The Easy Guide to Privacy Protection and Ad Blocking

Image from: https://www.darkcoinfoundation.org/

I have talked about Ad Blocking and the future of advertising in the past. But if you are tired of being tracked and want to stop all those crazy auto-playing video ads, pop-under ads, and just do not feel right with companies understanding what you are doing in aggregate, what can you do about it?

Here is a quick guide that will help you shield yourself on your laptop / PC.

1) Use an Ad Blocker for your Internet Browser: AdBlock Plus

2) Use a Popunder Blocker: Poper Blocker

3) Opt out of Behavior Tracking: DIGITAL ADVERTISING ALLIANCE (DAA) SELF-REGULATORY PROGRAM

4) Use Spyware safety programs: I like Spyware Blaster and Spybot and use both.

5) Use a good Antivirus: I really love Avast’s Free Antivirus and run it in Silent Gaming Mode so it never bothers me.

6) Look into your browser settings: for example, with Google Chrome, type chrome://settings/ for the browser location, click “Show advanced settings” at the bottom, and check your Privacy settings. In particular, you might want to follow all of my settings, though there has been recent news about whether the FCC will force companies to honor the “Do Not Track” setting.

Privacy

7) More Privacy Protection: use Privacy Badger from the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

8) Manage your Google Settings: Go into your Dashboard and Activity Controls and go through your settings carefully to make sure you know what they do. By the way, if you click on those links and wonder how come you were logged in directly, this is not because I know your account information. It is because you are already logged into Google.

The steps above will be a great start to becoming more safe in your PC usage. An additional step you can take is to use a VPN (Virtual Private Network) such as Private Internet Access, which will help you from having your internet traffic being snooped on.

If you have any tips, I would love to hear them and add them to this article, so do leave a comment below!

Predictions for the Future of Ad Blocking and Digital Advertising

Image from: http://www.dsero.com/img/home-splash-stop.pngOver the past few weeks, it feels like the marketing discussion around Ad Blocking has reached a fervor, particularly as Apple started allowing Ad Blockers on Mobile, pushing awareness of ad blocking into the mainstream. Let’s discuss the future of ad blocking and digital advertising.

Situation

Most content publishers (whether large like The Wall Street Journal or small, like this lowly website) generate revenue by showing advertisements. However:

  • People (usually) hate ads
  • Ad Blockers (AdBlock likely the most well known) have been around for the last ten years
  • Publishers are increasingly not getting paid (by showing ads) for their content, with an increase in ad blocking users of perhaps 5x over the last two years to nearly 250M today – in Europe and the US, % of users blocking ads can range from 15% to over 30%
  • Creating good content does cost significant money (try writing it!)
  • The decline of newspapers has shown that in most cases, people are unwilling to pay for content, thus subscription revenue is not a valid option for most publishers

Publisher Point of View

Publishers can claim ad blocking is similar to media piracy (music, movie downloads). I feel this argument is valid – they provide content on the implied agreement that you will accept (and click on, if appropriate) the ads they show. Using ad blocking breaks this agreement. If 30% of your readers are not viewing ads, 30% of your traffic is not (simplified argument) generating revenue.

Advertiser Point of View

Advertisers are not as affected by ad blocking, in the sense that blockers prevent ads from even being rendered, thus they are not affected when paying under CPM (cost per thousand impressions). However, I wonder what percentage of users who are blocking ads would be affected by ads if people saw them. For example, if these users are more affected by ads than non-blocking users, advertisers are missing out on a more lucrative (cost effective) source of conversion. The other effect is that CPM rates could be higher than they should be (but not CPC – cost per click) because CPMs now have to address the cost of providing content for users who use ad blocking in the CPM figure (cost of creating content for 100% of viewers charged over the 70% actually viewing without blockers). However, this should not actually be the case for ad inventory that is simply going to the highest bidder through programmatic means.

