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.

Single File, Everyone: The Advent of the Universal Digital Profile

Ducks at Parramatta, Image by Stilherrian

Throughout grades 1 through 6 at Public School 79 in Queens, New York, the teachers had one universal command they relied upon to try to quickly gather and organize the students in each class during various activities. They would announce “Single file, everyone”, and expect us all to form a straight line with one student after the other all pointed in the same direction. They would usually deploy this to move us in an orderly fashion to and from the lunchroom, schoolyard, gym and auditorium. Not that this always worked as several requests were usually required to get us all to quiet down and line up.

Just as it was used back then as a means to bring order to a room full of energetic grade-schoolers,  those three magic words can now be re-contextualized and re-purposed for today’s digital everything world when applied to a new means of bringing more control and safety to our personal data. This emerging mechanism is called the universal digital profile (UDP). It involves the creation of a dedicated file to compile and port an individual user’s personal data, content and usage preferences from one online service to another.

This is being done in an effort to provide enhanced protection to consumers and their digital data at a critical time when there have been so many online security breaches of major systems that were supposedly safe. More importantly, these devastating hacks during the past several years have resulted in the massive betrayals of users’ trust that need to be restored.

Clearly and concisely setting the stage for the development of UDPs was an informative article on TechCrunch.com entitled The Birth of the Universal Digital Profile, by Rand Hindi, posted on May 22, 2018. I suggest reading it in its entirety. I will summarize and annotate it, and then pose some of my own questions about these, well, pro-files.

Image from Pixabay

The Need Arises

It is axiomatic today that there is more concern over online privacy among Europeans than other populations elsewhere. This is due, in part, to the frequency and depth of the above mentioned deliberate data thefts. These incidents and other policy considerations led to the May 25, 2018 enactment and implementation of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) across the EU.

The US is presently catching up in its own citizens’ levels of rising privacy concerns following the recent Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandal.¹

Among its many requirements, the GDPR ensures that all individuals have the right to personal data portability, whereby the users of any online services can request from these sites that their personal data can be “transferred to another provider, without hindrance”. This must be done in a file format the receiving provider requires. For example, if a user is changing from one social network to another, all of his or her personal data is to be transferred to the new social network in a workable file format.

The exact definition of “personal profile” is still open to question. The net effect of this provision is that one’s “online identity will soon be transferable” to numerous other providers. As such transfer requests increase, corporate owners of such providers will likely “want to minimize” their means of compliance. The establishment of standardized data formats and application programming interfaces (APIs) enabling this process would be a means to accomplish this.²

Aurora Borealis, Image by Beverly

A Potential Solution

It will soon become evident to consumers that their digital profiles can become durable, reusable and, hence, universal for other online destinations. They will view their digital profiles “as a shared resource” for similar situations. For instance, if a user has uploaded his or her profile to a site for verification, in turn, he or she should be able to re-use such a “verified profile elsewhere”.³  

This would be similar to the Facebook Connect’s functionality but with one key distinction: Facebook would retain no discretion at all over where the digital profile goes and who can access it following its transfer. That control would remain entirely with the profile’s owner.

As the UDP enters the “mainstream” usage, it may well give rise to “an entire new digital economy”. This might include new services such as “personal data clouds to personal identity aggregators or data monetization platforms”. In effect, increased interoperability between and among sites and services for UDPs might enable these potential business opportunities to take root and then scale up.

Digital profiles, especially now for Europeans, is one of the critical “impacts of the GDPR” on their online lives and freedom. Perhaps its objectives will spread to other nations.

My Questions

  • Can the UDP’s usage be expanded elsewhere without the need for enacting GDPR-like regulation? That is, for economic, public relations and technological reasons, might online services support UDPs on their own initiatives rather than waiting for more governments to impose such requirements?
  • What additional data points and functional capabilities would enhance the usefulness, propagation and extensibility of UDPs?
  • What other business and entrepreneurial opportunities might emerge from the potential web-wide spread of a GDPR and/or UDP-based model?
  • Are there any other Public School 79 graduates out there reading this?

On a very cold night in New York on December 20, 2017, I had an opportunity to attend a fascinating presentation  by Dr. Irene Ng before the Data Scientists group from Meetup.com about an inventive alternative for dispensing one’s personal digital data called the Hub of All Things (HAT). [Clickable also @hubofallthings.] In its simplest terms, this involves the provision of a form of virtual container (the “HAT” situated on a “micro-server”), storing an individual’s personal data. This system enables the user to have much more control over whom, and to what degree, they choose to allow access to their data by any online services, vendors or sites. For the details on the origin, approach and technology of the HAT, I highly recommend a click-through to a very enlightening new article on Medium.com entitled What is the HAT?, by Jonathan Holtby, posted yesterday on June 6, 2018.


1.  This week’s news bring yet another potential scandal for Facebook following reports that they shared extensive amounts of personal user data with mobile device vendors, including Huawei, a Chinese company that has been reported to have ties with China’s government and military. Here is some of the lead coverage so far from this week’s editions of The News York Times:

2.  See also these five Subway Fold posts involving the use of APIs in other systems.

3.  See Blockchain To The Rescue Creating A ‘New Future’ For Digital Identities, by Roger Aitlen, posted on Forbes.com on January 7, 2018, for a report on some of the concepts of, and participants in, this type of technology.