Ledger Domain: How and Why Marketers Can Improve Their Implementations of the Blockchain

Looking At Milky Way, Image by Wall Boat

Is there any product, service or technology out there today that’s just a click away from offering people the virtual equivalent of a cure for the common cold that costs less than a dollar and tastes better than chocolate? No, of course not. But as new innovations inevitably rise and fall along the waves of the tech hype cycle, the true potential of The Next Big Tech Thing often takes years to become fully realized and optimized for a deep and wide variety of markets.

One of today’s leading candidates competing for this top-level billing is the blockchain.¹ It is enjoying massive media buzz, investment and experimentation in configuring it for a diversity of applications including, among many others, food supply chains, financial services and artists rights. This technology is providing new means to accomplish business tasks more securely and reliably, thus increasing operational efficiencies.

Yet whether the blockchain can and will fully and effectively scale in all circumstances still remains to be seen by many sectors of the business world. An inherently key question at the very heart of the blockchain’s growth and acceptance is whether marketers and advertisers can leverage many of its technological virtues and, if so, how they can best accomplish this?

Taking a deeply insightful and informative look at of the latest developments concerning this is a highly informative recent article entitled How Blockchain Can Help Marketers Build Better Relationships with Their Customers, by Campbell R. Harvey, Christine Moorman and Marc Toledo, posted on the Harvard Business Review website on October 1, 2018. I highly recommend a click-through and full read if you have an opportunity.

I will summarize and annotate this, reference in some related Subway Fold posts, and then pose some of my own ad-free questions.

The Benefits of Diminishing Transaction Costs

Economic Gardening, Image by Missy Schmidt

According to a February 2018 CMO Survey, just 8% of its participants rated the usage of the blockchain in their marketing operations as being “moderately or very important”. This technology is still “not well understood” among marketers and perceived as being over-hyped. This has resulted in a “wait and see” attitude about it. Nonetheless, there are compelling reasons to understand the blockchain and build specific marketing applications for it that will be more likely to benefit early adopters and innovators.

The blockchain’s virtues of “transparency, immutability and security” make it very suitable for a wide range of transactional and managerial functions. Likewise, it lowers the costs involved in executing all of these activities and, even more importantly, the need to rely so heavily on the web’s giant advertising intermediaries (primarily Google and Facebook), may be reduced. As well, the means now exist using this technology to permit consumers to better “own and control” their personal data.²

Currently, electronic transactions using credit and debit cards involve significant costs to online and real-world vendors. These associated costs are passed along to consumers. Sellers often set minimum purchase thresholds to maintain their profitability.

However, the transactional costs of using the blockchain are approaching zero. For example, MasterCard and Visa have implemented blockchain-based alternative systems enabling customers to “send money in any local currency”, without using a credit card. This again removes any embedded intermediaries and “connects directly to the banks” involved. Consequently, cross-border fees can be dispensed.

There are other advantages emerging for marketers and advertisers involving exchanges of real monetary value with consumers. Rather than these professionals all relying on third-parties such as Facebook for acquiring troves of customer data, they could instead use a system of micropayments³ to directly reward consumers for their personal data. For instance, under this alternative model, a supermarket chain could provide shoppers with a mobile app that pays them to install it, tracks their location, and use it for special deals on merchandise at personalized prices4.

Similarly, marketers could employ the use of smart contracts that vitiate the “need for validation, review, or authentication by intermediaries”. These can be engaged when participants subscribe to an email newsletter or customer rewards program. (More on this below.) The micropayments here are dispensed to consumers whenever they respond to a vendor’s emails or advertisements.

