Web Sustainability: The Data Compact

The more I think about the web marketing environment, the more it looks like a delicate ecosystem, a co-dependent web of often contentious species; marketers, media companies, consumers and the many parties that string them together. As said in my iMedia Agency Summit keynote last week, like any ecosystem it can easily be thrown out of balance and destroyed. And I think we may be closer to that point than any of us realize.

I'll write more later on the issue of economic sustainability (the basis of value creation in our world is pretty much a house of cards) but today my issue is The Data Compact: the unspoken agreement we have with consumers in this ecosystem. In my opinion, we continue to make a very dangerous assumption about "targeting" consumers and harvesting, manipulating and packaging their data. We assume that because we can, therefore we may. We ignore (or simply pay lip service to) the fact that consumers want some kind of a tangible value exchange for all the cookies and tags and pixels we deploy.

The most common rationale we fall back on are actually pretty limp. "Through targeting, the consumer will get better, more relevant ads." Actually, they've just gotten more of the same...often a lot more. "All this data manipulation is fueling a business that's keeping your internet free." No, the consumer is actually paying Comcast or Verizon a good buck for that free internet, so that doesn't really hold up either.

While I'm not advocating a rollback on audience targeting or draconian "opt-in" data policies, I am saying that our industry's response to this unspoken compact has been shallow at best, cynical at its worst. As I said to the iMedia audience, "if you dropped the average consumer into just one of our breakout sessions on micro-targeting he would be absolutely horrified." We're careless in our language (who ever thought to call it 'targeting' in the first place?) and steadfast in our refusal to consider what's really in all this for the consumer. Because if the consumer decides this all goes away, it all goes away. Look no further than the creation of the Do-Not-Call registry for proof.

I simply want to open a healthy debate on the subject. So here's a premise: It may just be possible that our current maniacal focus on audience targeting may be creating an internet that's actually worse for the consumer. That by devaluing quality environment and context -- and removing its financial premium -- we may be economically disincenting companies who create them. So the web becomes a nothing but long tail sites, mail, personal home pages and cookies.

Talk amongst yourselves.