Brand Bullies’ Scorched-Web Policy: A Dissent


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I guess my mind just doesn’t work the same way as a lot of the advertising experts who bring their agency experience to bear on the online advertising world. My instinct tells me that there’s always been something wrong with the way big media, big corporations generally, and big agencies have thought about the Internet. I thought Godin had it right in Permission Marketing. The history of advertising was a history that supported intrusive forms of shrill shouting about a few established brands, but this history is no longer supported by socioeconomic reality. Maybe Godin was making it up, but I believed him because I wanted to believe in a less-intrusive model. And because I have faith in the ability of the average consumer to filter out the unprecedented levels of noise.

At the very least, it has to be acknowledged that the noise alone is not enough to gain traction – especially if you are somewhere short of Fortune 1000 status. Shouldn’t the best minds in ad agencies be seeking viable alternatives to the noise, rather than doing the best possible spin job on the status quo? I guess it depends on who your customers are, but if your particular customers aren’t the lowest common denominator of people unworthy of anything but market-research-driven contempt, i.e. if you have customers who ask questions, want answers, have specialized needs, etc.; in other words, if you seek to reach savvy 21st century consumers, then I daresay you’d be in deep trouble if you listened to the folks who sell Metamucil, Pampers, Pringles, those delicious mountain-grown Folger’s crystals, and several hundred more of the world’s most recognizable consumer brands for Procter & Gamble. I mean, they’re doing just dandy. Fine for them. But there are other products you could be selling to those same audiences, and other ways of reaching them (thankfully, since 30-second spots on 60 Minutes will set you back a few bucks).

In spite of their professed differences, Godin’s (often abused) concept of permission marketing, and Christopher Locke’s enthusiasm for two-way online-channel-enhanced “micromarkets” seem both to capture the potential for a kinder, gentler form of customer targeting and long-term customer relationship building that seem to be lost on the old guard of big brand spam artists. Both authors, for what it’s worth, are avid bloggers (count me in, too), so read these weblogs for their latest relevant and random insights. Pay special attention to the part about Kikkoman man. I didn’t want to be the one to tell you about it.

And while we’re at it:

… and don’t forget, even if her philosophical leanings are somewhere to the right of Robert Nozick’s.

Is consumer savvy on the upswing? That would be like asking if more women vote today than did in 1870. Or if more people blog today than did so in 1997. Of course it is. So what’s the answer, then? Fight the inevitable with more tricks? Or understand and adjust?

There have always been a minority of discerning consumers who buy Consumer Reports, read up on the reliability of the automobile they’re considering buying, etc. But we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg so far. The Internet is like one big Consumer Reports. To be sure, when it comes to once-in-a-lifetime romantic purchases like that new Infiniti sport coupe (gentlemen, begin salivating now), or that cashmere dog sweater (only $800, impress your friends, ignore your credit rating), we’re apt to get caught up in the moment and spend without thinking rationally. But when you’re wondering where they actually make Maytag washers, and how good the latest model is, how hard is it to trudge over to the computer and look for facts and user testimonials with the help of Google or Epinions or the weblog of
some online cult hero? A new age of consumer empowerment – and sometimes, backlash – is upon us. It doesn’t matter if half of it is fake or unjustified; the point is, even if it’s fake or perpetrated by half-wits half the time, on the whole, consumers’ newly-empowered online voices are very real (see for example).

And the old guard have no idea what’s about to hit them. Information is consumer power, and there is only so much you can do to control its flow. You could carpet-bomb people with email and pretend it isn’t spam, but what if 5,000 other companies thought of the same thing? Do you think response rates for these quasi-permission emails are headed up or down?

The opposite of the old way is, well, the new way that writers like Godin and Locke have advocated.

Notice the LookSmart ad at the top of this newsletter.

  1. It’s placed in a targeted opt-in newsletter, so it’s not bothering a lot of uninterested people but rather, addressing a micromarket. It’s text with a link. You click if you’re interested. You don’t click if you’re not. Because you’re reading this, you’re more likely to be interested than most. Nothing pops up at you.
  2. It does use staples of traditional advertising, like a coupon code and a time-limited offer.
  3. If offers something for free (information) in exchange for permission to be added to an opt-in mailing list. The Internet didn’t invent this, but it has refined this old lead-generation model considerably and made it more quantifiable, IMHO.
  4. It doesn’t abuse your operating system or take up half your screen just because you were trusting enough to switch on your computer today.
  5. Clickthrough rates and response rates are trackable. Unlike traditional blast-em brand awareness ads on television, on billboards, etc., if no one pays attention to the ad this time around, chances are the ad won’t keep showing up in this space. This saves the advertiser money, and keeps irrelevant crap out of the reader’s field of vision.

Hey, just an example. Better go click on the LookSmart ad so you can see what I mean. 😉

For whatever reason, I had begun to take Godin and Locke and their friends for granted. I’d gotten used to the joys of helping clients make their sites search-engine-friendly (yep, admittedly, a lot of search engine optimizers are spammers, too… sadly), and helping clients and thousands of readers to better understand the benefits of targeted pay-per-click ads near search results. So my instinctive dislike of the Gator password-remembering tool and its habit of popping up advertising from a competing site when you surf to a web site, my dislike of manipulative advertising creative (the kind that makes you click on false pretenses), and so forth, started to seem like just good common sense to me. I started to forget that the powerful traditional advertising biz still rules the roost!