Like Flamingo Synapses, Image by Donal Mountain

Alleviating Google’s and Facebook’s Dominance in Online Advertising

This direct-reward-to-consumers architecture could similarly be deployed for the engagement of website ads. Presently, most users are put off by the current system of intrusive pop-ups and other forms of unavoidable online advertising. A growing Web-wide push back to this has been the use of ad-blocking browser add-ons.5

New alternatives based upon the blockchain can “recapture” some this lost ad revenue by directly compensating online consumers “for their attention”6. This could potentially diminish Google’s and Facebook’s lock on the majority of online ad and data revenues.7 Blockchain options will also enable individuals to “control their own online profiles and social graphs”.8

Taken together, these possibilities might permit companies to:

  • interact directly with their consumers
  • bypass patronizing the social media and search giants, and
  • avoid relentless email solicitations and “follow-me ads”

Furthermore, meaningful cost savings can be directly passed along to consumers by virtue of this voluntarily consumed advertising via these types of blockchain-supported conduits.

Image from Pixabay.com

Shutting Down Online Frauds and Spam

By 2016, $7.6 billion was appropriated by “fraudulent or deceptive activity” and is expected to increase soon to nearly $11 billion. Nonetheless, marketing teams who deploy the blockchain to “track their ads” can:

  • maintain control over their online activities
  • be more confident that expenditures are going to “ROI-generating activities”, and
  • measure the effects of their efforts on a per-user and per-mail scale

Thus, to the benefit of marketers and vendors and to the detriment of bad actors online are the following technological advantages:

Verification: The blockchain can be used to provide verification of “the origin and methodology of marketers”. It can likewise reduce or eliminate large-scale phishing spam through the use of micropayments to the recipients of marketing emails. This will enable “companies to identify consumers” who are genuinely interested in their offerings. Micropayments could then be dispensed in exchange for access to various forms of onscreen content.

Security: Such implementations could also potentially defeat malicious hacks using denial of service attacks (DoS) and could make social media sites more resistant to automated bot accounts. The former are attempts to overwhelm web servers with a flood of traffic and latter are widely used for massive distributions of deceptive information, as well as to illegally appropriate “online advertising from big brands”.

Authenticity: A user’s bonafides is one of the main cornerstones of the blockchain. Turning this into a service, Keybase.io is a company currently working on reducing social media fraud. Their blockchain-enabled app permits individual users to prove they are the “rightful owners” of various social media account. This makes marketing easier to monitor and advertising expenses more supportable.

“Origami Fish – Made by June”, image by Penny

Increasing Revenues from Media Viewership

Original and editorial web content built upon blockchain technology can potentially permit media companies to increase their “quality control and copyright protection”.9 For example, Kodak has developed a new product called KODAKOne, an image rights and distribution platform. It uses the blockchain to record the ownership rights to individual images. Photographers will be awarded greater control over their work than they currently have with how their pictures distribution online. In the future, photographers will automatically be sent payments whenever their content is used. This could probably also be used for video content creators whose work has gone viral.

A company called Coupit also uses blockchain tech to enable marketers to join loyalty and affiliate programs whereby consumers can opt-in and “trade rewards with each other”. As a result, marketers can increase their “visibility and transparency” in order to distinguish inactive from loyal consumers. They can next sharpen their marketing strategies to distribute “targeted offers” to each of these categories.

In those cases where marketers employ a data aggregator or analytics processor, using micropayments will permit companies to circumvent ad-blocking apps10. For consumers, this gives then more fine-point control over their personal data and privacy, and rewards them for their willingness to view advertising that they have chosen.

Taking an alternative approach to content monetization is a new web browser called Brave. In addition to providing many built-in privacy and security features, it contains a blockchain-based feature called Basic Attention Tokens (BATs). These enable “publishers to monetize value added services” whereby users can dispense these tokens to sites they choose for content they select.

“The Crystal Ball”, Image by Gyorgy Soponyai

Companies and Consumers are Both Beneficiaries

Along with the progression of the blockchain’s reach and capabilities, business “intermediaries will need to adapt” accordingly. As discussed above, consumers will be exercising increased control and discretion over how they decide to engage with advertisers and Web threats such as spam and phishing will become self-limiting as their current tactics will be economically undermined.

Balancing this power and attention shift, companies might be able to exert greater control over the “quality of inbound traffic” to their marketing programs and achieve greater understanding of their customers’ needs and motivations.  When pursuing such “high value customers”, these economic incentives will perhaps result in a correspondingly increase in value.

