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 / Summer 2009 / Issue 55(originally published by Booz & Company)


Esther Dyson: The Thought Leader Interview

I published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal last year [“The Coming Ad Revolution,” February 11, 2008], which basically said what I just told you. I wrote about the brilliance of search advertising: The only people who get the message are already looking for that item. This is the basis of Google’s success.

But people spend a lot of time online not looking for something, or at least not for something that can be bought or sold. Marketers need to understand that the Web is not about them; it’s about us. Marketers and media sites keep thinking, “Well, if we can only tweak our banner ads right, we can get the same success rate as Google.” But they can’t, because a banner ad is usually shown to someone who is not looking for the item advertised.

S+B: How well do marketers understand this distinction?
DYSON: After the Wall Street Journal article appeared, I got a number of letters that said, “I read your piece. It was great — and I want to tell you about my wonderful e-commerce site or my new ad-serving tool,” which reinforced my view that media companies, and marketers, aren’t listening. They saw the words behavioral targeting and just assumed it was yet another article about how great it is to be able to track consumers across the Web. They saw a keyword and delivered their preprogrammed message, instead of taking the trouble to listen to what I was saying.

Another place they fail is their secretiveness around cookies and other ways of tracking people’s online behavior. It comes across as lying to people and secretly watching them, instead of listening. It would be much more effective to be transparent, openly acknowledging how tracking works, and using it to engage with people. I like having people know what I want, as long as they aren’t snooping on me. When I enter a store, I expect the clerks to say hello and pay attention, or at least not to ignore me. What I don’t want is for them to hide behind a two-way mirror and spy on me.

S+B: What do you say to the media companies that are trying to compete for advertising dollars online?
DYSON: They will need to get over it. Google’s business is inherently more profitable than any other form of online advertising. It’s just-in-time marketing to people who are already looking. There is no way to build that kind of business from content-driven or behaviorally targeted marketing, at least not on a large scale.

There are other great business models besides Google, but they’re all relatively small. For example, I’m an investor in the Web site Dopplr, where people post travel plans. “I see you’re going to be in Moscow next week. So am I. Let’s have lunch.” And it quantifies everything: How many miles I have flown this year versus how many you’ve flown. Or “What are my friends’ most frequently visited cities?” I suggested to British Airways that they join as a vendor; I would gladly “friend” them. If they joined, they could see that their Dopplr friends are going to Moscow in January, and could offer a special fare. Or if 12 people are going to the same conference, they can offer seating in the plane together.

S+B: Won’t this come across as an invasion of consumer privacy?
DYSON: No, because when I accept a person as a Dopplr friend, I have asked to have that person be aware of my plans. It’s no more invasive than letting your boyfriend hear you say, “I would like a sweater this Christmas.”

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