WSJ investigation of new personal info tracking is bad news for web ad business

In a front page article paired with an in-depth Weekend Journal feature-length article , the Wall Street Journal today exposed the extent of little-known tracking files that the 50 most popular s install on users’ computers: The Web’s New Gold Mine: Your Secrets.

The article details the stunning news that the 50 most popular s installed a total of 3,180 tracking files on a test computer. Only about one-third of these files were routine “cookies” that store information like passwords and preferences. The other two-thirds included files installed by ad networks that included “beacons” and other tracking files that can record keystroke activity.

When contacted, some of these popular s were not even aware that their sites were installing some of these sophisticated tracking files on users’ computers — even though they were aware they were allowing ad networks to gather user data.

Dictionary.com, according to the WSJ report, installed 234 tracking files on their test computer. Of course, ad networks do not capture this information for personal snooping, the data they collect is not tracked by name. All the sites contacted also said their privacy policies disclosed their tracking practices. However, the WSJ reports the sophistication of the data gathering has increased due to a growth in a network of data resellers in the last 18 months.

When I read this article, I immediately went to Mashable.com to see what their take was. I was stunned to see there was nothing.

So let me break this down for the web ad industry: The WSJ’s article will put the web ad business squarely in the sites of government, regulators and congress. There is a very long history of Wall Street Journal “investigative” reports leading directly to regulatory changes — or new laws.

I, for one, have not had much to do with the world of web ad networks, don’t know a heck of a lot about this ad network industry, apart from understanding the basics. It isn’t evil, it’s not trying to spy on people — it’s trying to get relevant ads directed to people. I understand that. But the fact that the industry is now using tools that even their hosts don’t know exist is very, very, very bad news. Foxes as chicken guards is a very very bad idea.

Everyone prepare for a new regulatory manure storm — it’s coming.

Here’s the WSJ’s list of “Top 10 sites that most expose user data” (which appeared in their info graphic in the print edition of today’s article) and the number of tracking files the WSJ claims they loaded on to a test computer:

  1. Dictionary.com / 234
  2. Merriam-webster.com / 131
  3. Comcast.net  / 151
  4. Careerbuilder.com/ 118
  5. Photobucket.com/ 127
  6. MSN.com / 207
  7. Answers.com / 120
  8. Yellowpages.com / 89
  9. MSNBC.com / 117
  10. Yahoo.com/ 106

Found Friday: 2 posts on how to use social media for news gathering, monitoring

OK, so this is like a bugaboo of mine: the intersection of traditional news and social media. I found two two posts that basically underscore the point that, if you’re in journalism and you’re not on Twitter and Facebook — and using them to stay abreast of events, then you’re just cheating yourself and your newspaper. Enjoy:

10 Facebook pages every journalist should follow

Wow – even I didn’t know that some great news organizations have some great Facebook pages — and the WSJ’s even includes an up-to-the-minute updated “News” tab full of updates. It’s like getting a free news feed … wait, it IS  a free news feed. Many more great resources in this article by Brian Ward from All Facebook (which bills itself as “the unofficial facebook resource”).

Twitter – new media, or news media?

This post by Tom Snyder on Social Media Today emphasizes one of my favorite things about Twitter: you can use it to find out about news before the media does. In this post Snyder gives a perfect example of something I’ve seen first-hand on Twitter: people tweeting in real time about breaking news events. Too bad so many journalists have no clue how Twitter can be used to follow on-the-scene events (Hint: start with a Hootsuite or Tweetdeck account).

Why the Old Spice campaign is bad for social media

Who doesn’t like the Old Spice social media campaign? It’s funny, original, and seems to prove the validity of social media, right?

Actually it doesn’t. And this is what’s been bugging me: what the campaign really says is that you too can succeed with a “social media campaign” … provided you are a very big company with a huge marketing budget and can pay teams of expensive talent to work around the clock.

Easy, right?

Old Spice introduced the hard-not-to-like Isaiah Mustafa first in a TV commercial launched in February of this year. The ad, in all its glory, is a traditional “disruptive” type of campaign: you didn’t turn on your TV hoping to see an Old Spice commercial, so the commercial needs to grab your attention — disrupt what you’re really watching — and make a humorous awareness/sell pitch. Which the ad does beautifully. According to this post from CBS, the ad took three days to shoot and 57 takes.

Oh — and the ad was unveiled during the Superbowl.

So let’s recap: The campaign started with a full-production national TV ad shot over 3 days, requiring teams of video and production (and post-production) talent, not to mention the hefty bill from the creative ad agency (Weiden + Kennedy). And then they purchased the most expensive commercial air time in the United States.

Everyone who can duplicate that raise your hand.

That’s what I thought.

So then they decided to make the ad that was seen in prime time by one of the most-watched sporting events “viral” by posting it on YouTube. As I’m sure the maker of every other Superbowl ad did as soon as they could. No doubt the success of the ad on YouTube got the P&G marketing team thinking how to capitalize on their YouTube “bounce.”

So the next phase, as this article on Read Write Web excellently detailed, was the round-the-clock shooting and creating of the “Old Spice Responses” series. So all they needed to do was hire a team of writers, video producers, social media experts and their attendant hard-typing and linking minions — for an around-the-clock schedule. Oh – and hire Isaiah Mustafa too.

Everyone who thinks that’s cheap raise your hand.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not criticizing the idea or even its execution. The point I’m making is that this type of marketing is not the norm of what’s possible for most companies, and it comes after spending major amounts of money for very expensive talent. And Procter & Gamble have literally decades of experience in coordinating traditional ad campaigns.

So what’s the lesson here?

Is the lesson that something popular can be spread to more people using social media? Well, sure, OK. That’s not exactly earth-shattering, but maybe it helps in your power-point presentation to clients. I still think, however, that when you show that slide that shows the however-millions of views the “Old Spice Response” campaign gets, the C-level executives in the room will be thinking “but how do we do a ‘viral’ campaign like that?”

According to the Old Spice campaign, the answer is “open your wallet” … then hope you have all the experience of a P&G … and pray. So is that the lesson marketers want to convey to their clients about social media’s effectiveness? Have a budget bigger than anyone else?

I think the real lesson of the campaign is that the “response” part is key. I think a WAY better example of the use of video and “response” to get marketing success is this post from Jay Baer’s Convince and Convert site. Further down you’ll see how a short video by a company responding to a popular YouTube video ended up getting a huge bounce — and no doubt notice from guitar enthusiasts. No big media budget, no big teams of hired talent working around the clock, no buying the most expensive air time on television.

Hooray for the little guys who can make this stuff work.

What do you think? Am I nuts? Let me know.

PS: I’m still not buying Old Spice – I don’t know anything about the product or why it’s different.