Friday, September 28, 2007

The Battle for Relevance Rages On

I’m following up my opening rant with some news from the front. There were two very interesting developments in the battle for your attention this week that play exactly in to what I waxed on about last week.

First of all, the offensive move. made some fanfare in the news this week. Their new solution offers people the opportunity to make calls over the Internet for free if you don’t mind big brother listening in and attempting to serve you relevant ads at the same time. Early reviews are that the creep factor is more funny than creepy as a computer tries to pick out key words of wisdom from your blather and serve up ads that pertain to what you are wrapping about. I’ve signed up for the beta, so as soon as they let me in, I’ll be able to tell you more from a first hand perspective.

The interesting thing about ThePudding, is not what they are, but what they might be. They don’t plan to be a consumer-facing site in the medium term, but rather an offering for companies that provide voIP/ Internet telephony solutions. Free calls may soon be coming to Skype, Yahoo and others via a Pudding back end that enables these companies to make enough from advertising to more than cover the costs of Ma Bell’s connection charges and the thickened chocolate milk that makes it all possible. So are you willing to let a computer eavesdrop if its owner promises not to store anything you’ve said? These guys are hoping ThePudding is sweet enough to convince you to do so.

Next, the defensive move. If you tuned into NPR’s On the Media on Sunday, you were treated to a great story on Ad Block Plus, a plug in for Firefox that blocks almost all the ads you see while surfing the Internet. This one I did get to try. It works so well it is scary. Why scary? You can just imagine an advertising World War III where advertisers come up with ever more ingenious ways to serve us ads while an underground resistance figures out ways to block every new approach. The problem I foresee is that we are going to be the innocent civilians caught in the middle of this crossfire.

Ad Block Plus works by keeping a list of all of the sites that serve ads to websites and blocks those feeds, much like a virus list. Virus is an apt analogy for at least 3/4ths of the stuff I see. The folk at Internet hegemon, Google, must be seriously pissed. You buy DoubleClick for a king’s ransom as part of your attempt to sew up the entire digital marketing landscape and some joker with a .org figures out a way to block your ad feed. Sure, you can sue him to the center of the earth, but the cat is now out of the bag.

In the On the Media show, The NPR crew broached the topic of whether or not blocking ads was a form of stealing. The logic went that it costs real money to serve up these sites. If you block off their revenue source, you are essentially taking something for free – their offering – be it news, maps, reviews, or e-mail. On the surface, I agree that we do have a real problem if we bite the Internet hands that feed us. On the other hand, I’ve had to look at the same horribly annoying flashing low interest rate banner above my Yahoo e-mail inbox for the better part of a year. Yahoo must be so proud of themselves knowing that I have a mortgage. Now if they just knew when it was time for me to refinance or how unlikely I was to click on a chartreuse banner that looks like it was designed by some ex-used car salesmen. Part of me says it serves them right. Violate our trust long enough and if we are given a way to opt out, we do. Just ask the churn department at your wireless carrier.

This particular battle will be fascinating to watch. I predict détente will come in the form of permission-based marketing on sites we frequent fueled by a whole series of new companies that get much much better at behavioral targeting. Truly relevant ads? What a novel idea. It’s so novel, it’s novious.

No comments: