News of Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp prompted me to visit WhatsApp‘s website to get their perspective. What surprised me most was that, rather than featuring an announcement about the acquisition, it had a blog post that boldly proclaimed: “We don’t sell ads.”
This post, written by co-founder Jan Koam, rides high on a self-congratulatory victory lap of a company fighting against the evils of personal information collection and unwanted advertising. However, this is in stark contrast to the fact that they just sold themselves to one of the biggest advertising engines since Google in the digital age. So one has to ask: “What’s up WhatsApp?” Is your supposed raison d’etre as empty and untenable as Google’s “Don’t be evil”?
Koam writes: “At every company that sells ads, a significant portion of their engineering team spends their day tuning data mining, writing better code to collect all your personal data, upgrading the servers that hold all the data and making sure it’s all being logged and collected and sliced and packaged and shipped out … And at the end of the day the result of it all is a slightly different advertising banner in your browser or on your mobile screen … Our engineers spend all their time fixing bugs, adding new features and ironing out all the intricacies in our task of bringing rich, affordable, reliable messaging to every phone in the world. That’s our product and that’s our passion. Your data isn’t even in the picture. We are simply not interested in any of it.”
Well, that is going to change quickly once they are part of one of the biggest aggregators of personal information on the planet. This post and pending acquisition raises two points worthy of addressing.
First, as much as the high ideals of the technocracy would love to shun advertising for ever, it is one of the primary models of business around the globe. It also works. That’s not to say it isn’t without problems, but, if it didn’t work, it wouldn’t attract the money and attention it does. It creates a cycle that connects businesses and buyers. It also allows for the subsidisation of many of the free and great services that have sprung up in the digital age. It is infantile to think otherwise. There is no such thing as a free lunch.
Second, the post supposes an advertising model akin to the dotcom days of advertising. That of banner ads that take up precious screen real estate with limited targeting capabilities. The world has moved on technically and so should our thinking. It conveniently doesn’t address the ability to deliver a contextual experience based on the capability of connected devices. Mobile devices provide a first layer, the internet of things will take this even further.
My issue with Koam’s post isn’t that he wanted to get away from banner advertising, it’s that all he could imagine is a world of dumb, static, barely targeted ads. In fact, his post only further perpetuates this very outdated form of digital engagement. What would be more helpful would be to provide a vision of a company that changes the advertising experience altogether. He would do better to demonstrate a service that matches product and person with such alignment that it isn’t an inconvience or irritant.
This vision for the future of advertising would be for something that wasn’t a constant visual nuisance. These ads, better termed as offers, would appear at the right time and in the right place. Mobile and other connected devices of the internet of things can easily allow for delivery during the correct connected experience.
Your personal data is the new digital currency. It is true, as Koam writes, that “when advertising is involved you the user are the product”. In lieu of paying directly for our services, we are offering our personal information and usage patterns as currency. These services do collect this information and use it to advertise to you. But you should use this currency wisely and give it only to companies and services that offer not only superior functionality but also superior offers.
What we need isn’t more high ideals or more blatant boring broadcasted advertising, but a healthy mix that demands a more intelligent blending of the two. If companies such as Google, Facebook and many others continue to collect more and more information about our every movement then how, when and what they present to us as ads should be more intelligent as well.
Benjamin Robbins is a co-founder of Palador, a mobile strategy and solutions consultancy in Seattle. Follow him on Twitter @PaladorBenjamin. He is a speaker at this year’s Changing Media Summit 2014.
(Originally posted on The Guardian)