Going A Bit Too Far With Web Advertising

I’m all for innovative Internet advertising — it puts enchiladas on my table — but Phorm’s plan for tracking users’ comprehensive Internet behavior via their ISP seems a bit overboard. The privacy concerns are obvious, so I’ll come at this from a business perspective.

phorm_logo.gifPhorm on its face is obviously bad for individual media outlets, whose perspective I’m admittedly favoring: this all-sites-visited method of advertising prompts advertisers to buy based on users’ web behavior as one singular package, not separate entities grouped by the aforementioned individual outlets. The ability for each individual outlet to tailor its advertising message to its particular clients is thus diminished: this is ultra-individualistic without taking into account what visitors to, say, the New York Times have in common with other visitors to the Times‘ site. But I think this all-the-web approach is inconvenient for advertisers: Instead of buying up space on NYTimes.com based on the common interests of the Times’ audience, advertisers are going to have to do their own aggregating work to design a broad base of characteristics that somehow coincide with each other. The NY Times can provide demographic info on its audience and advertisers can reach that audience by buying on the NY Times, but how is a company wanting to reach a targeted group going to isolate that group based on their visiting tons of different sites? Phorm could probably aggregate packages of user characteristics and sell those, but it’s an issue nonetheless.

There’s also the much bigger problem of having every potential site that the user visits opt into this advertising network — it’s either that or put some sort of ISP-based spyware onto the user’s machine to serve up desktop ads. Serving advertising over top of other sites’ own advertising is a recipe for being sued, and desktop ads always drove me nuts with various file-sharing services. And that was back in the day of 2000, so I doubt users have grown an appetite in the time since.

I’ll leave the very legitimate privacy concerns to other peeps — like the New York state legislature — but I think that Phorm as an ad strategy doesn’t really address the all-important point of finding appropriate inventory for your ads.

On a related note, I think the quadrantONE network is a great idea for newspapers, but what I really want to see the network do is get into local-market ad production and sales. Once newspapers provide effective venues for small businesses to advertise online as they do now in print — the production issues in creating web ads obviously have a different set of challenges from those of print ads — then that’s a big breakthrough for newspapers.

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