Where Have You Been? A Matter of Cookies and Transparency.

These Webb Cookies Go Deep Undercover

These Webb Cookies Go Deep Undercover

This month’s Epicenter blog on wired.com discusses Flash Cookies, an online tracking mechanism similar but far less known than the more commonly-recognized internet cookie.  Both operate very similarly to store user data, but there are signifigant differences.  Perhaps the biggest difference is storage capacity: HTML cookies can save up to 4 KB of data while Flash cookies can hold nearly 100 KB.

Oh, and there’s one more thing: when you choose to clear the cookies from your browser, you eliminate the HTML ones, but you don’t touch the flash cookies because they aren’t stored in your browser.  Actually, they are part of the Adobe Flash Player and you can find them through the Settings Manager.  Generally, they have an .sol extension.

Viewed positively, Flash cookies keep track of things like your volume settings for YouTube videos, high scores on flash games and user data for sites like Amazon.

Viewed suspiciously, they are shadowy spyware, implemented in a manner that runs counter to the transparency that characterizes the best web behavior.  Some paranoid programming and tech savvy types conjecture that Adobe intentionally tries to deflect privacy concerns by locating these files in disparate tab locations within their software, under unusual labels like ‘storage’ instead of more straightforward headings like ‘security’ or ‘privacy.’

Unfortunately for marketers and online data crunchers, most people do view cookies negatively.  According this article in today’s New York Times, a study from Penn and Cal Berkeley shows two-thirds of Americans object to online tracking.  It’s even becoming an issue on Capitol Hill as various representatives are considering legislation to address the issue.

I am not anti-cookie (or Local Shared Objects or DOM Storage Objects).  They make many things far more convenient and I’m willing to sacrifice some measure of privacy in exchange for their usefulness.  This compromise also drives things like my use of Catalina Marketing’s discount card at the grocery store and my daily use of Facebook; I’m willing to let marketers learn more about my behavior in exchange for coupons and free services.  And you can always turn them off.

But first you have to know they exist.  And reside in a different directory.  The disturbing point at the crux of the blog post was how nearly half of the web’s most popular sites use these cookies, yet very few mention them in their privacy policies.  That’s wrong, plain and simple and people have a right to be suspicious of these site’s intents.  Remarkably, the list of offending sites even includes whitehouse.gov.

Of course, if you grew up watching the Watergate Trials, that will just confirm years of suspicion.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

Apple Moves Over Two Billion Apps In Eighteen Months

Picture 4According to a press release from Cupertino yesterday, Apple’s App Store delivers roughly 6.3 million downloads a day or a head spinning seventy-three apps per second.  You can now choose from over 85,000 programs, up over twenty thousand in the last two months alone.  All of this software serves the more than fifty million iPhones and iPod Touches in the market right now.  More importantly, it drives sales and differentiation for this smartphone platform.  The release quotes Steve Jobs as saying “The App Store has reinvented what you can do with a mobile handheld device, and our users are clearly loving it.”

While this is clearly a bit of sales-driving commentary, those words rang incredibly true for referring to my iPhone as ‘a mobile handheld device.’  It is mobile, it is handheld, and it is one remarkable device.  Unfortunately, it’s also a lousy phone.  It drops calls, it stumbles for minutes at a time as it searches for a 3G connection…but it does have those wonderful, engaging apps.  I have a modest thirty-five on my phone and use maybe four everyday, the rest very sporadically.  That’s not particularly surprising; it’s not like anyone really needs to constantly check movie times.

Still, there’s undeniable genius in this model; create a platform and open it up so that independent programmers can supply it with an endless variety of new and fascinating content, which insures the platform remains differentiated and vital in the world of smart phones.  Mr. Jobs clearly learned some things by watching how software developers flooded the open PC market with choices that his closed Mac system could never have.  And he leveraged that to insure the iPhone’s long term success.

Now if he will just let us pick our own carrier.  I can’t wait for a Cricket iPhone.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

The Changing Face of Facebook

A recent feature in the New York Times Sunday Magazine labeled “Facebook Exodus” highlighted some purported trends regarding Facebook and it’s fading hold on certain demographics.  Of course, Facebook proponents viewed this less as ‘highlighting’ and more like ‘hyping’ but some facts do remain, many of them courtesy of this iStrategy Labs analysis of Facebook statistics.

•  Facebook is almost ridiculously popular, nabbing nearly 88 million unique visitors in July from the US alone.

•  The six month trend for Adults 55+ has been a stunning 514% growth in new users.

•  That same trend for high school and college age students is 16.5% and 21.7% less new users.

Good or Bad is Debatable: But Change Is Always Constant.

Good or Bad is Debatable: But Change Is Always Constant.

Because we live in a Twitter powered world of byte-sized information, those last statistics have been frequently mis-reported as those audiences shrinking by those percentages.  To be clear, those audiences have still been growing but at far, far lower velocities.  And that does represent a trend.

But as someone who remembers when our neighbors the Tanguays back in Radnor, PA became early adopters of cable television, it’s hard to be surprised to see changes to the platform.  Back then, no commercials EVER came on cable–that was the whole selling point.  After all, if it had commercials, why would you pay for it?