Given all of these advantages that marketers and advertisers have to gain from further embracing blockchain technology, “finding ways to design and implement” them should be a joint effort among corporate decision-makers not just in marketing but also from the strategy, finance and technology departments. Moreover, innovative applications of the blockchain may ultimately be more beneficially in connecting marketers and advertisers with their intended audiences in ways that may have not been otherwise previously possible.

My Questions

  • Given that Google and Facebook currently have an overwhelming lock on online advertising’s multi-$billion revenue streams, will they meet any potential challenges to this with their own blockchain-founded variants? If so, how might they be different in their approach to benefit both advertisers and consumers? At the very least, do they even perceive this as a legitimate threat to their business models?
  • In addition to rewarding consumers with micropayments for ad clicks and content views, what, if anything, could companies do to correspondingly build incentives into their pricing structures for consumers’ purchasers? How should pricing be affected for repeat or bulk purchases by consumers? What if consumers make referrals of additional interested consumers to these blockchain-based vendors?
  • Would using mixed media such as augmented reality and virtual reality lend themselves to blockchain-based marketing implementations to further attract new potential consumers? That is, in return for micropayments disbursed to capture users’ attention, might enhanced advertising or content consumption experiences benefit both advertisers and consumers who would both end up feeling as though they are receiving added value for their participation?
  • What new entrepreneurial opportunities for goods, services and technologies might arise from these new and extensible blockchain-based marketing capabilities?

 


1.  Some examples of earlier implementations of blockchain technology were covered in these Subway Fold posts.

2.  X-ref to the concluding paragraph of the June 7, 2018 Subway Fold post entitled Single File, Everyone: The Advent of the Universal Digital Profile, concerning another innovative effort to return full control of personal data to consumers called the Hub of All Things. Two other similar startups that have emerged during the past few weeks are Inrupt and Helm. This is starting to become a very interesting and innovative space. Furthermore, there was a fascinating and far-ranging article in The New York Times on October 19, 2018, entitled How the Blockchain Could Break Big Tech’s Hold on A.I., by Nathaniel Popper, exploring the possibility of using the blockchain as a means for individuals to control and distribute some of their personal information to be used in AI databases.

3.  Virtual reality pioneer, Microsoft scientist and author Jaron Lanier presented a persuasive case for this, among many other thought-provoking insights about the digital world, in his book entitled Who Owns the Future? (Simon & Schuster, 2013). Highly recommended reading if you have an opportunity.

4Amazon constantly and widely varies it prices based on all of the personal and market data they have accumulated as reported in an article posted on BusinessInsider.com on August 10, 2018, entitled Amazon Changes Prices on Its Products About Every 10 minutes — Here’s How and Why They Do It, by Neel Mehta, Parth Detroja, and Aditya Agashe.

5.  For example, AdBlock and Ghostery, among others, are browser add-ons that can effectively remove nearly all online ads. These apps are continually updated by their developers.

6.  Columbia University Law School professor and New York Times contributing opinion writer Tim Wu wrote a highly engaging book on the past, present and future of how advertising and mass media compete for our attention entitled The Attention Merchants The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads, (Alfred A. Knopf, 2016). It is very worthwhile reading for its originality and insights.

7.  See the July 25, 2018 Subway Fold post entitled Book Review of “Frenemies: The Epic Disruption of the Ad Business (and Everything Else)” for more detailed coverage on the current state of the online advertising market.

8.  See again the June 7, 2018 Subway Fold post entitled Single File, Everyone: The Advent of the Universal Digital Profile for some of the emerging innovative alternatives in this space.

9.  See also these Subway Fold posts in the category of Intellectual Property.

10.  See the August 13, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled New Report Finds Ad Blockers are Quickly Spreading and Costing $Billions in Lost Revenue.

Book Review of “Frenemies: The Epic Disruption of the Ad Business (and Everything Else)”

“Advertising in Times Square”, image by Dirk Knight

Every so often, an ad campaign comes along that is strikingly brilliant for its originality, execution, persuasiveness, longevity, humor and pathos. During the mid-1980’s, one of these bright shining examples was the television ads for Bartles & Jaymes Wine Coolers. They consisted of two fictional characters: Frank Bartles, who owned a winery and did all of the talking, and Ed Jaymes, a farmer who never spoke a word but whose deadpan looks were priceless. They traveled across the US to different locations in pursuit of sales, trying to somehow adapt their approaches to reflect the local surroundings. Bartles was very sincere but often a bit naive in his pitches along the way, best exemplified in this ad and another one when they visited New York.

These commercials succeeded beyond all expectations in simultaneously establishing brand awareness, boosting sales and being laugh-out-loud hilarious because Bartles’s and Jaymes’s were such charming, aw-shucks amateurs. In actuality, these ads were deftly conceived and staged by some smart and savvy creatives from the Hal Riney & Partners agency. For further lasting effect, they always had Bartles express his appreciation to the viewers at the end of each spot with his memorable trademark tagline of “Thanks for your support”. These 30-second video gems are as entertaining today as they were thirty years ago.

But those halcyon days of advertising are long gone. The industry’s primary media back then was limited to print, television and radio. Creativity was its  cornerstone and the words “data analytics” must have sounded like something actuaries did in a darkened room while contemplating the infinite. (Who knows, maybe it still does to some degree.)

Fast forwarding to 2018, advertising is an utterly different and hyper-competitive sector whose work product is largely splayed across countless mobile and stationary screens on Planet Earth. Expertly chronicling and precisely assaying the transformative changes happening to this sector is an informative and engaging new book entitled Frenemies: The Epic Disruption of the Ad Business (and Everything Else) [Penguin Press, 2018], by the renowned business author Ken Auletta. Just as a leading ad agency in its day cleverly and convincingly took TV viewers on an endearing cultural tour of the US as we followed the many ad-ventures of Bartles & Jaymes, so too, this book takes its readers on a far-ranging and immersive tour of the current participants, trends, challenges and technologies affecting the ad industry.

A Frenemy of My Frenemy is My Frenemy

Image from Pixabay

This highly specialized world is under assault from a confluence of competitive, online, economic, social and mathematical forces. Many people who work in it are deeply and rightfully concerned about its future and the tenure of their places in it. Auletta comprehensively reports on and assesses these profound changes from deep within the operations of several key constituencies (the “frenemies”, conflating “friend” and “enemy”). At first this might seem a bit too much of “inside baseball” (although the ad pitch remains alive and well), but he quickly and efficiently establishes who’s who and what’s what in today’s morphing ad markets, making this book valuable and accessible to readers both within and outside of this field.  It can also be viewed as a multi-dimensional case study of an industry right now being, in the truest sense of the word, disrupted.¹ There is likewise much to learned and considered here by other businesses being buffeted by similar winds.

Frenemies, as thoroughly explored throughout this book, are both  business competitors and partners at the same time. They are former and current allies in commerce who concurrently cooperate and compete. Today they are actively infiltrating each other’s markets. The full matrix of frenemies and their threats and relationships to each other includes the interests and perspectives of ad agencies and their clients, social media networks, fierce competition from streamers and original content producers like Netflix², traditional media in transition to digital platforms, consulting companies and, yes, consumers.

Auletta travels several parallel tracks in his reporting. First, he examines the past, present on onrushing future with respect to revenue streams, profits, client bases served, artificial intelligence (AI) driven automation, and the frenemies’ very fluid alliances. Second, he skillfully deploys the investigative journalistic strategy of “following the money” as it ebbs and flows in many directions among the key players. Third, he illuminates the industry’s evolution from Don Draper’s traditional “Mad Men” to 2018’s “math men” who are the data wranglers, analysts and strategists driven by ever more thin-sliced troves of consumer data the agencies and their corporate clients are using to achieve greater accuracy and efficiency in selling their goods and services.

