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Troll Wars The internet has always been torn by powerful countervailing forces. On the one hand, the internet has become a tool for commerce and marketing. On the other, it has become a gathering place for deeply antisocial individuals who use the internet’s built-in anonymity to find like-minded individuals and to organize collective action against perceived enemies. The evocative nickname “troll” has been attached to these individuals. But it is important to understand that a troll is very much in the eye of the beholder. A pro-democracy organizer in Iran and a gamergate antagonist use the same digital tools and methods to break down what they perceive as a hostile hegemony. We may be in sympathy with one group and filled with disgust at the other, but once tools of repression have been built they can be applied to both groups. At this point of tension where free speech crosses with hate speech and the boundaries are fuzzy, Google’s Jigsaw attempts to draw sharp distinctions. Organized by former State Department wunderkind Jared Cohen, Jigsaw attempts to simultaneously build tools the protect against the worst abuses of internet trolls, while protecting the rights of activists in repressive regimes. It is testimony to the intelligence of Google’s executives that they understand these opposing missions need to be housed within the same organization. Moral ambiguity and compromise are the only practical tools for forging an ethical digital world. Application to Marketing: “Here be monsters.” So read the words on old maps where the known world melted into mystery and rumor. There aren’t really monsters on the internet. But there are people with a well-developed sense of grievance and a willingness to play dirty. I’m not interested in judging whether or not their grievance is justified. In practical terms, it is important that marketers stay out of the monster zones. Privacy advocates condemn Facebook for their insistence upon real names, but Facebook has managed to create a sandbox in which the commercial internet can safely play. 4chan is not a place for brands. Ever. No matter what. Next Steps: The commercial internet mixes poorly with anonymity. Stay in safe zones. Read More Technology as Window Dressing Years ago, I talked to an advertising agency in Europe that was interested in opening an office in New York. They insisted they were a digital agency despite the fact that all they produced was TV and print and they employed no developers. When I asked why they wanted to call themselves digital, they replied “the multiples are better if you’re digital.” At the time, I thought this was ridiculous, but now I consider it prescient. Today, there are many companies that sell consumer goods with a direct model that claim to be technology companies. And the justification for this claim seems to be a nice website. Dollar Shave Club, Casper, Warby Parker – what possible IP makes these companies technology companies? What is the unique tech that powers their success? They have websites where you can order their product. Which makes them equivalent to every other company. Yet, these companies have profited (handsomely) from a perception that they are part of a new wave of disruptive innovators like Uber or Airbnb. They’re not. Application to Marketing: Marketing powers its own manufactured reality. Manufacturing a reality is easier with a new brand. No one has pre-existing perceptions of Dollar Shave Club, so consumers are willing to believe it is somehow a technology company. Gillette does not have that advantage. Older companies deal with this reality in one of two ways. They either declare that digital is just a channel, in which case no one believes they understand digital. Or they insist that they are becoming digital-first, in which case no one believes them at all. The overvaluation of “digital” companies that aren’t really digital is just froth in the marketplace that will probably disappear with time. If your company cannot point to technological IP as a barrier to competitive entries in your market, you probably aren’t a technology company. Enjoy the froth while it lasts. Oh, and that agency never opened in New York. And their website is still built in Flash. Next Steps: If you want to pretend to be a technology company, get yourself a new brand name, some moderately attractive but geeky founders and a long scroll website that sells direct. Then sell yourself to Unilever for $1 billion. Read More Who benefits in the smart city? I am a huge fan of the LinkNYC kiosks that have been replacing phone booths around New York City. Created by Alphabet’s (Google’s) Sidewalk Labs, the kiosks host outdoor advertising, provide wifi hotspots and allow users to check the internet on a tablet-like interface. I love smart city initiatives so I was excited when these started popping up around my neighborhood. That is until I noticed that the one near my apartment had become the centerpiece of a homeless encampment. I am of two minds on this development. The optimistic side of my brain hopes that the availability of free internet access might help some of these homeless people to expand their opportunities in life. Wifi for the homeless doesn’t sound like the worst idea. On the other hand, most New Yorkers avoid wading through a homeless encampment, even if they badly need to charge their smartphone. So the kiosks are now serving the homeless exclusively. There have been many news reports about people using the tablets to view pornography. This strikes me as a non-issue since it can be easily solved. But we are learning about the unintended consequences of smart city initiatives in real time. Application to Marketing: In a past life, I used to be the creative director on the IKEA advertising account. We loved doing event marketing. We would decorate a parking space as an apartment to show how IKEA could make even the smallest space more livable. But one thing we always anticipated was that creating attractive and livable environments in public spaces of a large city would attract the homeless. This was obviously not ideal for marketing purposes. Our solution was to have people monitor the installation during the day but then donate the furniture to a homeless shelter at the end of the day. That way the general public could enjoy the event during prime foot traffic hours and the homeless would benefit when the event was over. I would suggest that the solution for Sidewalk Labs is to provide wifi to homeless shelters in New York City. At a minimal cost, this would protect their investment in the LinkNYC network and provide disadvantaged New Yorkers with much needed digital access. Next Steps: Smart city initiatives attract optimists by their very nature. But you need someone to look at worst case scenarios. Read More This canary stopped singing Mode Media, the company that used to be called Glam Media closed its doors last week. This was a publisher that generated nearly $90 million in revenue last year and was ranked the 10th largest digital media company with 137 million visitors a year. The company had raised approximately $225 million from some of the biggest names in venture capital and its board included tech luminaries like Marc Andreessen (until he left earlier this year.) By any measure, this was a digital-first publisher that should have been set up to succeed in a world of listicles and click bait headlines. Yet it flamed out, leaving investors, employees and freelance content creators with worthless equity and unpaid invoices. Application to Marketing: This is only going to get worse. If I had any money, I would be shorting digital publishing stocks. The "advertising supported" business model was always precarious, but ad blocking is going to topple the whole edifice. Some high-quality publishers will be able to ride out this storm using paid firewalls, but everyone else will struggle. Glam Media was an extreme example. Their viewership numbers always looked suspicious and there were persistent rumors that they were purchasing traffic. But the fact that the investors were willing to let Glam fail should indicate that VC’s are unwilling to prop up advertising supported businesses nowadays. Next Steps: Do not allow your money or your client’s money to disappear in a digital publishing bankruptcy. Do not pay for future, promised impressions, even at a reduced rate. Read More

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