Obviously, things change over time.  And the same is happening to Facebook.  Personally, I’ve become immune to the chain letters disguised as apps–if you want to know my birthday, ask me and I’ll tell you but no, I won’t download another app for that honor.  Nor do I want to fight your Ninjas or join your Mafia mob–it’s a newer face but not a whole lot more than the old Dungeons and Dragons bit.  I’d rather play basketball thanks.

As Facebook matures and newer alternatives arise, the biggest challenge will be maintaining a positive signal-to-noise ratio among it’s heaviest users.  So long as the contacts and networking stay simple to use and acceptably clean of too much unwanted junk, Facebook will retain it’s audience.  Should that balance shift, it won’t.

Kind of like television.  Imagine that.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

The High RPM Historic Road Markers of Elkhart Lake, WI

WEb#1A team from Element 79 spent Tuesday night and Wednesday in Wisconsin as part of an ongoing new business pitch process, including an overnight stay at the Osthoff Resort in Elkhart Lake, WI.  This charming town exudes a well-kept vintage vacation lake feeling.  Driving in, I noticed a roadside marker for something called “Briggs Bend.”  Then another for “Ted’s Turn.”  Later I found “Werner’s Wend”–obviously, all this alliteration separated these signs from the typically dry postings that mark places of historical semi-signifigance (“Millard Fillmore kept a goat pen here“).WEB#2

Taking the long route and poking around a bit revealed the area around Elkhart Lake enjoyed a huge burst of popularity as a site for road racing during the boom years for sportscars after WWII.  During those pre-litigious times, Le Mans style open road racing filled that rolling Wisconsin countryside with the sound of high-revving engines and squeeling tires.  These days, that action is consigned to on-track racing at the still remarkable four miles of twists and turns at Road America: “Road Racing at It’s Best!

WEB#3Racing history, captured on small signs along country roads, in a hamlet west of Sheboygan…  If you’re not fascinated by America, you’re just not paying attention.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

Fair Warning: Blogger Not Nearly As Fabulous As This Image Suggests

Despite being recently overturned, the Chicago City Council’s well-intentioned but clueless ban on foie gras means making snide comments about other well-intentioned yet clueless lawmakers qualifies me a stone-thrower in a glass house.  Still, in a soft news story I find charmingly silly, fifty members of the French parliament want warning labels on airbrushed photographs in an effort to curb a practice that their chief proponent contends leads to eating disorders among young women.  Mme. Valerie Boyer authored a government report on anorexia and obesity and has been quoted saying “we want to combat the stereotypical image that all women are young and slim.”

Image Above Is Not The Blogger

Image Above Is Not The Blogger

Good luck with that Val.  And while you’re busy legislating that society push water uphill, perhaps you can insure brunettes, redheads and even the follically-challenged enjoy an amount of fun commensurate to blondes, who chronically over-index on fun.  Licensing handguns may be beyond our political grasp, but perhaps we can license Photoshop owners.  And we haven’t even begun to talk about full-motion video retouching, but if you’ve seen any hip-hop video in the past five years, you’ve (not) seen that at work.  And yes, I’m talking to you Lil Kim.

That’s the thing about glamour and beauty and the basic currency of the image business; it’s relative and it’s heartless.  Woman under 5’8″?  Sorry.  Soft-chinned man?  Sorry.  Forehead big enough to be a fivehead?  Sorry.  However, like so many high-fashion Steve Austin‘s, models can be radically enhanced, and so guess what that means?  Both they, and the advertiser, want them enhanced.  At the risk of sounding overly callous and jaded, models are chosen solely for how their faces hold light, not their thinking or dancing or position on nuclear policy.  As Paulina Poriskova rather famously replied when asked how she achieved her sexy look, “It’s simple, just three steps; lick your lips, part your lips, think of nothing.”

Eating disorders are a serious problem, but responding to it with lightweight, clueless legislation destined for failure is the equivalent of slapping a Band-Aid on a chest wound.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

Clouds Don't Come Free: What Twitter Costs You and Why You Might Want to Rethink That Bargain

Perhaps the biggest accomplishment of American jurists has been reducing our vivid national tongue into an indecipherable mind-numbing wall of impenetrable boilerplate.  Which is a form of job-protection I guess but otherwise adds precious little in the way of common clarity and understanding.

A Question Regarding The Cloud

A Question Regarding The Cloud

I’ve been thinking about that ever since the improbably-named Twitter co-founder Biz Stone sent out a change of policy email to all account holders last week.  Given that it was couched in dense legalese, neither me nor you nor the overwhelming majority of account holders bothered to hack their way through that thicket of legal mumbo-jumbo detailing something as seemingly innocuous as a policy change.  So we don’t really know what we agreed to.

But happily, out amidst the vast resources of curious active minds brought together on the web, a few smart people have.  I am particularly grateful for this wonderfully-clarifying analysis and editorial from Simon Dumenco of Advertising Age.  It’s well worth a read.

