Digital readers may not be familiar with it, but one of the most important metrics stories of 2012 thus far took place last week, when Canoe Ventures -- the joint project of cable providers Comcast, Cox Communications, Charter Communications, Cablevision Systems, Bright House Networks and Time Warner Cable -- announced an enormous pivot. The project had been created to provide addressable TV advertising across 100 million U.S. cable households. As of last week, Canoe has abandoned that founding mission, setting its sights on interactive advertising within video-on-demand and TV Everywhere instead.
The industry provided a wide range of responses to the move (and anyone in the cable TV space knows that this was a major announcement). But wherever you stand on the announcement, it nicely spells out the two ways we’re going about tackling technology problems in our industry -- and not the least, metrics-related problems. On the one hand, you have the Think Big solutions. At the other extreme, you have Arrange Small.
By every count, Canoe has been a way to Think Big. Canoe’s vision was to turn cable TV advertising into one of the most powerful direct marketing tools this side of search -- allowing cable TV viewers to point their remote controls at household-targeted ads on the screen to request coupons or catalogs, or otherwise engage more deeply with the advertising brand. It was to become a cable TV solution developed with the participation of an entire industry. But despite some great successes and proofs-of-concept, it suffered from several kinds of setbacks.
One key setback mentioned in Adweek was telling: “Advertisers used to buying nationwide spots had to worry about the varying technology and standards employed by different cable operators, and the hassle kept advertisers from trying the new platform, regardless of potential benefits.” In other words, Think Big runs into problems when trying to coordinate across a splintered landscape. I want to get back to this point; but first, let’s explore the concept of Arrange Small.
To understand Arrange Small, you have to see how Canoe is one side of the technology spectrum. It developed in tandem with a very different approach to taming technological complexity: the app store. Possibly the best-known of the app-store models, of course, comes out of Apple. But it’s hardly the only example. Salesforce has gotten heavily into the app model. Closer to our business, media technology providers have been delving further into “app store” solutions as well -- two notable examples being AppNexus Apps and MediaMath Open. Instead of providing a single solution to a very difficult problem, the app store does just the opposite. It allows technological diversity to flourish, giving users the opportunity to create their own solution stacks from a wide range of choices, whether that’s music files and video games or data providers and DSPs. Instead of trying to corral fragmentation and splintering, it approaches it as a wealth of small opportunities that can be orchestrated into a bigger picture. In other words, the app store model doesn’t think big. It asks users to Arrange Small.
To be sure, creating app stores is no small feat. They require extremely powerful technology that empowers users to engage with an enormous array of products, and to orchestrate across all of them. They require massive computing resources and incredible technological sophistication. But the key, for app stores, isn’t bringing many forces together under one roof. The key is enabling interoperability and usability across the solutions that are out there.
In an era when fragmentation and point solutions seem to rule, and no one technology seems to have a monopoly on all information, Arrange Small seems to be the way to go. Arrange Small means that it’s still possible to glean enormous value from “point solutions” that don’t add up to the whole picture -- but that might be important pieces of the puzzle. And it means that, rather than throwing resources at enormous solutions to limitless problems, technology companies give users and clients the control to build their own solutions out of the many smaller offerings available in the industry. The result is that technology providers are able to put the entire industry at users’ fingertips -- without being forced to corral the whole industry under one roof.
To be sure, Think Big and Arrange Small isn’t just a dichotomy in the world of metrics, or even just in the media technologies space. But in an era when the key driver of so many technologies is transforming every human engagement into actionable data -- from friendships (Facebook) to physical venues (Foursquare) to quick thoughts (Twitter) -- the question of how we harness the new sources of data will, of course, be a key question for the metrics and data-gathering business.
For my part, I’m with the Arrange Small part of the spectrum. But however this contest plays out, it’s bound to be one of the most crucial stories to watch in the next few years of metrics, and all of advertising technology. It might just be the small story that’s the key to the big picture of the next five years.