Reading some recent articles by ad industry veterans brought me back to earth. I’m talking about the writers who are sanguine about the effectiveness of Gator’s pop-ups (no mention of their lack of ethics and the numerous lawsuits against them for “computer trespassing” and so forth); those who argue that “intrusive is better than irrelevant” (what straw figure that argument was meant to shoot down I can’t imagine); cynical old young people who promote this year’s crop of “similar-sounding ad middleman firms you’ve never heard of” whose hazy tracking and ad placement methodologies cheat both advertisers and publishers, not to mention (as usual) tricking the dumbest consumers they can find; etc. These goings-on remind me that the old gang is hoping that the old tricks will keep working. As Searls and Weinberger wrote:

“Ever since the Web showed up, business-as-usual has desperately tried to pipe-weld it onto the back end of TV’s history. The money at stake is huge. McCann-Erickson reports more than $45.5 billion spent on TV advertising in the United States alone in 1998. In the same year, total worldwide advertising expenses passed $400 billion. That’ll keep a lot of axes in a lot of heads.

But it won’t work on the Web, because networked markets aren’t passive spectators waiting to receive the next marketing message. The Web isn’t home to advertising-as-usual. The “push” movement of 1997 became the pushover of 1998.”

The balance of power in trade journals like and in big-brand-centric marketing associations (AIMS Canada) still seems to tilt towards the old ways. Escalation of the quasi-spamming activities of large corporations (“permission market” them ‘til their inboxes burst), Gator pop-ups, and newfangled,
ever-more-intrusive-but-certainly-highly-effective-and-relevant-and-necessary-unless-you-live-on-Mars-right methods of delivering online advertising (i.e. push all over again) seem to be discussed so unproblematically by many well-decorated contributors of industry wisdom. To so blithely come out with all these nuggets, a set of assumptions must be at play, foremost among them being the image of the consumer as cannon fodder (especially at holiday time).

Eric Picard (no doubt a standout in his field, and I don’t mean to single anyone out), in a recent piece entitled “@d:tech NY Rises Like a Phoenix” (, gave a mention to a company I’ve always found intriguing: Applied Semantics. Like Google, AltaVista, and Inktomi, Applied Semantics grew out of a commitment to information retrieval science. When I last talked with a co-founder of the company (at a search engine marketing conference in 2001), he looked bewildered at the whole premise of the conference: companies trying to get better listing on search engines without paying for it. “I’ve had my head so wrapped up in meaning-based search,” he mused, “I guess I can’t believe anyone wastes their time trying to trick search engines.” I smiled.

At some point, though, their VC investors demanded a focus on the “applied” in Applied Semantics. Since the company reinvented itself with some new product lines, it has been quite enterprising in the way that it has found customers for real market applications of its basic linguistic “meaning-based search” technology. But there’s one part of their lineup I hate: the way they partner with owners of large numbers of domain names to serve up bogus directories of “useful links” on dormant domains. The other partner in the transaction is Overture, whose sponsored listings are the so-called useful links. I don’t like this because it’s deceptive in at least two ways. It cheats advertisers, who put their money into Overture thinking their ads are showing up in search results on Yahoo and MSN, not on these second-rate non-sites. And it’s just plain manipulative to the consumer who stumbles on the domain. If this partnership is the “neatest” thing Picard can think of in relation to Applied Semantics – something that potentially exposes paying advertisers to bogus or low quality clicks, and assumes that some consumer out there somewhere is eager and willing to see these faux-directory pages of PPC links (or confused enough to click on them for the hell of it) – then he either needs to do his homework, or he just doesn’t care. As long as there is technology that helps “deliver” message in top-down fashion to confused, helpless consumer recipient, yippee, and long live the availability of venture capital to fund the providers of this technology. Hmm. Remember Pointcast?

There used to be about a million companies who were going to help advertisers send cool multimedia emails out to willing consumers. These companies – Flo Networks, Messagemedia, and 1,000 others – were big news. There are still quite a few of them around, but somehow they never quite lived up to the hype. Can you think of a reason? Like maybe it’s not very hard for 1,000 spammers to send emails out to compete with the cool animations you’re planning to send out as a “legitimate” advertiser? To the point where the consumer won’t let ANYTHING into their box that isn’t personal, anticipated, and relevant, no matter how pretty it looks? Former Internet stock investing guru Steve Harmon (I’m not making this up) once predicted that MessageMedia could become one of the world’s most important communications companies; that it might be “the next AT&T.” Don’t bother checking MESG on Nasdaq. The stock price went to nearly nothing, then Messagemedia got bought for next to nothing by another struggling company. Another aggregation of top-down broadcast-oriented spammers bites the dust.

I guess, like Searls, Weinberger, Locke, and Godin, I just ain’t hooked up quite right for the 20th century. But in the contemporary era, I submit, thinking different might actually coincide with making a buck. Let’s just hope that when they finish scorching the web with “intrusive is better than irrelevant” crapola, there are any decent human beings left paying attention to this channel and willing to give us their permission to interact.

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