“The world doesn't owe you a living,” my father would shout at me when I was growing up. My father was prone to such outbursts since he was responsible for raising a son who majored in theater and thought you could make a living as a folk singer. I don't want to discourage any budding Bob Dylans out there, and I still do pull the old guitar out now and then, but now I make my living working for an Internet company: a real job. I bring this up because of the recent hand-winging over Internet privacy and some of the justifications used by many to explain the covert lifting of personal usage and demographic data in the name of benefiting the consumer.
The argument goes something like this: “All that great Web content has to be paid for somehow. There is no free lunch. Advertising isn't working: Click-throughs are down. By taking personal data, preferences and, most important, shopping habits, I can deliver better ads and more personalized offers that benefit the consumer. I can also make money selling this data to other folks who also want to offer more targeted ads to people. And what's wrong with that? The Web remains free. Besides, how else do they expect me to make a living?” Change this argument slightly to suit the business model — ad network, publisher, advertising sponsor — and you have a rather compelling story. Except for one thing. As my father would say, “The world doesn't owe you a living.”
And here the argument begins to unravel. Does anyone really believe (besides Tandy Corp.) that giving my address to Radio Shack when I buy batteries just so it can bombard me with “targeted” junk mail is a benefit to me as a consumer? Do you know how much “targeted” junk mail I receive every day? And now my inbox at home and at work is brimming, too. Rather than the advertising supporting rich content, the content is a ruse to get me to opt in, or force me to opt out, of something. Something that I don't need, something that I don't want, something that has “targeted” me in its sights like a sniper.
Don't get me wrong. I love advertising. The problem is not that Web ads are not targeted enough. The problem is that Web ads are not good enough. In fact, for the most part, they stink. As chairman of the Rich Media Special Interest Group, I see incredible, compelling work every day. I've written before and spoken about the mind-blowing work being done by Freestyle Interactive (www.freestyleinteractive.com) in San Francisco, and there is good news this week about Red Sky Interactive merging with Nuforia, expanding a company that gets rich media into a seven-city, 315-employee powerhouse. But for the most part, publishers, agencies, ad networks and ad-serving companies are clueless about rich media, no matter how much lip service they give to supporting rich media in their company power point presentations.
The facts are the following: Rich media works. It generates better click-throughs; it creates a better user experience. It can be fun, compelling and entertaining, just like the best commercials in any medium. There are rich-media types that will work in any environment — broadband, narrowband, fast CPU, slow CPU, with plug-ins and without — and each will create a better experience for the consumer than static, boring ads, no matter how targeted they are.
And if you want to target, how about doing it in a way that doesn't rob me of my personal information, unless I want to give it to you. There are plenty of avenues to explore that will increase your return on investment without having to have the expertise of an ex-CIA agent. For marketers, lack of imagination is no excuse for theft.
Let me make a prediction: Unless your company finds a way to stand firmly on the side of the consumer, work with the consumer, work for the consumer, you'll be out of business, and you'll bring the rest of the Internet down along with you. Rich media is one way. Go. Find some more. After all, the world doesn't owe you a living.