Commentary

Risking the Internet Audience

YouTube and Facebook each took steps recently to harvest the considerable advertising revenue opportunity on their sites.

In YouTube's case, it introduced video advertising overlays to video content, and in the case of Facebook, it announced plans to market user data.

Video content and proprietary user data are, of course, the two things that help create the user value proposition of these two Internet media marvels and it seems understandable that the companies would seek to tie advertising opportunities to them.

I'm already worried, however, about how my twenty-something children are going to react when they find out that I am now a Facebook user, thanks to Facebook's decision to open up their social network to anyone with a valid email address. It'll be the end of 'cool' for them, I suspect. When they find out next that Facebook is also marketing their personal data points it may signal time for a change.

I'm worried also about the current unrest at YouTube where users are foaming and frothing over the introduction of thin advertising scroll bars along the bottom of videos. "Yuck," was the post that got the conversation going. "Does that earn money for the person who created the video?" was a follow-up post that will probably keep the conversation alive.

It is all about advertising's ability to corrupt in the eyes of the beholder, which is an issue that continues to bite at the heels of new media even as it struts back and forth over the bent frame of old media.

The twin masters of that corruption -- Privacy and Intrusiveness -- have dogged us from the beginning by inflaming users, instigating regulators, and otherwise confounding our ability for more than a dozen years to reach advertising paradise.

This is frustrating because we can see clearly from our vantage point that consumers -- and I am one of them -- are enjoying themselves on the other side of the fence. They move about the media landscape freely and they consume it freely. For them it is practically paradise -- laptops and mobile telephones; remote controls and cable TV; Video on Demand and the Internet. Unless you are techno-phobic, this is a great time to be a media consumer.

It should be possible to capitalize on these higher levels of consumer satisfaction with media today -- the choice, interactivity and personalization -- and put them to work in the interest of marketing relationships.

Instead, as a poster to The Consumerist blog observed following YouTube's announcement, "The whole thing makes me sad ... because it seems like everything that is great on the internet just gets inundated with advertising. I'm so sick of being marketed to all the time."

We have a problem here. We are squandering the best hope we've had in years to leverage consumer involvement with media in the interest of brand relationships.

Why? Consumers believe it's the money (which is always a sign that one side doesn't trust the other). Some of us in our industry have spoken up to agree.

Money matters, sure. But as a proposition to attract more users or sell more advertising, making money isn't going to set one media opportunity apart from another. We need better arguments to support the value proposition online.

Unfortunately, it is hard to make the argument that running ads along the bottom of video content enhances the experience for the user. It is hard to make the claim that pop-ups ensure consumers don't overlook valuable offers. It is also hard to say that personally identifiable information means only advertised products and services that are personally relevant.

I am a frequent flyer on American Airlines. Armed with that information, does it mean United and Delta will stop trying to sell me on the advantages of their service (or stop media salespeople from selling United and Delta on the advantages of reaching me about their service)? More generally, armed with the knowledge that I am a male over the age of 50, will it do something about all the basketball shoe ads I see?

Actually, I don't see any basketball shoe ads. I don't see any golf shoe ads, either. I don't play golf, and I don't frequent golf content or golf shops. In truth, the market already knows how to segment according to my personal preferences, which makes me suspect that we'll have to come up with a better reason for exploiting personal data to advertise. But, frankly, I can't think of one.

We're losing sight of our mission online, which is to reconcile consumers and advertisers after years of separation and drifting apart.

Years ago, audience figures for traditional media peaked and started to trend downward and media costs to advertisers kept rising. Consumers grabbed the remote and headed elsewhere, and still rates went up. Advertisers got fed up and put the brakes on, demanding first, added-value in return for their advertising dollar, and then increasing forms of accountability, mostly in the form of discounted prices for media and media services. All the while audiences were disbanding and fragmenting.

Then came the Internet and somehow -- somehow -- it got into the heads of everyone that the Internet would pay down the debt to advertisers for all those years of audience erosion with services like measurement, when, in fact, the real equity was audience, as in "growing audience", "happy audience", "glad-to-be-here audience", "gee-this-is-great ", audience!

Once upon a time that sort of engagement described television. It was magical and people loved it. It attracted vast, dedicated audiences that were excited about what was on. And so it follows that the Golden Age of television was a Golden Age of advertising and our collective ambition since has been to recapture the rapport between consumers, marketers and media that made it possible, and that built brands.

Welcome to the Internet where rapport is possible. People like the Internet. It is comprehensive to meet their need for answers, relevant to cater to their interests, timely to match their need to know, flexible to accommodate their schedules, and interactive to fulfill their need for involvement and community. Align advertisers with these values and the treasured relationships with people who buy their stuff will emerge.

What are our plans for this significant media resource? What are our plans to make media accountability stand for the relationship with the consumer? Already there are too many scorched patches in the industry's landscape that are the product of poor or aggressive harvesting techniques. How long before it leads to audience erosion and an inability to sustain growth?

My family watched a movie on television recently. We got a late start recording it with our DVR, which means that we caught-up with the live program in the last half hour after mostly fast forwarding through the commercials in the first two hours. Despite investing all that time watching the show, and with only 15 - 20 minutes remaining in the broadcast, we bailed after the second commercial break. Seven minutes of programming interrupted by five minutes of commercials was more than we could bear and there was no way out except to walk away.

So much for the history of television. What will be the history of the Internet?