Why Consumer Transparency Falls Flat
The social graph. Data portability. Privacy. Data control. Peerset CTO and Co-founder Amit Kanigsberg has a few things to share on these topics in this second post in a series on the use of personal data.
Pursuing Transparency is no Private Matter
What does transparency mean to you? In the online advertising industry it conjures one of two things: 1) For the advertiser, full insight into the ad serving stack (from agency to publisher) or 2) For the consumer, full insight into the targeting data ad networks and data providers collect (e.g., Google, Bluekai).
If your first thought was #1, you are forgiven. It is after all natural to follow the money. And there is plenty of it being strewn across that field. But I'll argue that you should be thinking about the consumer a bit more, the sleeping giant as it were. And if you jumped straight to #2, then I'd bet you felt that current efforts and lackluster hype around transparency seems a bit, well, lacking, slight, effervescent, wispy, ethereal - more translucent really.
You may have guessed from my leading comment about a slumbering leviathan that I intend to focus on the second meaning for transparency in online advertising.
Why consumer transparency falls flat
So what's missing? Why are current discussions and efforts to create transparency for the consumer so unsatisfying? Well first off, it just doesn't seem sincere coming from these groups. With the maelstrom of discourse on privacy flying about, the threat of possible consumer backlash (false) and governmental regulation (real) are the primary drivers influencing these groups to open the kimono. This is simply not a satisfying reason for a commercial organization to do anything. They are commercial, dammit, and should be providing products and services for the purposes of generating revenue, not protecting it.
A second reason that consumer transparency fails to deliver is that these offerings, scraps from Google's dinner table, really don't satisfy any real need that consumers have. Despite my suggestion that a current consumer backlash to privacy isn't likely, I actually do think there is a strong possibility of a backlash in the near future - not so much for the sake of privacy, but rather for the sake of data. I've written about this possibility in my last two posts in this series.
In them, I suggest that user-generated online data so coveted by advertisers should be of great interest to the consumers themselves, not for the purposes of protecting predominantly harmless chatter, but rather to gain material reward for its use by the creators. The consumer would recognize the role advertising plays in their online experience and embrace it as a full-fledged participant in the publisher-advertiser-consumer trinity.
Lacking in the current manifestation of transparency is a big piece of the informational puzzle - how exactly this consumer data is being derived and used. This is not a trivial matter and is obfuscated in the simple expression of a user's behavioral profile for a number of reasons. For one, this information is very complex to render, and secondly, the information may hold a few surprises the groups offering transparency are not ready to bestow upon the public. For instance, it would be very challenging for a company like Google to effectively relate to a consumer a) which advertisers are accessing their data through their network and b) how exactly it is being used to make targeting decisions.
So, I maintain that these current attempts at transparency are both insincere and largely useless to the consumer. But they are heading down the right track, and whatever the reasons behind the efforts, I do believe that they will create new and exciting opportunities.
A glimmer of light through the fog
We know that the IAB has taken a leadership role in trying to manage and define government regulation around privacy. They have also seen the need to play a public relations role as evident with this press release, "IAB Launches "Privacy Matters," Its First-Ever Consumer Education Campaign Demystifies Key Online Advertising Practices, Increases Awareness of Consumer Choice Tools"
Their site Privacy Matters, though still very early stage, doesn't offer much under "Choice Tools" besides a link to the NAI opt-out page. And, the discussion forums, though noting over 100,000 posts, seem to be populated with mostly prescription drug spammers. We'll have to watch this site to see whether it takes on a significant role in this dialogue.
There are a few companies pursuing transparency as a primary focus including PreferenceCentral, Better Advertising and Privacychoice. These nascent organizations are looking to bridge the advertiser consumer gulf by providing centralized transparency and control to consumers. They provide a different angle to transparency than the ad networks and data providers. Better Advertising and Privacychoice, for instance, provide browser plug-ins to consumers that will analyze tracking and provide some control.
Still, they seem to be based on the premise that consumers are going to be excited and motivated by the idea of transparency. And furthermore, they have to wave a carrot/stick to onboard advertisers and publishers - i.e., promise of increased consumer trust and avoidance of the wrong side of possible legislation and consumer backlash.
I believe that taking the approaches described above will not get the consumers and advertisers playing on the same field. The discussion needs to be re-oriented away from the red herring fallacy of over-hyped privacy concerns and onto the actual tangible and economic benefits all parties will gain from playing together.