The real problem with online advertising

We’ve all heard the complaints about online advertising: it invades our privacy, it’s ruining traditional media, it’s an annoying distraction. But for all that, the advertising companies tell us, we’re supposed to be getting a valuable benefit: advertising that is personalized to our interests. Here’s the real problem, then: despite years of tracking our every move and mining all our data, personalized ads still suck.

On Facebook right now, I see a Microsoft Store ad for the new Surface Pro 3. Fair enough, I guess: I’m a tech geek and I recently read a couple reviews of the Surface Pro 3, because I’m curious about it. Yet I’m not in the market for a computer (in fact, Facebook should know that I recently purchased one, since I posted that information recently). And, even if I was, it wouldn’t be the Surface Pro 3, and it wouldn’t be from the Microsoft Store. Another recent ad (I think also on Facebook) that I saw repeatedly was for Digital Storm, the company from which I did buy my new PC. Yet I continued seeing the same ad, with the same picture of a computer I looked at briefly and decided I didn’t want, well after purchasing the one I did want.

Alongside an article about the Boston Celtics on the Boston Herald’s site, I currently see ads for CrashPlan (an online backup service I’ve been using for over a year) and a coupon for SCOTTeVEST with an exhortation to “see our most popular items,” even though I’ve seen their popular items many times and own one of them already.

On my work PC, I’ve recently been seeing two ads pop up repeatedly: one for my company’s own product and another encouraging me to apply to Year Up, the program for urban young adults where I used to work.

It’s not that these ads aren’t relevant to me. Clearly they are. Yet they’re not at all useful to me. To make them useful, they would have to expose me to brands and products that I’m not already thinking about. If you know I like Digital Storm computers, show me ads from other custom PC makers. If I wear SCOTTeVEST travel clothes, show me ads for other companies that sell travel gear. Of course, quality control is also important: these are companies known for high quality products, so if you show me ads from scammers and counterfeiters, I’m not going to be interested. But the advertisers should know that already.

As it is, the only ads I ever consider clicking on are the top few sponsored results in Google searches. Often these are exactly what I’m looking for. Of course, they’re also often the same as the top few organic search results (I just searched for “Hyundai,” and hyundaiusa.com was the first ad and the first search result). So, great, I get really useful ads the one time I don’t need them. (And, sorry, advertisers: you’re paying for clicks you would have gotten anyway.)

I recognize that I may not be a typical consumer and that my browsing and purchasing habits may be different from others’. But that’s the point, isn’t it? Ads haven’t yet gotten personalized enough to understand how I’m different and to make the ads useful. In aggregate, online advertising works, if the amount of money being poured into it is any indication. But for me, at least, it still sucks.

How much is too much?

Like many people, I have a bunch of blogs and news sites that I keep track of using the Feedly RSS reader. I also have a few newsletters that I receive via my home and work email addresses. It seems like I’m always falling behind on my feeds and the subsequent reading that they generate. So, I decided to do a little experiment: I timed myself catching up on 24 hours’ worth of feeds. Here are the results:

  • 40 minutes scrolling through the feeds, skimming or reading the occasional article, clipping a recipe, or adding a longer article to Pocket to read later.
  • Another 10 minutes doing the same for the newsletters.
  • 35 minutes reading the longer articles I had saved to Pocket (occasionally giving up on one partway through).

That’s 85 minutes, close to an hour and a half. And it’s worth noting that this didn’t include the time to read and “process” (in Getting Things Done vernacular) my Facebook feed (which I recently pared down after reading The Great Facebook Deep-Clean), my Twitter timeline, or my email. It also didn’t include the 20 minutes or so I usually spend each morning scanning news headlines on Boston.com and Google News and skimming interesting-sounding articles.

On one hand, an hour and a half per day is a lot of time just consuming (some sources of) content to keep up with what’s going in my professional field and a few areas of personal interest. On the other hand, there’s a value to that time investment. In my professional career, it allows me to make better decisions about the products I market and to credibly position myself as a subject matter expert. In my personal life, it stimulates my curiosity and creativity, and it gives me a better understanding of the world I live in. My reading helps me discover new recipes, useful lifehacks, and interesting tidbits to share with colleagues, friends, and my social networks.

But how much is too much? Do I need to purge my feeds and commit to fewer long articles? Or should I commit time regularly, much as I do for exercise, to stay on top of things, while allowing myself to skip a day or two here or there without feeling too guilty about it? Probably the solution is some combination of both, though I have this sneaking suspicion that I’ll never get it quite right and will always feel a bit behind. And that’s not to mention the time I probably should spend creating rather than consuming. But that’s a topic for another day.

Two lives, one account

Netflix seems to think that all its customers are single.

Each month, I spend $16 on Netflix for video streaming and DVD delivery. Notice that I didn’t say we spend $16. That’s because Netflix is fundamentally an individual service with no recognition that someone might live and watch TV and movies with other people.

My wife and I are like most married couples; we have overlapping, but not identical, taste. Sometimes, in the evening, we’ll sit down together to watch an episode of White Collar or Luther together via Netflix streaming or The King’s Speech on DVD. Other times, I’ll catch up on reruns of Sports Night while she’s out, or she’ll take advantage of my absence to watch a mini-marathon of Prison Break.

Netflix’s problem isn’t a lack of choices; it’s the use of a single user account for a service that is aimed at households. If my wife wants to add a movie to our queue, she has to log in to Netflix using my email address and password. If it’s time to rate the movie Diner, we have a choice: rate it four stars for me, two stars for her, or three stars to split the difference. The first two mean our Netflix recommendations will be suited for only one of us. The last means we’ll get recommendations that are good for both of us, but we’ll each miss out on suggestions of content that one of us would really like and the other wouldn’t. And, given that we only receive one DVD at a time, do I even need to mention the fights over the order of the queue?

The frustrating thing about this is that Netflix could do so much better. A single paid account could be tied to multiple logins. We could each rate our own content and receive our own recommendations, while sharing the same “watch instantly” and DVD delivery queues. An optional feature could even allow us to each have his/her own delivery queue, and then take turns delivering movies from each. (A quick Google search shows that someone proposed this idea for Netflix five years ago; we’re still waiting.)

Imagine the potential for a family with kids. A parent could enable a filter on his kids’ accounts, allowing the kids to only browse movies rated G or PG. And anything added to the queue by the kids could generate an email to the parent for review or approval.

Instead of offering a set of features to help households really maximize their enjoyment of Netflix, the service forces the user experience to mimic the business model: one account, one user. Of course, I should point out that it’s not just Netflix. Amazon Prime, for example, allows multiple user accounts to share the free shipping, but not the free streaming videos or Kindle lending library. This despite both our user accounts having the same address and the same default credit card!

It’s time for online entertainment services to move beyond the one account, one user paradigm, and to start meeting people where they live. You know, in a home with other people.

Have you seen examples of online services that manage multiple person households well? If so, please let me know in the comments!