Bike helmets

An adtech proponent once suggested this to me (slightly paraphrased).

You can keep track of households that have children and are interested in cycling. Then when the parents visit a news site, you can offer them a 25% discount on children's bike helmets!

Cool story bro.

But that kind of thing is the lowest-value part of advertising. Adtech people are trying to chase another $50 billion by rearranging database marketing and throwing more computers at the problem. But that's not where the money is.

Let's think about that bike helmet example a little more.

Very few parents, fortunately, have direct experience of the quality of a children's bike helmet. You buy the thing, keep it for a while, the kid outgrows it or loses it, and you're done with it.

Unless something really bad, that you don't want to think about, happens. Some event where the difference between a good bike helmet and a not-so-good bike helmet means the difference between remember that time I crashed my bike and we had to go buy a new helmet? and something else.

Bike helmets are really hard for shoppers to tell apart. It looks like they're all basically made out of the same stuff. Some hard plastic, some foam, some nylon straps. But some designs are better than others. Specific products change all the time, but some companies are good at some product categories. Some brands have a good reputation.

Reputation. Some company is known for doing well at engineering, testing, and manufacturing? And I can pay that company to feel better about the protection of my child's brain? Like the man says, shut up and take my money.

Where does that reputation come from? It doesn't come from stalking users with the digital version of windshield flyers. Building brand equity is complicated, and depends only partly on advertising. And the advertising piece of the puzzle depends on where the ad appears, and how consistently and expensively it appears.

Product ads and product-related editorial need each other. High-reputation news and reviews come from a high-reputation source, and a publication's reputation depends on having the budget to write independently. The budget depends on ad sales. And signaling connects it all up. A brand's ability and willingness to advertise in a high-reputation publication carries a powerful signal of its intent in the market. A high-reputation publication isn't afraid to write bad things about problem products—even the ones that come from its advertisers.

Publisher reputation is even more important in regulated product categories. Shoppers know about regulatory capture even if they don't know to call it that. Government standards need independent reviews just as much as the products do. Same problem, one level up, even harder to do. (Anyone got a good link to a story about cadmium, a toxic metal, in art materials sold for children's use? And what regulations cover it? Let me know, I'll be over here chewing crayons.)

In real life, customers aren't in a funnel or a distillery, working their way down the pipe to purchase. Customers are active participants in markets and in communities of practice. Humans are wired to constantly try to measure the reputation and honesty of others. Everyone is picking up on signals, all the time.

So reputable publications run obviously expensive, hard-to-repudiate ads, which pay for more and better journalism and cultural works, which build publisher reputation, and that reputation brings in more ad money, and around and around the engine of wealth creation goes. Tracking and targeting users doesn't just take a piece out of publishers' share—it breaks the cycle. (Am I always getting ads for crap because someone thinks I don't know any better? Or am I seeing that same thing that more knowledgable shoppers are?) Signaling and the open web are a great match, as soon as we web people can fix up all those 1990s bugs that allow for cross-site tracking.

Let's make web ads work. The first step in growing web advertising from a targeted medium to a signal-carrying medium is to get more users protected from third-party tracking, so that signal-carrying ads will stand out. Take a tracking protection test and be part of the transformation. Firefox users, try the new pq add-on to turn on Firefox's Tracking Protection functionality. The social silos can growth-hack their funnels and distilleries of stalking, couponing, and crap, while the open web makes mad cash with signaling.

Don Marti · #