You are the product

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Be outraged. Facebook is no longer allowing you to hide and not be found in searches. Instagram is including ads in stream and getting rid of the ability to stop auto-play. LinkedIn is selling your “endorsements”. Google is reading your email and serving you ads based on those emails. WordPress shows ads in exchange for free hosting in content to the world.

If these things bother you (and I believe they might) you must also acknowledge that all of these products and services do not cost anything upfront to use. Yes, you can argue that we are subsidizing them through our subscriptions with network providers like AT&T and Comcast, yet those companies have a more traditional business model than those in the online ether.

In the old economy, you pay for services and products in a lump sum or monthly, in cash or by financing a purchase. In the new attention-based economy (and yes, I do think it’s new), you pay incrementally with data, behaviors, and transactions over time.

Because we’re not used to the idea that we are the product, when we find our providers selling this data, we get upset. We wonder how this data (ours) could be sold to the highest bidder. Yet we created this data asset on a free platform (and willingly).

Some will say that the techniques used to get us to participate are coercive, manipulative, or downright evil. I think that the root of the issue is that we don’t control access to our own data. Today, the only way to avoid becoming a product is to avoid participating in this economy. Yet more and more economic models and businesses are being hybridized to include elements of *free* – it’s hard to opt out.

What should we do? Build alternate models: a model based on identity (and a paid one) is a good incentive to control how that identity is used and sold. Companies should offer this in the market as an alternative to *free*. If we all had an API of Me and a way to share some data that companies want to use to make us the product, we could know how the data is being used. We are the product, and now we need to learn how to shape that product in the new economy.

Why #Brandbowl Matters Just as Much as the Superbowl

photo by http://www.flickr.com/photos/mhjohnston/
photo by http://www.flickr.com/photos/mhjohnston/

Today, people around the world will be communicating on social media and sharing their ideas, snark, and observations about (arguably) the world’s most important day for advertising spend. Of course, we’re talking about the Advertisements shared during the Super Bowl. The fourth #brandbowl might be one of the best places to observe this phenomenon as it plays out in real time. The event, originated by Boston agency Mullen and now hosted by Boston.com, invites Twitter participants to share their thoughts about the $4 million spots that will be shown during the commercial breaks of the Super Bowl.

Why #brandbowl matters

There are two main things happening on Super Bowl Sunday: there’s a football game to determine the Championship of the National Football League and there will be many simultaneous parties happening where the largest single audience outside of the Olympics will be gathered to celebrate America’s unofficial national holiday over Wings and Beer. And there is a separate competition for bragging rights over the most striking advertising of the year, as agencies attempt to one up each other with sentiment, spectacle, and humor. (And there will probably be the usual smattering of movie trailers, in-house local ads, and “we couldn’t figure out what to do, so we ran an old ad” punts).

The Biggest Audience, so what should you show?

The Brand Bowl matters because it’s the biggest single mass audience any brand is likely to get in the age of the Internet. It’s the opportunity to break out and create a memorable national event on the order of Apple’s famous 1984 ad.

Except that most of the time, the ads shown in the Super Bowl are so strident (either in their interruption, their “edginess”, the quest to have an ad so sexy or violent that it’s “banned”, or just their general stupidity) or bland in their attempt to reach a mass audience that they are easily forgotten and don’t even trigger a memory of the brand at hand. The amount of money spent is staggering, when you consider that the $4m to get your ad on the air is just table stakes.

The Value of Real-time Conversation

So #Brandbowl is an amazing real-time narrative of that process to go along with the “official” Superbowl Ad result articles that will be paraded around in the coming days (and this year, many of the ads were released early so that they could be reviewed, and potentially build additional buzz even before the event.) It’s also the only place where you can get people trash-talking about commercials in real time. It’s entertaining, funny, and sometimes even sublime. I look forward to seeing you there today.

Why Vine and Other Short-Form Video is Important

Redvines Punning with Vine - a New Form of Ad?
Redvines Punning with Vine – a New Form of Ad?

Video is not just for Cats

When Twitter announced the Vine product that allows you to share 6 second videos with friends, you may have thought as I did that the whole genre of app development was getting a little too specific. “Why would anyone want to share a short video with friends?” was admittedly my first thought, and oh was I wrong. In the last week I have seen some amazing content on Vine that included: a stop-action movie of a “magic 6 ball,” a visual postcard from India, and some other very clever uses of video that caught my attention, made me think about short video as an art form, and challenged me to reassess my original ideas about Vine.

Why does Video Matter?

Short-form video is important because

  • The sound and movement gets your attention
  • It doesn’t take long to download
  • It can be personal, broadcast, or just something entirely new (a serial told in 6 second chapters?)

