The Data Tsunami Is Coming

Wrinkled with spelling errors and published red-line edits, premium online content too often looks like it was left in the dryer overnight.

The layout of premium Web sites too often look like a teenager’s room, with ads strewn all over the place and sponsored-content suggestions sticking out from under the mattress.

The pre-roll video ads we force site visitors to battle were literally a featured joke in the most recent episode of HBO’s "Silicon Valley."

The native advertising every premium publisher now sells, causes readers to have a lower opinion of the media outlet where it was published, according to recent research.

The premium publishing business online is an unequivocal disaster because we operate it as if consumers will always visit our sites regardless of how badly we treat them.

The mentality from the very beginning was, don’t worry about this month’s audience returning to the site.  There will be a brand-new group next month.   So let’s call them unique monthly users, and let’s use them back however we see fit.   



I was there when we started mistreating users. I helped sell a million-dollar ad program in 1999 for (part of   The advertiser was, and the deal included $900K in rotating ad impressions and sponsored edit integration.  

The deal also had a “back end” component.   When visitors who registered for the site were offered the choice to receive various email newsletters from Chickclick editors, they were also offered one from  If users chose to receive email from Gloss, we transferred their email address to the client and charged a dollar per name.

When this functionality was built into the Chickclick registration page, the product person placed the check button for the email in the “opt out” box to start, just as they did for the various editorial newsletters.  Chickclick was about empowering young women.  Users were given a clear choice to actively opt in to receive email newsletters from our editors.

But at a dollar per name and quarterly promises to keep, the business team wrestled this product manager to the ground, and the button got moved to a default of “opt in.”  

The editors were furious, as thousands of Chickclick user email addresses were given away without explicit consent, and I got paid commissions on another $500K in revenue.  

We knew and didn’t care that this number was bloated with users who did not actually choose to receive a email. 

The Chickclick editors never looked at me the same.

Back then, we sold out our audience by selling their email addresses.  Today publishers take users’ personal data without permission and sell them out in the same way.  

When defending our “data collection” practices to the federal content police, online advertising association leaders sound like insane stalkers who believe Taylor Swift invited them over, when they explain “We take users’ data because we’re trying to help them.”

The reality of stalking of course, is that you are scaring away the very audience you covet.  Each time publishers sell and serve an overtly targeted ad impression, they remind their audience they are being watched in their own home.  

Overt ad targeting is perversely and inextricably tied to the trampling of user privacy, and a tidal wave of consumer resentment is building.  

Ad-blocking growth projections are scary -- not just because of the raw numbers, but because of the ease of use, and the immediate and obvious improvement users who download a blocker experience.

Last week, MediaPost editor Wendy Davis reported something very interesting.  According to a study conducted by the U.S. Commerce Department, 45% of 41,000 households surveyed have curbed their online activity due to “privacy or security fears.”

Overt ad targeting is going to cause users to abandon premium Web sites, just as they have abandoned their personal email address inboxes, which are flooded with “targeted relevant” emails they never asked to receive.

Publishers need to sell advertising to make money.   They also have to manage the expense of earning that revenue.

The expense incurred by treating your audience poorly is tough to measure.  So this expense will continue to go unmanaged, the assault on user privacy will continue to rage on, and a tsunami of consumer resentment will continue to race toward land.

The only way premium publishers can survive is to operate on a higher ground and stop taking and using personal data to sell overtly targeted ads.  Sounds crazy in today’s data-driven climate, but if publishers rose above this current practice, they would find themselves standing next to Snapchat, which doesn’t use personal data to sell ads.  But what do those kids know about building a business in today’s media world?

3 comments about "The Data Tsunami Is Coming".
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  1. Peter Rosenwald from Consult Partners, May 23, 2016 at 12:59 p.m.

    There is a lot of very compelling stuff there and we would do well to think seriously about all the implications.

    The problem is where to draw the line between unrequested but 'targetted' content and simply using as much data as poassible to target people who will or are likely to purchase.

    Over and over, it is a judgement call and it is a judgement call more often than not motivated by the desire for profitable response.

    Anyone out there know where to draw the line? 

  2. Ari Rosenberg from Performance Pricing Holdings, LLC, May 23, 2016 at 1:39 p.m.

    @ Peter -- you bring up an interesting point/question -- where is the "line" -- I would offer up, Gender and Age Segments and call it a day but I am sure I am in the minority there.

  3. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, June 12, 2016 at 10:39 a.m.

    Do not track. Do not track. Do not track. Period. Abuse of every sort has been a part of humanity since the big bang. Self control does not work and it must be regulated, like it or not.

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