Gray Eagles and Dead Trees

I’ve always loved to read. At times, my dedication to consuming the printed word rivaled my son’s devotion to Minecraft, as hard as it is to believe. A couple weeks after Amazon introduced the first Kindle, I bought one, and over the next couple years, transitioned to first mostly, then completely, ebooks. I don’t buy bound (dead tree) books anymore, but it’s not out of a sense of ecological responsibility, just the desire for simplicity. I love having virtually my entire library on a small device that’s with me all the time, whether it’s a Kindle, a tablet, or my phone.

Reading recreationally is no longer a thing that requires preparation (did I remember to bring the books I’m reading? All of them? Jeesh, this bag is heavy).

One of my favorite novels of all time, is by Duane Unkefer, titled “Gray Eagles.” It’s the story of a group of former World War Two Luftwaffe pilots who are invited to a flying vacation complete with fully restored Messerschmidt 109s, not only painted up like the planes they all flew three decades before (the story is set in Phoenix in the 1970s) but armed to the teeth. Naturally, they proceed to use the terrible warplanes as they were intended, striking one more blow for the Luftwaffe.

The action in “Gray Eagles” is good, the flying sequences accurate and believable, the characters well-drawn and likeable. It’s a really good novel. I first bought and read “Gray Eagles” right after the paperback came out, in 1986, and loved it. A few years ago, I went on Amazon, looking for a hard cover edition so I could make it a permanent part of my collection. Despite the book being out of print now, I found a hardback and bought it. I came across that book a few days ago, and decided to read “Gray Eagles” again, and it’s just as delightful, thrilling and suspenseful.

It’s also a pain in the ass.

I’ve become so accustomed to the convenience of reading on a Kindle, iPad or Nexus 7 tablet, that flipping pages and trying to keep the book propped open so I could read without my hands having to be constantly engaged proved to be a challenge. Sad to say, it’s really annoying. In many circumstances, I like old-school tools, pens, notebooks, and my beloved Blackwing pencils, but reading the printed page, ink on paper, machine bound, is simply…A pain in the ass.

I love “Gray Eagles,” but as soon as I’m done with it, I’m back to my Kindle. I’m a little bummed about this, and not completely comfortable abandoning the tactile joy of a well bound book, but the benefits definitely outweigh the loss.

Digital Advertising, the Good, the Bad and the Fake

There’s a gold rush on, and it’s still going strong. No question about it, there is much money to be made, and a few participants are raking it in. Like California Gold Country in the middle of the 19th Century, the ones scoring the really big bucks are the digital shovel dealers. Don’t get me wrong, the digital marketplace is the one to be in. From news to social media to movies and television, more and more modern consumers (and even those not-so) are doing their consuming online, through computers, tablets, smartphones and video boxes. Advertisers are increasingly motivated to shift their marketing mixes from “traditional” media like Radio, TV and (ahem) newsprint. But, one only has to look at evidence like increased rubber band sales (I’l explain later), Radio listening levels, and the way TV viewers use the DVRs that sit under televisions all over the country, to see using digital platforms to connect with potential customers makes sense.

Unfortunately, in this brave, new digital world, many advertisers, and too many ad agencies haven’t figured out how to separate effective advertising from effectively worthless schemes. It’s difficult to tell the legitimate digital “shovel vendors” from charlatans all too ready to steal hard-earned money marked for expanding a company’s profits. Unfortunately, that situation is going to be very slow in changing, and the waste will be incalculable.

Traditional advertising has been based on interrupting the content consumption process, whether it be a radio station requiring a listener to sit through a seemingly exponentially expanding quantity of :30 and :60 second commercials to hear their favorite song, or a TV station sticking spots in between acts of a favorite drama or comedy. Newspapers rely on distracting their readers with pictures and bold headlines hawking products they may or may not be in the market for. These platforms rely on a business identifying the content their customers may be looking for, and hoping they can interrupt that consumption in such a way the consumer shifts their attention from doing what they intended to do, to doing what the advertiser wants the to do.

When Television was born, the programming offered on the new medium was, for the most part, Radio shows with pictures added. That’s human nature. In the early days of something new, we tend to use that new tool pretty much liked we used the old one, while experimenting and learning about what the future holds. Advertising is no different. Too many advertising dollars end up funding hideous pop-ups that cover up what the internet consumer is trying to enjoy, until the user interacts with the ad enough to figure out how to make it go away. The hope is, the pop-up catches the consumer’s attention, not only making them forget about being thwarted in their effort to read, watch or listen to the content, but also interesting them in the product being offered.

