Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Has Phorm Gone Too Far?

So what happens when your ISP realizes that the information it’s carrying from Web servers to end users is inherently valuable? UK based Phorm recently revealed products enabling ISPs to capitalize on their respective goldmines of consumer data by selling it to advertisers for behavioral targeting purposes. They succeeded in negotiating deals with three of Britain’s’ largest ISPs (BT, Carphone Warehouse and Virgin Media), which effectively provide broadband service to 70% of all British households. While Phorm maintains that consumer privacy is protected and their service has provisions for end-users to opt out; journalists, bloggers and satirists are voicing their concerns.

My previous posts indicate that I am a strong proponent of onsite tracking and the ability to create greater relevance and a stronger user experience for Web site visitors based on clickstream data. The key emphasis here is greater benefits for the end user. These benefits include:

    saving time (by remembering information),
    increasing relevance (by recognizing the context of the visit) and,
    improving the site (by optimizing pages based on aggregated actions).

JupiterResearch shows that consumers explicitly stated they do not want more advertising. This sentiment exposes a distinction between onsite targeting specific to user actions and behavioral targeting at large, generally used for advertising purposes. The realist in me concedes that I am powerless to stop advertising, so it might as well be targeted for me based on my online actions. Yet, I do feel as if I have some control over what ads I see based on the Web sites I choose to visit, knowing that they are monitoring my actions.

I believe that Phorm is overstepping it bounds by using infrastructure to capture everything that users do online and selling that information for a profit to anyone who cares to target them. In my mind, the frightening precedent-setting issue is that infrastructure companies will now have the ability to alter the experience for end users. In this way, sites that subscribe to the Phorm technology can use completely unrelated information about my online habits in attempts to sell me products or services online. Or worse yet, find out things about me that no single site would ever know and draw conclusions about my personal life.

Examples abound in the medical world, and potential exposure from security breaches or misuse of data could threaten job seekers or public figures. Creator of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee told BBC News that he did not want his ISP to track which websites he visited.
    "I want to know if I look up a whole lot of books about some form of cancer that that's not going to get to my insurance company and I'm going to find my insurance premium is going to go up by 5% because they've figured I'm looking at those books," he said.
I agree that ISP should not have the right to mine customers’ clickstream data, create a comprehensive picture of their actions, preferences and behavior and profit from it in ways that the consumer doesn’t condone or even have any awareness about.

This analogy may be a bit of a stretch, but imagine what could happen when infrastructure monitoring is extended to the offline world. Will the bundled services provider I use which brings Internet, telephone and TV to my home started mining my personal data? Perhaps I make a number of calls to Florida in a given month, will I begin seeing advertisements on TV promoting travel to Florida? What if one infrastructure company starts selling my data to another? Will we get to a point where I flip a light switch in my home and must wait for a pre-roll advertisement to play for low-cost airfare to Florida before I can see well enough to find the toothpaste? What if when I flush my toilet an audio ad for Charmin plays over my home sound system that is delivered wirelessly through my network? These examples may be far-fetched, but they are not too far outside the realm of possibility.

So what’s the solution? I’ll reiterate what I’ve stated in the past regarding personalization and privacy: consumers must be given a choice. Controls need to be in place to enable consumers to opt out of targeting tactics, stop unwanted solicitations and control the information that sites have about them. Consumer privacy is a delicate issue and we’re living in an age where dubious privacy practices abound. It will only take a single breach of online privacy to send the advocates, bloggers and satirists into a tirade. For now, I’d like to help educate the masses about the benefits and realities of targeting and empower consumers to make their own choices.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Behavioral Targeting Does Attract Attention

The New York Times published a second article today regarding pending legislation to regulate tracking of online behavior using analytics tools. The story centered on a bill submitted by a NY assemblyman, and suggested “there ought to be a law…that would make it a crime for certain Web companies to use personal information about consumers for advertising without their consent”. This sentiment runs parallel with the previous story (by the same reporter) that cited 9 customer advocacy groups petitioning for Do Not Track lists.

