Want an iPod? Get one free at freeiPods.com
I hate sounding like a crass web promoter but FREE remains the best single response mechanism on the Internet. We are happy to provide our full attention in exchange for free stuff: iPods, Razrs, Flatscreens, PSP, and more. And it really works, as people actually do end up with iPods which are free in terms of money but expensive in terms of attention.
It is easy to dismiss the random college student who has nothing better to do with his time than click away on offers he isn't really interested and sell out his five other college friends as potential online education and auto loan applicants. It's similarly easy to dismiss the stretched dad who eagerly clicks on low cost mortgage ads even though he has already borrowed 200% of his income on credit credit cards and usually pays 100% annualized interest on cash advance services to service his debt. It is scary when you consider how much the Internet advertising economy depends on juicing up consumer credit; as JK suggests at his excellent blog, more than 20% of Google and Yahoo search ad revenue may be dependant on mortgages. Our research at Majestic suggests that the top paying keywords on paid search have consistently been Home Equity Loan and Refinance purchased by Countrywide and ELoan for over $20 per click.
An enterprising consumer could fabricate her identity and that of her referrals in order to try qualifying for products without ever being contacted again. But that’s not what happens. The great majority of America does not subscribe to RSS feeds or use Firefox. These Americans think a tag sale is a great way to spend a Saturday afternoon, not the next revolution in Internet advertising.
We are an American populus of lazy attention providers who opt in to elaborate network marketing schemes that resell us multiple times over and append increasing data about our demographics and purchase intentions. We would rather not bother with multiple email identities with unique passwords; life is too short.
Spitzer may indeed go after freeipod.com once he is done with Intermix. Consumers who have filled in a lot of data and have yet to see their free iPods arrive in the mail will cry foul. In the same way that some retail investors cried foul to the Attorney General after losing their 401k money on Internet Capital Group or Infospace. Mayor Bloomberg was right when he said that people make their own investment decisions and should be held responsible for any losses they incur.
I wonder if he will say the same thing when consumers begin the witch hunt against any Internet advertising company that sells their attention to advertisers without their explicit permission each step of the way. The individual’s decision to save time and money in exchange for their passive attention represents our collective failure to imagine a more active Internet lifestyle. This should come as no surprise in the context of our dependencies on credit, oil, porn, sugar, and gambling. These industries are not in danger of collapsing anytime soon.
It is ironic how personal technology and the Internet continues to be represented culturally as a source of control; we are everywhere reminded that our browser gives us the ability to establish order on a world of constantly changing information. When we search for something, we are driving the process of personalized information retrieval
But on the other side of the mirror, we are being watched. Our queries are being mapped legitimately by companies looking to contact us. If you are not careful, an errant click will be answered with a telephone call from a sales representative. And so as we succumb to these performance-based networks, our future purchases, our future media consumption, our lifetime economic value across hundreds of categories and thousands of companies, are all being calculated in real-time. Not by a single agent, but by multiple agents each trying to evaluate our momentary state of purchase intent in the context of the many monetization levers these advertisers have at their disposal.
As the Internet medium continues to evolve into a sales channel, the price of advertising is becoming mapped algorithmically to probable outcomes. Very little is being left to chance, as even the most ephemeral of creative decisions (color of the car in the banner, the choice of text in the link) are immediately evaluated in terms of click-thru rate and ultimate conversion. As Josh Kopelman, who used the prototypical arbitrage concept of “half” to create a $300m exit for his company half.com to EBay, puts it, “online advertising is just math."