it weeds out light travelers and rewards the faithful. So in addition to being a Durkeimian totem, Tay is a Stark-ian rational choicer. Amen.

  1. She Is a Master of Suspense

The release of “Reputation” was a narrative unrolled with precision. It was written by a storyteller, and it proceeded in the genre of suspense. Those of us who paid attention experienced this release as a Hitchcockian thriller of no common order.

It was just great theater. And as we’ve said before, marketers have a lot to learn from Hollywood.

Remember how it began. There were rumors that Tay was going to release a new record, her first in three years, but no official word. Then on August 18, Tay disappeared from the Internet. What?! Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr — all down. Gonzo. Her 102 million Instagram followers lost their photos. Her website was blank.

Then … on August 21 … on her Instagram there is an unsettling, enigmatic video of a snake. Swish swish. A reference to a feud with Katy Perry (more conspiracies) … who wrote a song “Swish Swish” about her …

Then all the above, planting mystery and wonder in her path, and two more points before we’ll wrap up this admiration of our greatest modern marketer.

First, the VMAs. Tay was not there. She hung over it like the morning star but she herself was absent. Busy? Napping? No … it was another perfect note in the opening scene of her “Reputation” narrative. She’s always luring us on.

And second, the UPS partnership. This is particularly interesting. In case you missed it, UPS is the “Official Delivery Partner” of Taylor Swift, a great honor, certainly, and one that allowed it to give her thousands of effective out-of-home placements right where her market lives.

A few weeks ago, I took this on 28th Street in Manhattan:

image8 ups

Why UPS? It moves. Taking a picture and posting it gives you a Boost. And then … UPS released a video of Tay packing a box and another video that was utterly ordinary with the exception of its background track, an electronic plaint that sounded like a woman singing very fast.

A fan ripped the tune … slowed it down … and OMG it sounded just like Taylor herself singing lyrics that sounded like “… rip off the page.” So it was assumed her next single would be called “Rip Off the Page” … and the video itself was labeled “Unlisted” on YouTube, making the rumor even more delicious.

Again, we wonder who these mysterious unnamed “fans” are who happen to unlock ciphers and have access to news media. The stodgy brown brand’s second (unlisted) video’s ambiguous soundtrack pseudo-clue was ultimately covered far and wide (particularly by Conde Nast), from Teen Vogue to Glamour to EOnline to Buzzfeed to Refinery29 

And it was wrong. A Hitchcockian red herring. Tay released songs called “Gorgeous” and “Call It What You Want” but nothing called “Rip Off the Page” ….

And all we can say about “Reputation” is: Call it what you want, the marketing is gorgeous. We marketers should all rip off that page.

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