Banner ads work on the distraction method, but let’s face it, consumers are getting good at not being distracted, not to mention how easy it is to install ad block plugins that take the offending ads completely away.

Search

Everything starts with Search. A quick glance at any successful website’s referer logs will show that a great deal of traffic comes from Google, Bing and Yahoo, search engines that help digital consumers find the content they are looking for. Google, the industry’s leader, does a lot of cool, cutting edge stuff. They get a lot of attention developing new technologies, whether head-mounted screens or driverless cars, but Google’s revenue comes from search advertising, delivering ads on query response pages or affiliated websites delivering content that matches what the consumer is looking for. Done right, search advertising works, provided no one in the process is fraudulently gaming the system (more on this later).

Contextual

Another effective form of digital advertising is closely aligning product marketing with content consumption. A good example of this might be a website that specializes in product reviews. If a consumer is looking for a new smartphone, their web browsing may lead them to a site reviewing appropriate phones, and providing links that can be used to purchase the devices, earning the site’s owner a commission when the site sends the consumer to a site that sells the products reviewed, which may or may not lead to a sale.

I believe there are huge opportunities in this form of advertising, and as long as content creators are above board and disclose their financial connections with the product, it’s entirely legitimate. Smart marketers don’t try in any way to influence reviewers to only voice good opinions of their products. They know that almost all exposure is good exposure, a lukewarm review sometimes being more effective than a glowing recommendation, adding authority to the process and lending even more credence to the good reviews. In building web traffic and awareness of a brand, the more a product is mentioned, the better, even if that mention isn’t five-star.

Interestingly, contextual advertising can be very effective in traditional media as well, and those advertisers who use it in the right way are reaping big returns, which I’ll cover in a future post on this blog.

The Problem

Unfortunately, a lack of understanding of how to measure the results generated by digital advertising is allowing unscrupulous outlets to waste their customers’ money, making it look as though the advertiser’s goals are being met, when in fact, their efforts often accomplish nothing more than enriching the publishers of the platforms.

Just like a brand new gold miner lacked the technical sophistication to tell a high-quality steel pick and shovel from cheap aluiminum hardware, a digital advertiser often can’t discern whether the money they are spending is actually leading to product exposure and sales. Advertisers need to be very clear with the platform they’re spending money with about what success looks like, whether than metric is sales, exposure or, (and in my opinion, most importantly) engagement.

A case in point involves a media company in recent years, that convinced advertisers the views and exposure generated by their platform were worth the dollars being invested by their advertisers. The problem was, the traffic being reported to the advertiser was completely faked. Web metrics usually measure how many visitors visited the site, when in reality, they are measuring how many times the platform’s servers are sending the page to a web user’s computer. A “view” doesn’t necessarily mean the user ever saw the page. In this particular case, the advertising platform had struck a deal with a (sadly) successful pornographic website network. The pornographic websites included a few lines of code that embedded the company’s websites as part of the adult content, “displaying” them in invisible frames that measured one pixel by one pixel. Web users couldn’t possibly see the advertisers’ ads, since the pages the ads resided on were reduced to the size of a single pixel among millions on a page, and then rendered invisible. The software that measures the distribution of the website can’t tell the difference between what is and isn’t seen, only what is delivered to the user’s computer. The result was the appearance of a much greater volume of traffic than was actually earned, which increased ad rates for all clients, even though no advertiser benefited in any way from this arrangement.

In the short-term, the result is simply that the advertising dollars spent are wasted, but without tracking and vision of what success looks like, the much more important long-term ramification is the conclusion on the part of the advertiser that digital website advertising doesn’t work.

As long as digital advertising campaigns are simply thrown together without any thoughtful strategy, or any understanding of what constitutes success, and are based more on the inventory available, rather than what the client needs to accomplish, advertisers will be wasting their money. The accumulation of these failures will eventually damage the credibility of the digital advertising platform, and the industry will lose a potentially game-changing opportunity to reach users where they live.

Stamping out the waste and fraud that is dragging down digital advertising industry as it exists today is imperative. Fortunately, the platform is, by its nature, open for the world to see. Because the primary tool used to consume websites, the internet browser, is really just a rendering agent that interprets the typographical and stylistic code used to describe how a site is to be displayed, it’s often a relatively straight-forward operation to uncover these shady manipulations. Anyone with sufficient skill to design and code a modern website, and a talent for basic, logical thining can uncover these nefarious tactics. The digital advertising community must support those who uncover these things, and will have to self-police to make sure digital advertising dollars are spent fairly and effectively. It’s the only way the platform will remain viable and grow as it should.