Dumenco points out how amidst all the details and ‘whereby’s’, Stone buries the small but not insignificant fact that Twitter reserves the right to all of the content you generate on their service.  That’s right: ALL the content.

Those one-liners you send out everyday?  They’re yours, but Twitter can put them into a joke book and not owe you a penny.  That news you saw happening and described from your unique POV?  Twitter can aggregate it and sell it to any of the major news wires.  That novel you’ve been tweeting?  Those lyrics you’ve been half-crowdsourcing?  That witty bon mot about a current event?  Twitter owns them as much as you do, and can profit on them or resell them or license them to whomever they darn well please.

To most of us, the use of this service and the simple fact that we’re not likely to toss off too many intellectual pearls within 140 characters makes this a fair trade.  And given the sheer dunning weight of meaningless prattle on the service, that is not necessarily a reckless position.  It’s a stretch to consider “Man I need coffee” as Intellectual Property, let alone IP worth protecting.

Still, Twitter’s value lies in aggregation.  In aggregation of opinion, in aggregation of highly-defined target markets and perhaps soon, in aggregation of bite-sized content around themes or lifestyles or specific events.  Would anyone ever want to order a copy of The Twitter Guide To Exceptional Birthday Wishes from Amazon?

If it would come out and you did buy it, you might even find your ideas in it.  Whether you’d be credited, well, there are no guarantees about that…

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

Skewing Online Data: Why Marketers Should Think "Convergence" Not "Transference"

Studies show that if a brand wants to drive significant online impressions, they should advertise on TV.  Similarly, if a TV ad aspires to live longer than thirty seconds, it should continue the experience online.  Cross platform convergence makes today’s advertising media world far more complicated but also far more engaging,  The trick boils down to innovative, creative and effective platform coordination.

Unfortunately, in a tough economy with escalating TV media costs, many advertisers look to the web as simply a cheaper medium.  They don’t really understand the metrics but the siren call of lowcost of entry makes far too many forget any sense of basic strategic responsibility and ROI discipline.

Hopefully, that shortsightedness will change if enough marketers read about this study from Mpire, an online ad optimization company in Seattle.  MPire developed a new technology called AdXpose which recently determined that 95% of clicks and 50% of online ad impressions were fraudulent.

AdXpose: “95% of Clicks, Half of Online Ad Impressions are Fraudulent

If these numbers don’t knock you back, re-read that sentence again.  This fraud is nothing short of Madoff-esque.  For a medium with as much data-mining and measurability as the web, this kind of blatant gaming of the system threatens to destroy it’s incredible promise.  And if that seems like too big an exaggeration, like something confined to the small space bargain bins of discount web banners, watch the click counts on YouTube for the Super Bowl ads this coming February.  Some will legitimately spike as people relive or catch up on this cultural event.  But others, quite obviously, will be blatantly played.  It’s been happening the past few years by some of the biggest names: names that don’t have the track record of performance of say a Budweiser.  With this big a high-profile gamble, a little off-shore insurance can protect your career and so clicks skyrocket for spots that hardly bear watching once.  In some cases, this can even happen without the clients’ knowledge; insurance works for production companies and young directors as well.

Television skeptics have enjoyed quite a run these past few years, particularly over dated and dubious metrics like Nielsen.  Given these findings however, perhaps skepticism deserves its day.  And equal time.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

Respecting and Enhacing Brand Voice Through Advertising

On the way into work today, I passed a bus featuring an ad for Quaker Oatmeal.  Three simple words floated in a beautifully clean layout atop a portrait of the Quaker and his knowing smile (whom for reasons lost to time we always called ‘Larry”).  The headline read “Go Humans Go.”

“Go Humans Go”?  What?

I am admittedly biased on this subject given we handled this account for six years or so at Element 79, but they’ve been flogging variations of “Go Humans Go” for over a year and as much as I genuinely respect Goodby’s creative and planning excellence, I can’t think of a more ill-conceived campaign for the Quaker brand.  It is a new voice for the brand and one that is no doubt attention getting.

Apparently "Earthlings" Didn't Test Well In Qual

Apparently "Earthlings" Didn't Test Well In Qual

But so is belching the National Anthem.

Attention-getting creative still must relate to some consumer benefit or else it’s entirely dismissable.  A new consumer voice still must feel somehow authentic to the brand or else it consumers won’t believe it.

What’s been sacrificed here for no discernible reason, is brand voice.  Perhaps some new people on the brand team consider things like ‘trust’ and ‘wholesomeness’ too passive…  Perhaps they wanted to do something kicky that the kids might like…  But whatever their intent, pursuing it this way destroys the trusted Quaker brand voice.

Putting “Go Humans Go” above Larry’s grin literally re-positions the trusted Quaker as a robot, a superior lifeform patronizingly looking down on a lesser species, like a representative for some semi-benevolent alien race.  That’s interesting, but not particularly relevant.  And it sure isn’t human or empathetic or even trustworthy.  I mean, does that make you want to Facebook friend him?

Change is often necessary for brands.  But I doubt this is change anyone can believe in.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79