Archive for July, 2009

In a moment of David v. Goliath gloUnitedry, a United Airlines passenger, David Carroll of the Canadian folk band Sons of Maxwell, has become an interesting thorn in the side of United’s marketing department after his revenge video goes viral on YouTube and beyond.

The backstory here is that about a year ago, Carroll’s guitar was broken by United baggage handlers. After nine months of red tape and ultimately a denied claim for damages, Carrol produced a song and video about the incident. As of this posting there are over 3,250,000 views and over 15,000 comments. It is the fourth link down in the organic search results fo the term “United Airlines” – a classic example of how social media reflects real world problems, and can be amplified to the point of a major PR nightmare for a major brand.

The blogosphere, twitter, and even traditional media (including the Rolling Stone and CNN) picked up the story. United Airlines breaking Caroll’s guitar was in fact the biggest thing that ever happened to his career. “I’ll have a side of invaluable PR with my revenge please”.

There is now a Wikipedia entry about the Son’s of Maxwell (primarily focused on the United Incident), and I assume the number of fans and level of participation on their Facebookpage has increased since the incident (although it is a paltry 3,674 at the time of this post).

Taylor Guitars even posted a response video (rightfully taking full advantage of the PR opportunity) with tips about travelling with guitars:

If you search Google for “United Airlines”, the “United Breaks” Guitars parody sits just above a parody from Mad TV about United employees, which must have been much funnier to United Airlines’ marketing department prior to it reinforcing the current state of the consumer experience. Nonetheless, it’s pretty funny!

Moral of the story…if you have bad customer service – there is no place to run, no place to hide, and apparently no place to fly!

So why did this particular video go viral while others with similar attributes (funny, parody, well seeded in social channels) don’t? Well, first of all, there’s no magic formula. Remember, “viral” is a result, not a marketing discipline. Compelling content shared and distributed in social channels will have the potential to go viral, period. Perhaps the collective comradary surrounding the fact that we’ve all had bad airline experiences helped. One thing is certain – at some point the right combination of social (people/bloggers) and traditional (media) influencers propelled this video and incident into even more hearts, minds, tweets, blogs, emails, and broadcasts. Within the fabric of the social web, momentum begets momentum.

Social media is forcing companies to rethink operational, service and product related issues.  It is vital to address and correct problems proactively, otherwise, inevitably, the problem will force a fix the hard way.



ComputerLockWhile the Network Advertising Initiative (NAI), a cooperative of online marketing and analytics companies committed to building consumer awareness and establishing responsible business and data management practices and standards,  has existed since 1999, its policies and lack of ubiquitous participation and enforcement ability have not been enough to curtail the FTC’s scrutiny on our industry’s data practices.

The proliferation of data usage for targeting and providing relevant consumer experiences has been a vital component to the progression and growth of the online advertising industry since the emergence of ad servers and data collection in the mid-to-late ’90’s. The argument has always been that no personally identifiable information (PII) is being collected or used and therefore the anonymous data is harmless and in no violation of any privacy guidelines or ethics. However, data collection and applications used to be limited to far fewer players. Today every ad network, marketing technology firm, and now all the major media agencies have developed or are in the process of developing the capabilities of collecting and applying consumer data in the quest to better identify and target specific consumer audiences.

Of course this benefits the entire ecosystem – including consumers. Publishers are utilizing their inventory more efficiently, marketers are able to reach the audiences we want and consumers online experiences are more relevant.

The Privacy Man

Behavioral targeting has been in the FTC’s cross hairs for the last few years (not to mention the unrelenting cries of consumer advocacy groups). It was only this past February when the FTC issued a last warning that the industry self regulate or the man will do it for us. In fact they issued a report on recommended self regulation principles for the industry. Here are the highlights:

Transparency and Consumer Control: Simply put, clear & concise disclosure of targeting practices and a method for consumers to opt-out. Fair enough.

Reasonable Security, and Limited Data Retention, for Consumer Data: Data should be stored in a reasonably secure manner based on the sensitivity of the data, and only retained for the duration required to fulfill a business or legal need. I can see the data storage duration becoming an issue on both sides.

Affirmative Express Consent for Material Changes to Existing Privacy Promises: Express consumer consent must be provided in order to use previously collected data in any manner that materially deviates from the policy in place and disclosed at the time of collection.  This includes instances when a company merges with or is acquired by another company with different data collection and usage practices.

Affirmative Express Consent to (or Prohibition Against) Using Sensitive Data for Behavioral Advertising: Any “sensitive” data collected for the purpose of BT must be done so on an opt-in basis.  BT data is rarely “sensitive”, however, several otherwise seemingly anonymous data points can be combined and used to create PII, which by definition is sensitive. I can see some conflict arising out of this guideline.

The FTC also (accurately) states that self regulation only works when there is a process in place to “monitor compliance and ensure that violations have consequences.” Commissioner Jon Leibowitz, in a separate statement also warned “A day of reckoning may be fast approaching.” “The jury is still out about whether self-regulation alone will effectively balance companies’ marketing and data collection practices with consumers’ privacy interests.”

Congressional meetings on the subject have been escalated as recently as last month.

The Ad Industry Finally Responds

The biggest hurdle to self regulation was that no industry trade group was prepared to bear the responsibility nor the cost of enforcement. Over the last year the IAB went from not having the desire nor the ability to monitor and enforce any BT guidelines, to seriously contemplating the proposition, to finally collaborating with the Direct Marketing Association,  the American Association of Advertising Agencies, the Association of National Advertisers and the Better Business Bureau to establish and issue formal guidelines and enforcement mechanisms.

Advertisers, agencies, publishers, search engines, ad networks, ISP’s, and marketing technology firms will all be held responsible to disclose data collection and usage practices in a “clear, prominent, and conveniently located” manner on their own sites and at the time of data collection.

It is the disclosure at time of data collection that is the interesting development. This disclosure will include an icon or text link that consumers can click on to go to a (soon to be developed) 3rd party site that provides education on industry-wide data collection and usage options. This may be an easy addition at the  ad server level. Effectively this moves some of the disclosure that may already exist buried in websites’ privacy policies, and brings it front and center. It does beg the question of how long we’ll need to do this? Two years? Five years?  At some point are consumers just educated and BT practices become as normal to them as they are to us? An icon on every other ad served online? Well, according to critics and advocacy groups even that is not enough. Cries for do-not-track lists and more stringent opt-in practices abound, so it is vital that the industry start by appeasing the FTC and enforce violations.

Enforcement – The Scarlet Letter Approach

Enforcement includes reporting of violations to government agencies and the general public. There is certainly motivation for the industry to police violators and ensure that the few proverbial bad apples do not spoil it for the rest of us. Will this be enough to ward of the privacy-man and ensure self-regulation survives? We sure hope so.  The strong arm of the law may be less than favorable or practical for the industry.