A fairly large industry, devoted to helping unscrupulous website managers artificially inflate their numbers has developed. Fake traffic is quite inexpensive, and ironically, often starts with real people, usually in third-world countries, who are paid pennies to browse sites that have paid for traffic. An advertiser can ask for website referer logs, if they suspect something isn’t completely legitimate. Heavy usage of a local, regional or even national website from China and the Philippines is a red flag suggesting bought-and-paid-for fake traffic is involved. Searching the source code line by line of websites that send lots of traffic to a platform an advertiser is paying to advertise on may yield clues in the form of embedded code snippets or iFrames that generate fake traffic. Again, the web is for the most part, all in plain sight, and it’s not too difficult for a knowledgeable coder to uncover what is going on, and how the suspect traffic is being generated.

The advertising community must do what it can to stamp out these abuses, and support the viability and integrity of this new digital advertising platform. Doing this will help advertisers reach more customers, and will help develop an important and lucrative advertising platorm. Failure will set us all back, and kill a potential golden goose forever.

Scary Movies

My grandmother loved movies, and taking me, her first grandchild, to them. I know, you’re thinking Mary Poppins or Lassie..

Bonnie_and_Clyde.JPG

Wrong. I remember her taking me to two films in particular, and the memory of each are reduced to one scene per movie. I turned the TV on this morning, and playing on one of the classic film channels was the Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway classic Bonnie and Clyde.

Grandma took me to the Paramount Theatre in Anderson, Indiana to see the gangster flick when I was 8 years old. Seeing it again on the flat screen in my home office this morning, I wondered what she was thinking as we watched it. The subtle (by today’s standards) sexual overtones (which I have no memory of at all, not surprisingly) were decidedly PG today. What I remember vividly, is the violence, particularly in the gun battles, and most shockingly, in the final scene where Bonnie and Clyde are gunned down in their car, several law enforcement officers cutting them to pieces with automatic gunfire. Reports of the incident that ended the pair’s crime spree said they were each hit at least 50 times, with several head shots. The mortician had trouble embalming them because of all the bullet holes in their bodies.

This particular film was groundbreaking in a number of ways, including the first use of “squibs,” small packets of red liquid that are used to simulate being shot. Previously in the movies, death by bullet was portrayed by the actor’s hand clutching his abdomen, a grimace, and line something like “he got me!” Bonnie and Clyde changed all that. S&t got real.*

That scene with bullets perforating Bonnie and Clyde is the one that lives in my memory to this day.

But the first film-going memory I have, is my grandmother taking me to see the Bette Davis classic Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte. I was five years old that time, and honest to God, that movie creeped me the F&*k out, especially the scene with Bette Davis standing, covered in the blood of the guy everyone thought she had just stabbed to death. Then, that head rolling down the stairs…Jeesh.

Again, I was five years old. I think the reason there was a three year gap in between movies my grandmother took me to probably corresponded to how long it took my mom and dad to forget about Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte and let her take me to the theatre again.

It was years later when I realized why the Baldwin sisters on The Waltons creeped me out so much. They simply reminded me of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford from that movie. Two spinster sisters with southern accents…

I’m glad we have a movie rating system today, even if it seems to be getting really lax these days. Movies that to me, are clear “R” films seem to routinely get “PG-13” ratings, if not “PG.” I’m sad that our kids have to grow up so fast, but I’m sure parents have been saying that for hundreds, if not thousands of years. There were probably Roman parents talking, two thousand years ago, one saying “I can’t believe that Marcus and Octavia took little Julius to the Coliseum! He’s only 10. I didn’t get to watch the gladiators until I was 13! These kids are growing up so fast!”

The other day, I let my 12 year old watch a few minutes of what in 1976 was the most violent show on television, Starsky and Hutch. He thought it was the funniest thing he’d ever seen. I remember the controversy over Starsky and Hutch, how it was too violent for television, too realistic, etc…Today though? There are episodes of iCarly that have more violence than Starsky could unleash in an hour. Times do change.

My kid is 12, is pretty good at Call of Duty and Watchdogs *(though I don’t let him play *Grand Theft Auto). No way I’d let him watch Hush Hush, Sweet Charlotte. No way.