User Point of View

As you are reading this, imagine, would you look at ads if you didn’t need to? I would guess not. Regardless of medium, if you can get something for “free” (consume content without ads, not pay directly for content) easily, you will – when piracy was easier than dealing with DRM content, piracy ruled. Perhaps threat of lawsuit affected some, but overall, ease of piracy forced content creators to deliver better products, value-added services, and more reasonable pricing that rendered piracy less damaging. You can see this evolution in Spotify (subscription / in-app ad music buffet) for music, Hulu (similar to Spotify) and Netflix for movies & tv content.

Despite news like IAB Starts Publicity and Engineering Battle Against Ad Blocking, most people do not (and will never) care about ethical concerns. Organizations like the IAB may threaten to sue ad blocking software companies, but it is easy to see this will be a wasteful, and ultimately losing (see battles against torrenting) long term battle. The individual user will always do what is best for himself, which in this case is a faster, smoother internet experience with ad blockers. Just as with piracy, no matter the number of lawsuits or technology battles, ad blocking itself will always be easily available.

Many consumers “don’t make the connection between turning on an ad blocker and cutting off someone’s livelihood,” said Scott Cunningham, SVP at the IAB and general manager of the IAB Tech Lab, which announced a series of initiatives around the ad-blocking issue. (from: Ad Blocking – Unlike Fraud – Comes At The User’s Behest | AdExchanger)

The Individual vs the Faceless Entity (Big Corporate)

I have used ad blocking for extended periods of time over the last decade. Through my work in marketing and advertising, however, I forced myself to turn blocking off at times to make sure I understood the changes in advertising and the ways advertisers are trying to gain attention. While there are sites that do effective advertising, how many times have you been interrupted in similar ways to the following?

  • Watch a 2 minute video, forced to watch a 15 second ad. If given the option, you press skip as soon as you can.
  • Click a link, greeted with an ad right away.
  • Go to a website, and audio starts playing somewhere. You spend several seconds looking for it and turning it off. Particularly annoying at night or in an environment in which the sound is disruptive to others.
  • New browser windows and popups appear randomly
  • Looking for a download link, you see banners trying to trick you that the download is through the banner instead

Often, the content payoff is not worth battling through the ad, and even if you do look at the ad, are you really in the positive mindset to evaluate the ad properly? I think more often than not, I am more likely to attach my negative mood to the ad at a subconscious level. These ads may thus harm both the advertiser and the publisher beyond just the user bouncing away from the content entirely, as I often do.

When it is a case of choosing the individual versus the big “evil” corporation, the individual always knows who to choose. Herself.

Evolution of Ad Blocking: Throwback to Traditional Media

I believe that while publishers may fill up headlines with complaints today, they will eventually realize and act on addressing users’ root needs for ad blocking.

Let’s look at advertising in traditional media as references. In these, advertising is often done naturally, at a pace that does not interrupt your natural media consumption experience. For example, in television, advertisements are inserted in break periods, and as you watch, you build a general feeling of when it is commercial time. Writers write for advertisement breaks, making sure the pacing doesn’t jar you, that scenes naturally lead to and out of breaks. Product placements (i.e. character drinks Sprite) are done naturally. In magazines, ads are shown in the natural manner that you read the publication. As you turn pages to read articles, you sometimes see an ad, which you can then turn over after glancing at it. In newspapers, sections with ads tend to be inserted in a way in which your eyes are not bouncing back and forth between content and ad, fighting to keep focus.

Imagine however, you are reading a magazine, and an ad pops out at you, as in a pop-up book. Or on TV, mid-joke, there is a 15 second interruption with an ad.

My natural response would be, this is ridiculous! I would likely stop watching or switch to content that does not disrupt me. This is often how I see my experience with internet advertising.