A deep and wide roster of C-level executives from these various groups were interviewed for the book. Chief among them are two ad industry legends who serve as the x and y axes upon which Auletta has plotted a portion of his reporting. One is Martin Sorrell, who was the founder and CEO of WPP, the world’s largest advertising holding company.³ The other is Michael Kassan, the founder and CEO of MediaLink, a multifaceted firm that connects, negotiates and advises on behalf of a multitude of various parties, often competitors in critical matters affecting the ad business. Both of these individuals have significantly shaped modern advertising over many decades and are currently propagating some of the changes spotlighted in the book in trying to keep it vital, relevant and profitable.

Online Privacy v. Online Primacy

“Tug of War”, image by Pixabay

The established tradition of creativity being the primary driver of advertising creation and campaigns has given way to algorithm-driven data analytics. All of the frenemies and a myriad of other sites in many other parsecs of the websphere vacuum up vast amounts of data on users, their online usage patterns, and even go so far as to try to infer their behavioral attributes. This is often combined with additional personal information from third-party sources and data brokers. Armed with all of this data and ever more sophisticated means for sifting and intuiting it, including AI4, the frenemies are devising their campaigns to far more precisely target potential consumers and their cohorts with finely grained customized ads.

The high point of this book is Auletta’s nuanced coverage of the ongoing controversy involving the tension between frenemies using data analytics to increase click-through rates and, hopefully, sales versus respecting the data privacy of people as they traverse the Web. In response to this voracious data collection, millions of users have resisted this intrusiveness by adding free browser extensions such as AdBlock Plus to circumvent online tracking and ad distribution.5 This struggle has produced a slippery slope between the commercial interests of the frenemies and consumers’ natural distaste for advertising, as well as their resentment at having their data co-opted, appropriated and misused without their knowledge or consent. Recently, public and governmental concerns were dramatically displayed in the harsh light of the scandals involving Facebook and Cambridge Analytica.

Furthermore, Google and Facebook dominate the vast majority of online advertising traffic, revenues and, most importantly, the vast quantum of user information which ad agencies believe would be particularly helpful to them in profiling and reaching consumers. Nonetheless, they maintain it is highly proprietary to them alone and much of it has not been shared. Frenemies much?

Additional troubling trends for the ad industry are likewise given a thorough 3-D treatment. Auletta returns to the axiom several times that audiences do not want to be interrupted with ads (particularly on their mobile devices). Look no further than the likes of premium and the major streaming services who offer all of their content uninterrupted in its entirety. The growing ranks of content creators they engage know this and prefer it because they can concentrate on their presentations without commercial breaks slicing and dicing their narrative continuity. The still profitable revenue streams flowing from this are based upon the strengths of the subscription model.

Indeed, in certain cases advertising is being simultaneously disrupted and innovated. Some of the main pillars of the media like The New York Times are now expanding their in-house advertising staff and service offerings. They can offer a diversified array of ads and analyses directly to their advertisers. Likewise, engineering-driven operations like Google and Facebook can deploy their talent benches to better target consumers for their advertisers by extracting and applying insights from their massive databases. Why should their clients continue go to the agencies when their ads can be composed and tracked for them directly?

Adapt or Go Home

“Out with the Old, In with the New”, image by Mark

The author presents a balanced although not entirely sanguine view of the ad industry’s changes to maintain its composure and clients in the midst of this storm. The frenemy camps must be willing to make needed and often difficult adjustments to accommodate emerging technological and strategic survival methods. He examines the results of two contemporary approaches to avoiding adblocking apps and more fully engaging very specific audiences. One is called “native advertising“, which involves advertisers producing commercial content and paying for its placement online or in print to promote their own products. Generally, these are formatted and integrated to appear as though they are integrated with a site’s or publication’s regular editorial content but contain a notice that it is, in fact “Advertising”.

However, Auletta believes that the second adaptive mechanism, the online subscription model, will not be much more sustainable beyond its current successes. Consumers are already spending money on their favorite paywalled sites.  But it would seem logical that users might not be thus willing to pay for Facebook and others that have always been free. As well, cable’s cord-cutters are continuing to exhibit steady growing in their numbers and their migrations towards streaming services such as Amazon Prime.6

Among the media giants, CBS seems to be getting their adaptive strategies right from continuing to grow multiple revenue streams. They now have the legal rights and financial resources to produce and sell original programming. They have also recently launched original web programming such as Star Trek: Discovery on a commercial-free subscription basis on CBS All Access. This can readily be seen as a challenge to Netflix despite the fact that CBS also providing content to Netflix. Will other networks emulate this lucrative and eyeball attracting model?

