An Essay by J. Paul Duplantis
I’ve been saying for years it’s not advertising if we’re interested, holding onto the promise of technology one day delivering on my wishful thinking. But here we are in 2019 with 3.2 billion users connected online through PC’s, laptops, tablets, smartphones, and smartwatches where ads influence our decisions whether by mirroring our behaviors or algorithmically choosing for us. Either way not only is there a disconnect between the advertiser and consumer interests but there is also a growing sense of manipulation and distraction.
Everywhere we look online, ad servers are tuning our behaviors and interests to a bottom line not attached to the consumer. The argument here is what is possible if ad servers were tuned to the interests of the consumer to be drivers and not only passengers in the discovery of goods and services? Ad networks subsidize the distribution of content through ads mixed in with native content marked as sponsored, delivered through algorithmic triggers from rules set by the host site, visitor IP addresses, and cookies collected. The idea behind Tunable Ads would be to allow consumers and advertisers to adjust ads, wherever found, in a personal and permission-based ad profile. The advertisers would select criteria to best represent the features and benefits of the offering while the consumer would rank criteria to serve ads better speaking to their interests.
Why doesn’t this already exist? I believe a primary reason is the current state of a top-down, centralized web monetizing behaviors outside of consumer control creates a marketplace driven more by advertiser influence rather than consumer interests. When the current model is printing money, where is the incentive to change? But the father of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners Lee through his new startup Inrupt is looking to rewrite the rules of a centralized web by moving control back to users through Personal Online Data Stores (PODS) within a decentralized framework. Where the centralized web collects user data through cookies and form fills on the network accessible to the highest bidder, a decentralized connection of PODS would allow the user to store personal information and web history in a personal cloud to help secure and personalize web experiences.
What is possible when a personalized and permission-based framework allows the consumer to set conditions on how they would like to engage with products and services as opposed to only how a publisher or advertiser would? I believe an increase in consumer engagement and a decrease in consumer dissonance would result, not only providing new pathways for a healthier exchange but open up new opportunities for economically disadvantaged groups to access information and services. To be clear, I do not work for Inrupt nor do I have an association with their organization but I do have a great deal of respect for what Tim Berners-Lee is looking to accomplish and had the great pleasure of meeting him at a Douglas Engelbart conference recently. Even though I’ve had thoughts of Tunable Ads for many years it was only until I learned about his work on the Solid Framework at MIT and his startup Inrupt with John Bruce that I felt an environment might be built to actually pull something like this off.
What would a Tunable Ad network look like using a decentralized framework? In my view, as opposed to an ad server only collecting information from consumer behavior and contextual triggers, the ad server would access information from the efforts of the consumer collected through surveys accessible by the ad servers through permissions granted. But what about the supply side? If Tim Berners Lee’s PODS could be a tool to help consumers leverage their own data could it be used to help advertisers leverage theirs? Could an expanded palette of descriptive criteria through an advertiser survey better align their offerings with the interests of the consumer? To help better relate the nuances of their offering to an increasingly sophisticated consumer? To help build a more resonant and direct connection with their market?
I spoke with Michael Nevins, Chief Marketing Officer for SmartAdServer.com, who in an article on Media post, spoke of the importance of building publisher private gardens rather than only walled gardens of social and search. In the article he offered, “Finally, with the emergence of credible, open and data-protective tech platforms in 2018, publishers can now wean themselves off their disproportionate reliances on walled gardens and, in effect, nurture their own private gardens. “ He added, “The result would be greater user lifetime revenue and audience loyalty within a safe, premium content ecosystem, often missing in the typical programmatic setting.” When advertisers are looking to build audience loyalty wouldn’t trust become a key ingredient? A trust eroding since web 2.0 began to build AI driven walled gardens. But here we are at the doorstep of a new web. A new decentralized web that will only become a reality off of the backs of innovative use cases. I can’t imagine a better use case than the controlled environment of an advertising ecosystem.
Below, I have conceptualized this by mocking up consumer and advertiser surveys to collect interests from consumers and features/benefits from advertisers. Within a POD framework, I imagine the surveys could be housed by a third party app pushing and pulling data from encrypted PODS serving as a secure carrier between ad servers, consumers, and advertisers where relevance could be delivered not only from Ad Servers and AI but from the efforts of the users. Is it wishful thinking for users to put in the effort to yield better ads on both sides of the equation? It depends on the 3rd party application. If entertainment can be gamified why can’t our interests? How could a UI motivate the advertiser to annotate their offerings to resonate with the consumer? How could a UI motivate the consumer to filter these annotations to relate offerings to their core interests and situations where AI helps but does not lead? What could be built within a decentralized connection to supplement inferred data with expressive data to help build a more resonant exchange between people and providers?
The surveys below and the purpose of this essay is to exercise the possibilities of emerging interests of the consumer through Tunable Ads? In the following examples, the surveys would be marked as private by default with the ability for the user to grant permission for ad servers to access data from the surveys by request. The quality of the ads could be rated by the consumer and the performance of the ads could be rated by the advertiser to help increase the quality of the exchange. Interests could be ordered by dragging topics and subtopics to the top or bottom. The list order, date, and frequency of changes could be used to program ads delivered to the consumer on participating websites.
The image below is how I see the concept folding into a site featuring Tunable Ads through a fictional interface called ADTUNE.
Once the visitor accesses the ADTUNE app they would be delivered to the surveys described below through a 3rd party app pulling data from consumer and advertiser PODS. The app would serve as a gateway for both the consumer and the advertiser to manage their experiences on the ad network. For the consumer, could the gateway be a means to blend and bookmark interesting ad content with native content to reduce the distractive forces of non relevant ads? For the advertiser, could it be a means to increase reach to interested consumers? Would an increase in engagement on both sides of the exchange translate into an optimized revenue model for the host as well? All difficult questions to answer without testing these ideas against a traditional ad delivery model begging the question why wouldn’t we want to know? As new technologies become more immersive where experiences begin to surround us it is easy to imagine a future of amplified influence. Is it better for society for this influence to fall to the favor of the consumers or the advertisers? The users or the providers? Or is it better to move toward a healthy balance between the two? We now have the tools to pull this off but do we have the will?
What is proposed here is to create a pilot program to test these theories in the controlled environment of the Solid Framework in its infancy to see how user control over programmatic controls might scale in a decentralized connection. To carry this program forward I am looking to identify a social impact investor, a development team within a University, an ad server firm, and a user group to collaborate on this project to build the 3rd party app as described within. In the end, are we all not consumers of goods, services, and experiences? What could be gained in exploring the potential of communities and a marketplace driven by the consumer within a private and secure exchange? I believe more than we can imagine.
The topics and subtopics in the surveys presented below are only primers to start a conversation around the viability of aligning the interests of consumers and advertisers through Tunable Ads. What could be built to gamify this exchange? To inspire engagement?
Tunable Ad User Survey
Drag topics and subtopics to the top to rank your interests.
Tunable Ad Advertiser Survey