Expect Digital Marketing and Content Revenue Models to Evolve (Predictions)

  1. Ad blocking will continue to rise in the short term. This will create revenue issues for many publishers, but this will also force publishers, as music and video companies did, to adapt their models.
  2. Companies will adjust (as they always have, just as in this example: Google says it won’t make advertisers pay unless ads are 100% viewable). In an evolutionary sense, if a world with ad blocking is not sustainable for publishers, this is the next step. If users refuse to look at ads, publishers will look at new revenue models. Or even return to old ones, like subscription.
  3. Smaller, individual sites will be unable to command subscription fees, or enough in donations. These sites will either die, or aggregators will appear providing subscription revenue for a network of sites. Does this sound familiar? It’s what cable providers do. We all pay a package fee, even if we use 10% of the channels offered. This fees is then disbursed across all partners which in aggregate is enough to fund content creators. Would you pay $20 a month for unlimited reading (to most sites)? I think that future is coming. This is no different from what you see with Netflix and Spotify. Wait a minute, couldn’t Facebook do this with Instant Articles, its product to help publishers deliver articles quickly while controlling the ad experience? Isn’t Apple doing something similar with News and Apple Music? Why, yes.
  4. Facebook, Google and other Internet media giants will lead the way in acceptable internet advertising standards. Some ad blockers will agree to allow these non-disruptive ads in, others won’t. Depending on the level of adoption, this will make subscription / ad revenue dependent services tilt accordingly.
  5. Advertisers will Demand Quality Impressions from Publishers (see below for more on this)

What do Good Ads Look Like?

I believe that ads do serve a need. They provide information for things that you may not be aware of, advertising is the origin of push discovery. If we remember traditional media, ads reached a happy balance for the user. When they begin to push too far (ridiculously obvious product placement), users push back, and the balance must be restored. This is what we see in internet advertising today when users install ad blocking.

I believe a large problem is the focus on pure CPM, the number of impressions, rather than the quality of that impression – are you giving a user enough time to focus on your ad without delivering in a way that is obnoxious? Think back to TV and magazines, in which I would argue, yes. The medium (magazine page, TV screen) switches completely over to the ad. In internet media, however, oftentimes, if I can just show some kind of banner on my site, and it’s then rendered somewhere on a person’s screen, I can say mission accomplished to the advertiser. From the advertiser side, I understand why this may not be so effective for my company.

Let’s look at an example below from IGN (screenshot from Sept. 30, 2015)

IGN Ad Takeover Example2

The “Wildstar” banner above is a normal banner. As you scroll down, it disappears. From my experience, you are probably scrolling down right away. If you put the ad in front of me, making me get through it, as discussed before, I will fight through it or leave. Thus, I can claim this as an impression for my CPM count, but I bet the advertiser is not too happy with its quality.

Let’s take another look at IGN below:

IGN Ad Takeover Example

This is actually the full screen of IGN, with a “takeover” seen on the sides from Wildstar. Basically, a takeover means the advertiser takes the background of the site. As the user scrolls, the ad continues. It’s not obnoxious and has a chance to stay with the user, when he has time to process it. Perhaps he will never click on it or read it carefully, but that brand has a chance to sink in, as it might on TV or print. It doesn’t interrupt your experience but can still seep in.

It’s much more natural, and assuming the takeover doesn’t change when the user changes pages within IGN, pretty good. This an experience publishers should be providing, at higher cost, for clear resonance. Yes, there are lower quantities available, but the quality is higher, and publishers can and should charge accordingly for it to make up the difference. Programmatic ads should still be possible as standards are created on how to create takeovers.

There are other examples in online media today that I love. I experienced one on a long form article on The Verge. As you scrolled down, an ad would slowly appear in-between sections of content. You saw it coming, and you could keep scrolling to get past it. However, the size of the ad was essentially full screen, thus through the process of scrolling, you would experience it for a few seconds. Because the process was seamless and natural, as in magazine reading, you didn’t have to play whack-an-ad to close it. You experienced the ad at your own pace, the feeling was great. I saw this same form of ad on mobile through Bleacher Report’s app recently as well.

Those seconds of full screen bliss are an advertiser’s dream and I think they are directly comparable in attention to traditional media ads. Those small 200 x 200 banners that are hiding in some corner in-between content – don’t we all simply learn to ignore them completely?

Good ads have to parallel what we experience on traditional media (in terms of the mental process and stress level) – you can see them coming, you are not shocked into them, you take a natural action (like scrolling down).

