There are Dangers Ahead for Digital Marketers

As a publisher, John Battelle chronicled the highest peaks and lowest valleys of the online revolution. Today at ad:tech he warned of the dangers ahead for digital marketers and society as we "become data" in the mobile age.

In a frequently abstract but compelling keynote conversation with eMarketer Executive Editor Noah Elkin, Battelle spoke of the "generational, hallucinatory love affair with mobile" that drives its use today. "It's not all about a piece of glass," he said. "It's about understanding everything around us."

His points went beyond the technical capabilities of predictive analytics, customer experience management and cross-channel messaging. He focused on learning use such tools both in marketing and the broader, societal environment.

The Next Generation

Known best as the co-founder of Wired and former chairman-CEO of the Industry Standard, Battelle now leads sovrn Holdings Inc., a digital ad network. His industry overview was steeped in concerns about fraud and privacy as well as gaining a better understanding of how the next generation will use data.

"I think we as a nation are becoming data," he said before the 600-plus marketers who came to hear his views. "This is probably a more important societal shift than digital computing."

He used his personal experience as father of a 10-year-old girl to drive home a point about understanding "nuances" of data. Data can help define who we are, what we do, even how we dress ourselves, he said.

Like millions of girls, his daughter and her friends endlessly exchange selfies and he can see some difference in the dozens of photos, he said, but she and her friends understand each nuance of each photo. "They're practicing dressing themselves as data-driven organisms," he said.

"I think who we are as data is something the millennials are getting super comfortable with," he said. For brands to thrive, Battelle said it's critical for companies to gain the same insights into data.

Knowing the Rules

While that offers tremendous potential, he said he's concerned about vast data farms that store information about us that can easily be abused by governments. He said he'd feel more comfortable about companies gathering information if "parameters were well understood." 

"I'm very pleased Edward Snowden is in the world ... because it forced a conversation we weren't having," he said.

For society to make the most efficient use of all the data that is available will require an underlying infrastructure. "Turns out, we built it for frickin' banner ads," he said.

Click Farms, 2014

Fraud remains a top concern in advertising. Just as the click farms of the dot-com era created problems, today there are publishers who steal content, post it next to ads, create artificial clicks, and sell those clicks to ad networks, Battelle said. "Ultimately, this ecosystem we've built must become more transparent," he said.

Right now, ad networks are motivated to buy cookies and place ads without worrying where they come from. "We've stripped context right out of the ecosystem," he said. If ad networks understood the context of the reader, Battelle said they would have more information to share with clients and would help prevent fraud.

Turning to video, he predicted the next two or three years will see an explosive shift in targeted advertising on TV as companies shift ad dollars away from banners and print. "Video," he said, "is about to go off."