Times Square advertising overload
Many countries passed anti-SPAM legislation in the early 2000s. In many ways online advertising is traveling down the same path that SPAM did PHOTO: Wojtek Witkowski

In June, Apple announced the next version of its Safari browser would include Intelligent Tracking Prevention, a new feature that reduces third-party cross-site tracking. Almost immediately, a group of online advertisers sent an open letter to Apple expressing their concern over how this will affect the advertising industry online, stating Apple is “sabotaging” the current economic model of the internet. 

In some ways, the move does harm the current model, but — and this is key — the model needed to change because it was too pervasive. Apple, of course, has its own agenda in the matter, which is people using its products. And Apple knows its users don’t appreciate how cookies allow others to stalk them online without consent.

The Online Model Is Broken

In October, Facebook launched Feed Explore in six different countries: Guatemala, Sri Lanka, Bolivia, Cambodia, Serbia and Slovakia. Feed Explore separates the personal feed (what your friends share) and the posts from pages you liked. With Feed Explore a Facebook user has the choice of whether or not to view content from pages. 

Almost immediately, content creators from these countries complained loudly, saying their traffic had hit historic lows. Facebook stated it was just an experiment with no plans to launch worldwide, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they do, either in the current Feed Explore or a variant of it. Why? Because Facebook want to keep its users. And Facebook users return to the site because it is a personal magazine with stories about people they know, not because brands can promote in their feeds time and time again. Facebook users like to be presented campaigns, but simply not in that many.

Google, although not as openly, has been trying to fight SEO (for example with RankBrain) because it knows its value lies in presenting relevant results, not the entries with the best SEO. So while websites should of course follow specific rules to be properly crawled and indexed, they shouldn't fall into the trap of aiming to rank highly on the basis of superb SEO rather than magnificent content. Google knows its business is people using its search engine, and for people to use it, it must display the best results for every search. The best results are not the ones with the best SEO, but the ones with the highest relevance. So many companies try to “trick” Google investing time and effort into their “SEO Strategies,” instead of creating better content.

Yesterday's SPAM Is Today's Retargeting

In the early 2000s, a number of countries legislated against SPAM because of the emailing practice's level of intrusiveness. In many ways, a lot of the current advertising practices are a type of SPAM. In this case, they don’t need to be regulated by laws, as the market itself will move away from those practices. However, we will see more and more GDPR-alike laws arise around the globe. Google, Facebook and Apple know their users are fed up with most ads. They are exploring ways to improve the experience of their users, and you should too.

All of this reminds me of subliminal marketing, when messages were hid in movie frames that went by so quickly the audience couldn't consciously see them, but they did make a mark in the subconscious. While not necessarily illegal (although in some countries it is), at its best, it was a sneaky practice. Aren't we doing the same thing with undisclosed tracking and retargeting?

Maybe We're Looking at the Wrong Metrics

Digital marketing is not a silver bullet for bad products or services. Too many companies appear to have forgotten that what customers are looking for is good services and products. If they like something, they will pay for it (ask Apple Store, Spotify, Netflix, etc.). But let the customer decide. Don’t annoy them with practices that come from the '60s, when TV was the only option and the big broadcasters forced people to watch the same ad over and over.

The changes Apple and Facebook are doing will affect a lot of business profoundly, but maybe those businesses were built on top of something that people didn't really enjoy. There are always alternatives. A large audience is ready and eager for good content, services and products. What is flawed is how we market those.

The problem with this type of marketing is that it seems to work. Brute force eventually does work, analytics show it. But we might be missing the overall point with our current emphasis on measurement and placing metrics on everything. Proving the efficiency of a campaign is easy. What it doesn't quantify is how many people ran away or were turned off because they were bombarded with ads they didn’t want to see.