Evolve or Die

Despite all the hoopla and concern over ad blocking, this is simply an evolutionary phase. Companies and users will adjust until there is a balance that creates a sustainable model for content. Publishers are right in that users don’t realize that they have to pay for content one way or another, but publishers shouldn’t fight momentum, trying to hold on to their idea of how that money should be generated.

I would love to hear what you think about the future of internet advertising! Feel free to comment below.

For more information see:

Ad Blocking – Unlike Fraud – Comes At The User’s Behest | AdExchanger,

Ad Blocking Is a Hot Topic for Marketing, Media Executives – WSJ,

Ad Blocker – UntangleWiki, Study of Ad-Blocking Software Suggests Wide Use – The New York Times,

Widely Cited Ad Blocking Study Finding $21.8 Billion Loss Is Incorrect,

The ethics of modern web ad-blocking – Marco.org,

Apple’s Ad-Blocking Is Potential Nightmare for Publishers – CMO Today – WSJ,

Ad Blockers and the Nuisance at the Heart of the Modern Web – The New York Times,

Adblock Plus Changes ‘Acceptable’ Ads Program)

How I Would Tackle Black Friday if I Worked at a Big Box Retailer [Business / Marketing]

imageIt used to be that Black Friday started on Friday after Thanksgiving. This year, we started on Thanksgiving itself, with Best Buy opening at 5PM.

My question: is all this really necessary? This is like an arms race, with competitors challenged to see who can open the festivities earlier. If that’s case, perhaps retailers will begin to ask “Why close on Thanksgiving at all?” in future years.

If I were a retailer looking to tackle the competition on Black Friday, I would ask the following questions:

1) Many families travel during the Thanksgiving holiday – if I live in Chicago and then fly to San Francisco to spend the holiday with my family, am I likely to go shopping and bring all that stuff (“oooh, 60 inch 1080P HDTV for $699!” back with me? In not, current Black Friday sales are excluding this substantial customer base.

2) You are probably familiar with the concept of a loss leader – selling a high profile (see TV above) item at below cost in order to attract crowds and associated purchasing – I don’t just buy the TV but since I am at Walmart I might as well buy video cables, and all this other stuff I was planning to buy. On Black Friday, do these trends continue? Do people buy more, the same, or less than if you created that same loss leader on another day? If people were going to buy that stuff from you anyway, but on another day, have you really gained anything except a loss on the TV? If people don’t actually buy the video cables from you, or buy it on another day, then you’re really in trouble. My mental image of Black Friday is massive crowds. Is this really the time to be slowly looking through the store to see what else you might want to get, or do you just want to get that super-cheap stuff and get out?

3) On Black Friday, does this start the buying season or do more people start earlier or even later? (The biggest shopping day is actually right before Christmas). I actually start buying very early, at least 1 month before Thanksgiving.

4) Do people work harder (weekends, overtime) the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving or these normal work weeks? Are they available to shop?

If I work at Walmart and feel this huge pressure to make sure Americans are using their shopping dollars at my retail locations, I realize this is a zero sum game. The more I sell, the less other stores will get, leading to stronger quarters for me, weaker quarters for them. If I stay in business, those guys…anyway you get the idea. With more retailers offering price matching, even against online retailers like Amazon, retailing is a no-holds-barred dirty war. Retailers don’t care if they lose money on some items, they just want customers to pick them for holiday shopping first.

My solution is to skip Black Friday altogether. Start the bonanza a week earlier, create your own shopping holiday (like that has never happened before?) when everyone is home and can still buy stuff. Then, offer a price-match guarantee on anything that is bought that weekend for the rest of the holiday season. My goal is to take away as much money from the retail market as possible early before the big battles start, preempt everyone else.