The first reason short-form video is vitally important (especially in this format) is that Vine was designed from the beginning to be social and mobile. Video is inherently interruptive in nature — both in the combined use of audio and video that commands your view — and the visual dopamine hit you can get from seeing something novel and interesting (and no, not talking about Vine’s porn problem here, as I think that will fade in view over time) is fulfilled very very quickly by Vine. The fact that you can fill a few seconds of your time with interesting content is a great sign for Vine.

We Communicate Visually

Short-form video is also important because it’s an evolution in the way that we communicate with each other (both on a one to one and on a multicast basis.) Because Vine is owned by Twitter, it’s reasonable to assume that the Vine features will percolate into Twitter over time, and the idea of making both a video for an individual person or for an audience will develop. My first impressions of this medium are that it’s compelling because it’s novel and also because it’s not too much work to discover some amazing, creative work.

Where will short-form video go from here? We’re in the early days, and short-term video seems well suited to survive (and thrive) as a third screen. If the tablet is the de facto second screen to the computer or Television, then the mobile-only video will have a place as well. I’m looking forward to seeing visual content that moves back and forth across these different visual modalities like a gigantic visual treasure hunt. And Vine would be a great way (if you could geofence it) to provide visual clues to a scavenger that only pop up when you’re within 50 meters of the target. The possibilities are intriguing, particularly for brands that want customers to engage via mobile.

What’s Next for Short-form Video?

Short-form video is here to stay, and Vine is an interesting first step in moving the animated gif into the mobile age. Because of the distribution that already exists in the Twitter ecosystem, I’m certain that Sponsored Vines are only a few clicks away – and by the way Twitter, if you can target these ads to me based on the people or brands with which I follow and engage, that will make those Vines more interesting to watch. You can find me on Vine – I’d love to see what you’re doing there – and in the absence of profile pages, watch this 6 second video of my dog

The API of Me

photo courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/thomashawk/

What is the “API of Me”?

When you think about browsing the web on your computer, tablet, or mobile device, you undoubtedly think about the ads presented to you, the information stored by companies whose websites you visit, and the other information they might know about you. If you are are particularly privacy-conscious, you make take additional measures to mitigate the tracking and categorizing of your online activity, or “digital exhaust” in addition to the explicit places you visit.

This tracking presents opportunities and disadvantages for all consumers, and particular benefit or detriment depending upon the consumer involved. If you are a frequent visitor to an outdoor products site that sells skiing equipment and you also visit a ski resort web site, you might not mind seeing an advertisement or a special offer to purchase sporting equipment. If you research a mental health issue that you didn’t wish to share with others, you might be shocked to see relevant content to your search show up in your search results on Facebook. Yet both of those scenarios are technologically possible and increasingly in use as you peruse the Internet from many sources. Add to that data the ability to provide additional context from when and where you view these sites, and retailers and others alike already have deep information stores with which to present us with information.

Is there a way to shape the ads you see and protect your data?

So how can you – the “typical” consumer who would like to get more relevant information while maintaining the privacy and security of your information appropriate to your comfort level – regulate what these companies know about you? Some of this information is regulated (the degree to which your wireless provider can track your movements and share data with advertisers) and a lot of this information – especially that which can be correlated and presented using the techniques of “big data” – is much fuzzier.

I believe that we as consumers have a right to control the data we share about and between the services and products we use, and that the economic benefit of using and sharing that information by companies should be more transparent. “The API of Me” is the name I’d like to propose for a system of capturing, sharing, and limiting information about consumers that presupposes the following ideas:

  1. The current online identity system is hopelessly fragmented and controlled by companies, not consumers.
  2. Customers and browsers (people who consume media and do not purchase) have a right to know how their information is being used.
  3. Companies have a right to make money off of this consumption and have a moral obligation to share with customers how their data is being used to make money.
  4. A system should exist to allow customers to make their preferences known that allows the customer to maintain the repository of choices and information and to provide some, all, or none of that information to companies who ask; the system should also respond similarly whether there is an account or not.
  5. We all need a service that can expand our existing electronic identity to other future uses and to allow those future uses to learn more about us and to provide better service, more utility, and societal good while minimizing the possibility of “bad actors” to make inappropriate use of that information.
  6. This idea needs to support an elegant, multi-factor authentication solution that’s as simple as possible, and no simpler.

And why would anyone use this idea?

Why would customers use The API of Me? There are more and more identity services in use today, and as they cross-reference the items we search, our movements, and the items we consume/read/watch, it’s more important than ever to have the ability to selectively publish information without being overwhelmed by a complicated array of privacy controls (have you looked at your Facebook privacy settings recently?)