So, lawmakers are now playing catch-up to Internet practices that have been in place for years. The unfounded fear is that ‘you know too much about me and will entice me to spend money on your products’. C’mon. In essence, haven’t salesmen and marketers been attempting to do this for the last century? Size up your customer and sell them what you can. The Web allows us to interact with an environment that is infinitely measurable…And now you want to take that away? Privacy concerns considered, I think these legislatures have an uphill battle in front of them. Advertising has always been an intrusive process. Stop people from what they’re doing, get their attention and say something memorable. If tracking enables that in a more relevant manner, I say -- good for advertising. If you don’t like it, ignore the ads (and don't worry…they’re used to it).

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

A Do Not Track List?

Yesterday’s New York Times article and subsequent banter regarding heightened privacy concerns over Web analytics monitoring indicated that nine groups have petitioned the FTC to implement “Do Not Track” (DNT) lists. What ever happened to deleting cookies? Wait, what about simply blocking sites from dropping a cookie with your Web browser? But I question what these nine groups are so worried about anyway. The benefits of Web analytics tracking are widely appreciated by consumers, yet the collection process gives them the creeps. What’s that…You want your cake and would like to eat it too?

For all those groups wanting DNT lists, do you also take offense when your local shopkeeper greets you by name and asks if you would like “the usual”? Or informs you that the blueberry muffins just came out of the oven and are still warm? Do you scour when your local bank teller welcomes you back by name and asks if you’re having a good day? I don’t know about you, but I visit my local bank’s Web site 10-times more frequently than I walk into a branch. If the site is able to make my life easier by anticipating my needs and providing relevant offers for me, which in turn saves me time, I say bring it on. I can still choose to ignore it if I like, but thanks for keeping it relevant. Further, I have my bank Web site, news sites, weather info and frequently visited pages all customized the way I like them. I can consume information faster and more efficiently than ever before thanks to analytics tracking. And just maybe those ads served with some semblance of my interests will alert me to something that I wasn’t aware of previously.

We live in a society where advertising is a constant droll in the background. You can tune in if you like or allow it to fade to white noise. In my experience, I tune in when something is relevant to me and that’s good for advertising. There are plenty of online habits that foster and even encourage dubious privacy practices (think Facebook, MySpace, Flickr, etc), behavioral targeting isn’t going to ruin the Internet. I posted in jest “Should I be Worried” because Google knows too much about me. But until the privacy can-o-worms is opened through some sort of “Digital Chernobyl”, whereby an individual is denied service, rights, or entitlement due to his/her Internet habits, I think we’re all safe for the moment.

PS> Your visit to this site was tracked, aggregated, recorded and preserved for all time using Web analytics software ;)

Monday, March 10, 2008

From the Campfire to the Rave

I’ve been on the road for the last two weeks attending what could be considered the pinnacle of the Web analytics universe. Coremetrics kicked off in Fort Worth Texas and then most recently Omniture held its client summit in Salt Lake City. The Coremetrics client summit was a full cowboy affair, complete with faux campfires, classic cowboy western video clips and line dancing (for those inclined) at Billy Bob’s bar & grill. The following week, Omniture had an entirely different thematic approach, which felt more like a rave branded in Omniture green. Prior to the opening keynote, attendees were ushered into the massive ballroom with flashing lights, a stainless steel art deco stage and full blaring rave music [check out Manoj’s pictures and video posted on WebAnalyticsWorld]. It was quite a contrast to Coremetrics event, yet there were some striking similarities between the two events. I feel extremely fortunate to have been invited to attend each one and am inclined to share my perspective on these dueling rivals in the evolving Web analytics marketplace.

Training & Education:

On the day preceding the summit, Omniture held educational sessions for newly acquired Visual Sciences customers by enlightening them on transitioning to SiteCatalyst and Discover. Participating clients that I talked to anticipated a laid back casual approach, but instead encountered a rigorous roll-up-your-sleeves intensive training session. Throughout the three days of the Omniture event, they had pros on hand to answer technical questions and aid in real-time implementation issues. They set up “Hot Labs”, for account managers to work with clients on any topic and by my observation they were well attended.

Coremetrics held its formal Coremetrics University training on the day following its summit and although I didn’t get to inquire about the results of the training sessions, numerous clients were looking forward to a comprehensive experience. Coremetrics also had pros on hand throughout the event to answer technical questions and tackle real-time problem solving. Every exec I spoke with challenged attendees to stump the experts on the floor and if my inquisitions were any indication, they were doing a solid job.

