User tracking as Chesterton's Fence
30 May 2017
G.K. Chesterton once wrote
In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.
Bob Hoffman makes a good case for getting rid of user tracking in web advertising. But in order to take the next steps, and not just talk among ourselves about things that would be really great in the future, we first need to think about the needs that tracking seems to satisfy for legit marketers.
What I'm not going to do is pull out the argument that's in every first comment on every blog post that criticizes tracking: that "adtech" is just technology and is somehow value-neutral. Tracking, like all technologies, enables some kinds of activity better than others. When tracking offers marketers the opportunity to reach users based on who the user is rather than on what they're reading, watching, or listening to, then that means:
tracking enables low-reputation sites to compete with high-reputation sites for the same ad budgets, so high-reputation sites lose market power to enforce a quality user experience.
jihadis, right-wing shitlords, and fraud gangs move faster and smarter than marketers do. So tracking tends to support brand-unsafe content.
But if tracking is so bad, then why, when you go to any message board or Q&A site that discusses marketing for small businesses, is everyone discussing those nasty, potentially civilization-extinguishing targeted ads? Why is nobody popping up with a question on how to make the next They Laughed When I Sat Down At the Piano?
Targeted ads are self-serve and easy to get started with. If you have never bought a Twitter or Facebook ad, get out your credit card and start a stopwatch. These ads might be crappy, but they have the lowest time investment of any legit marketing project, so probably the only marketing project that time-crunched startups can do.
Targeted ads keep your OODA loop tight. Yes, running targeted ads can be addictive—If you thought the the attention slot machine game on social sites was bad, try the advertiser dashboard. But you're able to use them to learn information that can help with the rest of marketing. If you have the budget to exhibit at one conference, compare Twitter ads targeted to attendees of conference A with ads targeted to attendees of conference B, and you're closer to an answer.
Marketing has two jobs: sell stuff to customers and sell Marketing to management. Targeting is great for the second one, since it comes with the numbers that will help you take credit for results.
We're not going to be able to get rid of risky tracking until we can understand the needs that it fills, not just for big advertisers who can afford the time and money to show up in Cannes every year, but for the company founder who still has $1.99 business cards and is doing all of Marketing themselves.
(The party line among web privacy people can't just be that GDPR is going to save us because the French powers that be are all emmerdés ever since the surveillance/shitlord complex tried to run a US-style game on their political system. That might sound nice, but put not your trust in princes, man. Even the most arrogant Eurocrats in the world will not be able to regulate indefinitely against all the legit business people in their countries complaining that they can't do something they see as essential. GDPR will be temporary air cover for building an alternative, not a fix in itself.)
Post-creepy web advertising is still missing some key features.
Branding and signaling metrics. We know the hard math works out against tracking and targeting, and we know about the failure of targeted media to build brands in the long run, but we don't have good numbers that are usable day to day. The "customer journey" has nice graphs, but brand equity doesn't.
Quick, low-risk service. With the exception of the Project Wonderful model, targeted ads are quick and low-risk, while signal-carrying ads are the opposite. A high-overhead direct ad sales process is not a drop-in replacement for an easy web form.
I don't think that's all of them. But I don't think that the move to post-creepy web advertising is going to be a rush, all at once, either. Brands that have fly-by-night low-reputation competitors, brands that already have many tracking-protected customers, and brands with solid email lists are going to be able to move faster than marketers who are still making tracking work. More: Work together to fix web ads? Let's not.