As Auletta also concludes, for now at least, consumers as frenemies, appear to be the beneficiaries of all this tumult. They have many device agnostic platforms, pricing options and a surfeit of content from which to choose. They can also meaningfully reduce, although not entirely eliminate, ads following them all over the web and those pesky stealth tracking systems. Whether they collectively can maintain their advantage is subject to sudden change in this environment.

Because of the timing of the book’s completion and publication, the author and publisher should consider including in any subsequent edition the follow-up impacts of Sorrell’s departure from WPP and his new venture (S4 Capital), the effects of the May 2018 implementation of EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), and the progress of any industry or government regulation following the raft of recent massive data breaches and misuses.

Notwithstanding that, however, “Frenemies” fully delivers on all of its book jacket’s promises and premises. It is a clear and convincing case of truth in, well, advertising.

So, how would Frank Bartles and Ed Jaymes 2.0 perceive their promotional travels throughout today’s world? Would their folksy personas play well enough on YouTube to support a dedicated channel for them? Would their stops along the way be Instagram-able events? What would be their reactions when asked to Google something or download a podcast?

Alternatively, could they possibly have been proto-social media influencers who just showed up decades too soon? Nah, not really. Even in today’s digital everything world, Frank and Ed 1.0 still abide. Frank may have also unknowingly planted a potential meme among today’s frenemies with his persistent proclamations of “Thanks for your support”: The 2018 upgrade might well be “Thanks for your support and all of your data”.

 


For a very enlightening interview with Ken Auletta, check out the June 26, 2018 podcast entitled Game Change: How the Ad Business Got Disrupted, from The Midday Show on WNYC (the local NPR affiliate in New York).


September 4, 2018 Update: Today’s edition of The New York Times contains an highly enlightening article directly on point with many of the key themes of Frenemies entitled Amazon Sets Its Sights on the $88 Billion Online Ad Market, by Julie Creswell. The report details Amazon’s significant move into online advertising supported by its massive economic, data analytics, scaling and strategic resources. It comprehensively analyzes the current status and future prospects of the company’s move into direct competition with Google and Facebook in this immense parsec of e-commerce. I highly recommend a click-through and full read of this if you have an opportunity.


1.   The classic work on the causes and effect of market disruptions, the disruptors and those left behind is The Innovator’s Dilemma, by Clayton Christensen (HarperBusiness, 2011). The first edition of the book was published in 1992.

2.    Netflix Topples HBO in Emmy Nominations, but ‘Game of Thrones’ Still Rules, July 13, 2018, New York Times, by The Associated Press. However, see also Netflix Drops Dud on Wall St. As Subscriber Growth Flops, July 16, 2018, New York Times, by Reuters.

3.   Sorrell is reported in the book as saying he would not leave anytime soon from running WPP. However, following the book’s publication, he was asked to step down in April 2018 following allegations of inappropriate conduct. See Martin Sorrell Resigns as Chief of WPP Advertising Agency, New York Times, by Matt Stevens and Liz Alderman, April 14, 2018. Nonetheless, Sorrell has quickly returned to the industry as reported in Martin Sorrell Beats WPP in Bidding War for Dutch Marketing Firm, New York Times, by Sapna Maheshwari, July 10, 2018.

4.  For a very timely example, see The Ad Agency Giant Omnicom Has Created a New AI Tool That is Poised to Completely Change How Ads Get Made, BusinessInsider.com, by Lauren Johnson,  July 12, 2018.

5.   Two other similar anti-tracking browser extensions in wide usage include, among others Ghostery and Privacy Badger.

6.   See also  Cord-Cutting Keeps Churning: U.S. Pay-TV Cancelers to Hit 33 Million in 2018 (Study), Variety.com, by Todd Spangler, July 24, 2018.