Keynotes & Presentations:

Coremetrics opened with a Wild West skit that depicted “Dusty” cowboys dependent on the digital world. A fitting analogy for the chasm that is the digital divide and a graceful segue to Joe Davis’ keynote on How the Web Was Won – or – at least continues to evolve. Laura Evans, from Resource Interactive, followed with her presentation on the Open Brand and John Squire delivered “Got Marketing?” solutions which included Coremetrics’ 2008 updates on Search, Intelligent Offer, LiveMail and Coremetrics Connect. Day two featured an in depth look at the product roadmap and a glimpse of the new toys within the interface. John Payne’s enthusiasm was unfettered as he demonstrated the new Explore data visualization tool. Eric Peterson from Web Analytics Demystified followed by walking attendees through a captivating presentation on measuring visitor engagement, his delivery continues to evolve as Eric delves deeper into the metrics and process. Coremetrics closed with a short-and-sweet message delivered by Joe Davis and a highlight reel of images and video captured throughout the event.

Omniture delivered on their promise of a mix of entertainment and education. Josh James kicked things off by illustrating the new composition of Omniture after its 2007 acquisition rampage. CTO, Brett Error then walked attendees through the SiteCatalyst v14 enhancements and other features on the development front. Peter Kim of Forrester delivered a presentation on Marketing and purportedly challenged other analyst firms to a basketball game on the premise that they could win based on more players (I think we could take ‘em shorthanded). Day one closed with Lance Armstrong’s emotional story of overcoming cancer, where he encouraged us to believe in a cause and take affirmative action. Day two began with Seth Godin’s highly entertaining presentation, first flattering the crowd by touting them as the smartest marketing minds in the universe, then challenging them to create something remarkable and break the constraints of mediocrity. Omniture closed with Brett’s summary recap, a look ahead and a lively interactive feedback session of how to improve on their solutions. He took copious notes and demonstrated Omnitures’ devotion to customer driven development.

Both companies ran multiple simultaneous tracks throughout their client summits making for tough decisions on where to focus. I found the content delivered by each vendor to be compelling, technical and highly educational. I’ll go so far as to say that the topics delivered and ensuing discussions were at a sophistication level beyond many other analytics events I’ve attended.

Breaking News & Product Releases:

Coremetrics came out of the gate with announcement of their new integration platform, Coremetrics Connect. While it’s largely a catch-up move to Genesis and even WebTrends’ Open Exchange, their documentation process and integration guidance is well-considered. John Squire delivered a message of acquisition, conversion and retention and rounded out the product enhancements (i.e., custom report templates, key segments, export builder) around these principles. The flex-based Explore product (widely available in the spring 2008 release) is a data visualization tool that quickly renders dynamic charts and enables analysts to “interrogate the data”.

Omniture’s 2008 product mix equates to 50% Web analytics solutions (comprised of SiteCatalyst, Discover On-Demand & On-Premise and Genesis integrations), 25% is Search Center and the remaining 25% is the new Test & Target combination of Offermatica and Touch Clarity. The SiteCatalyst user interface went through a dramatic redesign from v13.5 with applause-worthy menu improvements, single sign-on, video measurement, intelligent help and Web services APIs. Search Center v3 also debuted with integration capabilities that enable centralized control over multiple keyword bidding and monitoring solutions, scaleability to manage 50 million keywords and automated optimization.

While this category bears no reflection on the product offerings of each vendor, Omniture was over the top. Lance Armstrong was inspirational, but the rave party with neon green light sticks, fresh sushi and Grammy award winning Flight of the Conchords was truly entertaining. Bret and Jermaine act exactly as they do on the HBO series and showcased their genuine musical abilities. The armadillo racing in Fort Worth Texas never stood a chance. I’ll admit that Billy Bob’s was a place like none other, but line dancing and bull rides do not compare. My bias for skiing over golf favored Omniture who sponsored a day at Snowbird, while Coremetrics golf enthusiasts teed up in Texas. I opted to stay in Utah for an extra day which paid off with over six inches of fresh snow and an epic day of Utah powder.

Both vendors succeeded in showing their clients a good time, educating them on the new features and demonstrating forward-looking vision. These companies are driving the Web analytics industry forward. I expect that 2008 will be a banner year for both Coremetrics and Omniture and their rivals in the marketplace have a high bar set before them.