Some would say that we shouldn’t have such a comprehensive source for individual information because of the danger of having it compromised when the inevitable lousy passwords are used by people who can’t be bothered to secure their personal data locker. Yet the increasing ubiquity of Facebook, Google, and Twitter-based identity systems make it more and more likely that this is a danger anyway. I’m proposing that some smart people determine a well-designed way for the 80% of us who care and want to solve this problem to be able to do so and gain more control over our data.

And why would businesses care about the API of Me? Consumers are social beings who want to have relationships with the businesses they use. They may not actually want to be contacted by those businesses, but they do want to know how and why their information is being used, and some of them even want to have the option of being paid for the use of this information. Businesses can use this knowledge to open up whole new personalized markets that don’t exist today, and better avoid alienating customers who really want to opt out.

The Future: Personal Data and Micro-segmentation

Right, you say, what if everyone opts out? But they won’t. Businesses built more like the Apple App Store, the Zappos shoe-buying experience, the Amazon online store, and the Nordstrom clothing business will thrive with better, more data-driven relationships with customers. And lower-end, logistics-savvy companies like Wal*Mart are already using Big Data in the aggregate to deliver diapers, beer, and other necessities to communities in advance of a forecasted weather event.

The future of micro-segmentation depends upon the consumer being able to self-segment. And whether that desire is to provide as much information as possible in exchange for payment or to opt-out completely, The API of Me gives consumers the ability to specify what data they will share and how they will share it, and companies a reliable near-infinite segmentation that they can use to better serve customers and open new markets.

Customers ask for more choice than they want

photo courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/lamentables/

More Choice == Good, Right?

It seems logical: people who buy stuff want choice (lots and lots of it.) We’ve built buying models, stores, and services that ensure that customers can buy whatever they want, whenever they want, and (almost) whereever they want. But giving someone a near-infinite number of choices doesn’t always help to buy faster or to be more confident – it often stops the buying process in its tracks.

Too much choice overloads a buyer (or browser) – see the classic Jam Experiment – and prevents them from getting to your ultimate goal. You want customers to buy your product or service, become a happily served customer who understands why that product or service is important to them, and agrees with the job that they hired you for. That job is to provide that product or service at what they perceive to be the “right” price.

A simple idea with broad implications

Here’s one solution to try: remove choice from buyers whenever possible. This sounds a bit draconian, but think of it in light of Clay Shirky’s advice to avoid filter failure. Shirky advises us to get better filters and not worry about having too much information. The best designed products and services do exactly that: either limit what they can do, and let you know it up front; or hide their complexity to be revealed in context for the buyer (or customer) who wants and needs that extra information. This is a user experience version of the concept of information hiding, abstracting the unnecessary details until they are needed.

What does limited choice enable?

Limiting choice results in mass market products because if you do it right you’ve achieved 80% of the functionality or benefit of the big idea, using only 20% of the complexity. Limited (and smart) choices result in a natural monopoly at scale, and improve sales or the speed of the sales cycle. Think of iPhone, Southwest Airlines, and Uber – these are all businesses that provide a well designed product or service, do what they do really well – and don’t try to serve the whole market.

Limiting choice also creates dissatisfaction for some people – they want it all, and would prefer no limitations. Android, Private Charter Service, and Private Car Sharing are great examples of these options, and I don’t want to imply that they are not good options – just that the addition of choice also often adds complexity and cost. Adding choice in these situations forces the user to make more decisions, often resulting in a slower sales cycle or an increased likelihood that the end user experience will be variable 😉

When you should you embrace as much choice as possible?

If you’re not trying to create a natural monopoly or want to create a service that offers as much choice as possible, a business that promotes “long tail” options – or those that individually do not offer enough profit to survive but when aggregated offer excellent potential – is a strong option. If the ideas are hard to bundle (think different kinds of books or music), might be handmade or limited production (like in Etsy), then providing a marketplace with as much choice as possible will help.

Adding choice can create chaos and a longer buying cycle. For the right business it will also unlock different buyers than the mass-market opportunity. So what about the compelling idea that more choice results in better informed buyers? Buyers who want this information will ask for it – provide this to them in context and try to avoid overloading people who don’t ask – until they need it.

What’s the desired outcome of the right amount of choice?

Matching available choice with the type of business you’re running is important. Too much choice and too little interest on behalf of buyers to determine why they should choose one option over another will just drive buyers away. Too little choice and not enough obvious utility (usually, 9x as much) will discourage existing users of other products and services from switching to your point of view.

The right amount of choice will bring:

  • faster buying cycles
  • more well-informed customers (when they want to be informed) who get what they want when they need it
  • happier buyers and happier sellers

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