Why users will have a L.E.A.N. beef with adtech

Scott Cunningham, Senior Vice President of Technology and Ad Operations at the adtech industry organization IAB, is introducing a new concept called "L.E.A.N. Ads."

Today, the IAB Tech Lab is launching the L.E.A.N. Ads program. Supported by the Executive Committee of the IAB Tech Lab Board, IABs around the world, and hundreds of member companies, L.E.A.N. stands for Light, Encrypted, Ad choice supported, Non-invasive ads. These are principles that will help guide the next phases of advertising technical standards for the global digital advertising supply chain.

The media are covering this as some kind of change in direction for IAB, but the more I look at it, the more it looks like it follows the Law of Ad Blocking Solutions, which is: your first idea on what do do about the ad blocking problem is to do more of what you were planning to do anyway.

Let's see what L.E.A.N. is all about.

L is for Light. Don't hog the user's battery and network. Nothing wrong with that.

E is for Encrypted. Can't argue with that, either. (But it's kind of creepyweirdbadwrong that IAB members were willing to send user data in the clear for so long in the first place. Encrypting user data is a good thing, but it's the "zip up your fly before you go to work" of Internet business.)

A is for Ad Choice Enabled. The first two were basics, but now we're starting to get to the silly stuff. Have you tried AdChoices? Not the malware AdChoices, the real AdChoices. The adtech firms have to put some kind of privacy thing up in order to appease the FTC and the big bad Eurocrats, but nobody has an incentive to make AdChoices work for real, so it doesn't.

So far we're at two basic software quality items, one nowhere-near-done fragile opt-out thing. One more.

N is for "Non-invasive". That takes a little more unpacking. From a creative point of view, different kinds of ads will be "invasive" or not depending on what kinds of sites and devices they run on. So what does IAB want to do in order to get to a basic level of non-invasiveness?

Among the many areas of concentration, we must also address frequency capping on retargeting in Ad Tech and make sure a user is targeted appropriately before, but never AFTER they make a purchase.

Hold on a minute.

Never see an ad for something after you purchase one?

Finally, we must do this in an increasingly fragmented market, across screens.

So when I buy a pair of socks on my desktop computer, L.E.A.N. means I stop seeing ads for the same socks on my phone. From the adtech point of view, a little efficiency gain. But in order to make "never after" work, the adtech companies need to correlate all my purchases to all my web activity. Yes, that breaks signaling, but there's a more immediate reason why the "N" in L.E.A.N. will create more problems than it's worth.

People already don't like ads targeted using browsing history. And retargeting is already helping to make ad blocking go mainstream by making it obvious when ads are "following users around."

Now imagine the L.E.A.N. web, where you don't see an ad for the specific product you just bought. But because of all that data that the IAB companies needed to collect in order to get closer to "never after", more and more of the other ads you see can be targeted using browsing history plus purchase history. Adtech can never get all the way to "never after" but the closer it gets to having enough information to do it, the more opportunities it has to target users with not the same product, but related ones.

What would a L.E.A.N. web look like?

You bought a wood carving set, you start getting ads for first aid kits. Bought a chest freezer, get ads for bowhunting gear. It won't be just the one item you left in your shopping cart that follows you around, but many different related items somehow connected to everything you bought recently. Once the data is there to implement "never after," it will get used for other purposes. So users end up seeing more, not fewer, creepy ads.

And humans are great pattern matchers, even when no pattern exists. Once we start seeing ads for products that go with what we recently bought or looked at, then every ad will start to look like that. Is that jacket following me because I went to Super Duper Burgers and there was a guy in there wearing a jacket like that? Once you start to see related-product ads following you around, it will be hard to stop seeing them, and the sense of being watched, along with the incentive to block, can only grow. (What will the "that ad must be following me, but why?" environment do to personal hygiene product advertising?)

Protecting the web ad business?

L.E.A.N is missing some important parts, but nobody has a whole solution to ad blocking and ad fraud, two problems that came up together and have to be addressed together. (You can't even measure one without the other.) But the real mistake is a bigger one. Too often, we're looking at the problem of how to protect the existing web advertising business, when web advertising still isn't working. The same content can bring in an order of magnitude more ad revenue in print than online. In any other technology business, failing to keep up with 19th-century technology would be cause to reinvent things from the ground up. It's time to apply the same standard to web ads, and not just protect the existing web ad business from ad blocking, but make a new web ad business that works.

Web advertising is not yet ready to take on the burden of supporting news and cultural works, a burden that print and broadcast have carried for years. What is it about those older media that web ads still aren't able to do yet? What can a great ad medium do that the web, so far, can't?

  • Facilitate creative work. Ads must be able to use the force multiplier of memorable creative, to have a chance of getting more audience attention than the advertiser paid for.

  • Implement publisher-based standards. The medium must facilitate the banning or punishment of ads that are fraudulent, risky, or otherwise out of compliance with market norms. Publishers need to be able to set their own standards. An ad that works for one site might not be allowable where users' eyes, devices, and network connections are different.

So far so good on the first two. For example, The Next Web has broken out of the banner box with a "Canvas" ad format that gives designers a big space to work with, and many new publishers are doing without intermediaries that tend to bring crappy ads with them. Some other qualities of a great ad medium still need work.

  • Stable rates. The price of an ad in a great medium is relatively high compared to the amount of user time it occupies, and price for comparable space tends to be stable, to make it easier for a user's "inner economist" to compare the signal level.

  • Hard to repudiate. An advertiser must risk some reputation if it commits to an untruthful ad, or makes a promise in an ad that it breaks later. The more reputation you risk by running a bad ad, the more you stand to gain with a consistent campaign of good ones.

  • Not subject to per-user targeting. The more that a member of the audience sees an ad as custom-targeted, the less information about the advertiser's intentions in the market the ad is able to convey.

Some of the IAB member companies have profitable niches, sitting between publishers who still aren't getting paid what they need for online ads and advertisers who still aren't getting the results they need. But nobody has it right yet. Instead of L.E.A.N.ing on more adtech as usual to keep the existing system going, it's time to consider better alternatives.

(Update: Here's the sustainable alternative with its own easy-to-remember acronym.)

Don Marti · #