The details:

  • Advertise big, just as you would during Thanksgiving. But because you’re doing it when there is less competition, the ads are cheaper and you can get more coverage for the same rates. BLOW IT UP.
  • Price-matching would be returned through gift cards. I do not care what customers buy from me, if I am going to price match in the future, I might as have them buy everything now.
  • Think of price-matching as a mail-in rebate. A significant percentage of people will not bother to get the price match, but you have injected the confidence in customers that no one is going to beat you this holiday season. That means instant (financial) returns for you, the retailer who was going to price match anyway. I’d rather someone buy first from me and then forget to price match (money is worth more today than it is in two weeks) than someone either coming me to price match and buy something or just not bothering to price match and buying at that original retailer.
  • Using customer-matching technology based on past purchasing, I would offer gift-card rewards based (the more you spend, the higher rewards tier you reach, the higher % you get back) on how much was purchased during the special pre-holiday weekend, further encouraging customers to max out their credit cards at my retailer during that holiday weekend, to be given back on December 25th. I want to optimize for the hoarder mentality. I would send the customer a SMS on Christmas morning with how much they got back in gift card credit – who wouldn’t want to wake up to that? I just spent a ton of money on my family, and (instead of regret from guilt) now I am told I get money for loving them.
  • After this pre-Thanksgiving shopping holiday, I would just offer normal deals as you might expect – all I have done is move the craziness from Black Friday to a week earlier.
  • In case shoppers are still procrastinators, I would mail them a catalog with great gift ideas one week before Christmas, and then redo my super duper price-buster price matching weekend (price match + tier rewards) one more time. I clean up at the beginning, before anyone is competing, and at the very end, in the mad desperation. Again, my aim right before Christmas is to suck every dollar from the wallet but leave the customer feeling great about it on Christmas day.
  • (In case you’re wondering who shops on Christmas day itself, a LOT. As a teenager, I worked at Walgreens on Christmas day, and people would wait 30 minutes in line as cashiers rang up $1,000 shopping carts from customers buying anything available before seeing their families)

How fun would it be to take on retailers this way?

Mimo Lives!

photo

As a co-founder in Mimo, the Vietnamese microblogging service that grew to 2 million users before it closed earlier this year, it is great to see the benefits of this guerilla marketing campaign still alive! When our team traveled in taxis for business meetings all over Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), we would make sure to leave a sticker to share the service with others. By the way the sticker was placed, I probably placed this sticker myself in this Vinasun taxi at least two years ago.

I hope to visit Vietnam after I graduate from Kellogg – I wonder if I will still be able to find a Mimo’d taxi then.

(Photo sent to me a couple of days ago by Jin)

A Failed Customer Service and Social Media Lesson for Hanes.com and its Customer Service and Marketing Teams

Hanes.comEarlier this week, I found a nice deal on white v-neck tees from Hanes.com on SlickDeals. I ordered a couple packs of t-shirts and some underwear. Unfortunately, a couple of days later, Hanes.com cancelled the shirts but shipped the underwear anyway. I wrote to Hanes Customer Service:

Hi, I saw the promotion on the V-Neck shirts and this is why I decided to order from Hanes.com. Because I was making the order from Hanes.com, I also decided to get some extra underwear that I didn’t really need but was convenient to add in due to the combined shipping. However, yesterday, I received an email saying that the t-shirts would be cancelled and only the underwear would be shipped. Can these t-shirts be placed on backorder and shipped later? Otherwise, this feels almost like a bait and switch to me, and I would prefer the order cancelled. I am being shipped the items that I didn’t necessarily need while the things I actually did need are being cancelled.

I wish I would have had the option to explicitly continue or cancel the order if I had known Hanes would do this beforehand.

After a couple of days, Hanes replied:

Dear Customer,

Hanes.com no longer offers the Hanes v-neck 3 pack undershirt on our website. The Hanes v-neck 3 pack undershirt style 1A0703 that you ordered was posted on links that are not legitimate offers by our company. Any questions you have on this offer will need to be address by the website that posted this link in error.

Sincerely,

Claudine

In response, I wrote:

Dear Claudine,

Thank your for your complete lack of empathy, understanding, and willingness to help find a solution other than to blame customers for issues on your website. Now we know that any time other people promote your website and promotions via social media, customers should ignore that because Hanes is not responsible for the content on its website.

