While the big news in the online world focuses on Google, Yahoo and Microsoft, a more profound revolution is taking place on the online social networks: The discussion about privacy is changing as users take control over their own online data. While they spread their Web presence, these users are not looking for privacy, but for recognition as individuals — whether by friends or vendors. This will eventually change the whole world of advertising.
The current online-advertising model will become less effective, even as it gets increasingly sophisticated. New players are emerging to devalue the spaces that the ad giants are currently fighting over. Companies you’ve never heard of called NebuAd, Project Rialto, Phorm, Frontporch and Adzilla are pitching tools to Internet service providers that will enable them to track users and show them relevant ads. This approach (called behavioral targeting and already in service by ad networks that track users through so-called tracking cookies) undercuts traditional online publishers, who employ content to lure users and to sell adjacent ads. Now, the ISPs can sell advertisers direct access to the same users.
Take user number 12345, who was searching for cars yesterday, and show him a Porsche ad. It doesn’t matter if he’s on Yahoo or MySpace today — he’s the same number as yesterday. As an advertiser, would you prefer to reach someone reading a car review featured on Yahoo or someone who visited two car-dealer sites yesterday? His identity is still private: The ISP and behavioral-targeting networks don’t know 12345’s name and don’t care. They just know what they think he wants.
This market will get more competitive, and users will be barraged by ads to which they will pay less and less attention. Call that public space, a world of billboards and cacophony. Even though the ads will be more “relevant” than ever, users will increasingly tune them out.
Now consider the new world of social networks. Facebook, unwittingly or on purpose, has been teaching people to manage their own data about themselves. Facebook’s launch of the Beacon service — which informs Facebook of members’ activities (i.e., purchases) on other sites — was a PR fiasco. But it still familiarized millions of users with the notion that they can control information about themselves online — and determine to whom it is visible.
What might seem like a horribly complex and tedious task to their elders — categorizing “friends,” managing news feeds, handling intersecting communities of contacts — feels natural to the Facebook users of today. They want more granularity of control, not less.
Each user determines who will get into his own garden, whether friends or vendors. Look at Dopplr (where I plan to become an investor), a site for travelers. I list my trips, and see how they intersect with my friends’ itineraries. “Oh, we’ll both be in London April 4? Let’s get together!” Or, “Juan and Alice will be in town next Tuesday. Let’s hold a dinner!” You can imagine or visit equivalent approaches for books (a hypothetical Amazon 2.0, new and more personalized), clothes (Glam.com and Stardoll.com), and even money management.
So what’s the business model? I’ll “friend” British Airways, which will say, “We see you’re going to Moscow next month. Why not fly through London and we’ll give you 10,000 extra miles?” I’m no longer in a bucket of frequent travelers, my privacy protected. I’m an individual with specific travel plans, which I intentionally make visible to preferred vendors. British Airways, of course, will pay Dopplr a handsome sponsorship fee to be eligible to be my “friend” (just as a Nike rep might pay to sponsor a basketball game and be part of the community). Someday NetJets may show up, offering to ferry me and my friends to a conference we’ll be attending together.
I’m far more likely to respond to BA or NetJets within a trusted site, and for a specific offer, than I am to heed their ad while reading a newspaper article on the troubles in Russia. (As for Orbitz, my old standby: After five years, it still doesn’t acknowledge my preferred airlines.)
The new model creates a more trusted environment for reaching high-value, frequent purchasers, whether of airline tickets, electronics, clothes or other items. Where does that leave the less-frequent purchasers? Probably looking to their friends rather than to advertising for advice. I’m an expert on travel; my friends may look to me for hotel choices. When I’m in the mood to buy a book or a new computer, I’ll check out what my friends on Facebook are doing.
This does not mean that traditional online advertising will go away, just that it will become less effective. Value is being created in users’ own walled gardens, which they will cultivate for themselves in real estate owned by the social networks. The new value creators are companies — like Facebook and Dopplr — that know how to build and support online communities.