There is nothing that makes a customer feel more appreciated than being written a template reply.

I will make a note that I should never order from Hanes.com directly again and discuss the customer service issue on my website: http://www.ispithotfire.com/

Sincerely,

Michael

As I discussed in the last email, what really aggravates me the most (and creates the most lasting negative impression of the Hanes company website) is the response via template email and complete ignorance of the issue that I discussed (cancelling my entire order as I really just wanted the shirts).

While Hanes claims that the product is no longer being sold (this was found via search, however) let’s assume this is true and that the product was never meant to be sold. First, in ecommerce, it’s very easy to mark an item as not purchasable. Second, despite this, let’s discuss what Hanes could have done to help its customers and create a positive solution out of this issue.

Don’t lie to or bullsh*t the customer. I believe that if you’re honest and make an attempt to assuage customers, good things will happen. Will everyone be happy? Of course not. By offering ways to save customers, however, you can retain customers who may become long-term customers.

I do likes Hanes products, and will use Hanes products in the future, but just not order directly. Does this mean that I won’t be penalizing Hanes? No. Hanes.com likely has specific sales targets independent of its 3rd party sales. Hanes.com would like to sell more items directly because the profit margins are much higher because it removes the middleman and it provides a customer base to learn from (gather customer data) and improves opportunities for future direct sales (customer lifetime value). If I buy Hanes shirts from Walmart, Walmart eats into those profits.

Thus, we can treat this situation as a marketing misstep. Hanes should have an expected customer acquisition budget, an amount they pay on average to acquire a new customer to their ecommerce site. Let’s say this is $5 per customer. I bought the t-shirt packs for $3.99 and lets say its retail price lists at $15.50, an $11.51 difference. Note that this is not the normal selling price nor is it the actual cost to Hanes. A similar pack is currently selling for $10.99, which is a $7 difference from the cancelled promotion price. If the customer acquisition is $5, Hanes will take a bit of a loss by selling the packs at the low price rather than not selling it at all.

Of course, there are other things to consider, such as negative PR impact by not allowing the sale, but let’s assume Hanes is uncomfortable will taking that loss. Besides, Hanes Marketing could be thinking, well, what if these customers are only here to buy this super cheap item and will never come back. That means we lose money for unprofitable customers.

In that case, Hanes could offer a new coupon to customers in this situation, a 25% off coupon for purchases over their normal average order size (what an average order brings in revenue). If that is $30, the coupon would be 25% off orders over $30. At 25%, Hanes would lose potentially more money (in profits, not necessarily losses), but could gain it back in sales volume. Customers would need to purchase a variety of products, potentially leading to better share of wallet and longer term product and brand loyalty (assuming the products are quality). People who only wanted to take advantage of the super cheap deal would be weeded out, leaving customers who really want Hanes products. There is some math that would need to be done based on Hanes’ actual profit margins, but you get the idea. The coupon needs to be significant where it fulfills both sides. Hanes needs to make a decent amount of sales from people who are serious customers. Customers need to be provided an offer that has real benefit and feels like a legitimate apology – for example, a 10% coupon would probably feel insignificant.

In the communication, Hanes would simply explain 1) we made a mistake, this was an error listing and we didn’t catch it 2) to apologize, we want to offer this exclusive coupon to you.

With over 100 people who explicitly said they participated (purchased) in the deal (I estimate the actual figure could be 3-5x more because typically, 80% of all users are passive), there would be a great opportunity to attract new users and also reverse negative sentiment created by this situation – look at the responses from other customers on SlickDeals (this is the most powerful potential impact by Customer Service teams, to not just be a cost center but to convert sales). Contrast this to the current situation in which Hanes is blaming customers for sharing links to Hanes.com via social media and promoting Hanes for free.

What do you think? What other ways could Hanes create a positive (and profitable) business impact in this situation?

(Edit: June 21, Julie Jenkins, Hanes.com Customer Service Manager contacted me and we found a resolution together on my individual issue. Thanks very much to her!)