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  • feedwordpress 16:12:31 on 2020/06/29 Permalink
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    Marketers: Your Role In Social Discourse Is Critical 


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    How Brands Can Fix the Relationship Between Platforms, Audiences, and Media Companies (Hint: It’s Not a Boycott)

    (Second of a series. The first post reviews the media and platform ecosystem, and laments the role brand marketers have played in its demise.) 

    ***

    In my first post of this series, I laid out a fundamental problem with how digital media works today. Large digital platforms like Facebook and Google have cornered the market on audience attention, often with devastating impact on our national dialog. Along the way these platforms have developed sophisticated prediction and targeting engines which give marketers the ability to buy audiences with precision and scale. While this has been a boon for marketers’ businesses and the platforms’ profits, it’s also drained resources from independent, high-quality editorial outlets and stripped our national dialog of much-needed context.

    The loss of that context is at the core of an ever-growing #StopHateForProfit  social media boycott, which now includes huge brands like Unilever, Coca Cola, Verizon, and Honda. I’ll be writing about that next, but today I want to focus on how we got here, and what we can do about it.

    Over the past ten years, media companies have responded to their loss of audience by creating “viral” editorial that performs well inside the platform’s engagement-at-all-costs ecosystem.  Predictably, however, quality editorial – the context  journalists create for a living – rarely qualifies as viral. Besides flooding the platforms with videos of slippers which double as mops and two-second beer bongs, media companies have embraced Facebook and Google in other ways – selling them programming that never seems to gain audience or get renewed, building expensive and often unprofitable versions of themselves on each platform, or becoming platform advertisers themselves, a practice I call arbitrage in which media companies buy audience impressions wholesale and then mark them up to their marketer customers. In that first post, I spent a fair bit of time on arbitrage – mainly because I believe it’s a particularly despicable and self-defeating business practice.

    If we’re being honest with ourselves as media companies, none of our strategies of engagement with platforms have proven to be long-term business model winners. However, platforms own audience, and no amount of wishing it was otherwise will change that fact. If we want independent and quality editorial to maintain a vital place in our democracy, we have to imagine a new set of relationships between platforms, editorial, marketers and audiences. A promising innovation is already in place at one platform: Twitter.

    Twitter’s Unique Path

    Twitter has always been the underdog of the social networks – smaller, messier, less hell bent on conquering the world. But the service’s fast-twitch nature meant it quickly became an indispensable place for people to discover What’s Happening Right Now. Anything live and worth discussing – sports, news, gossip/culture – thrives there. News breaks on Twitter, but the rise of digital video ten years ago presented a significant barrier to growth. Given Twitter’s roots as a text-based service, the company needed to convince major media companies to view Twitter as a home for video content. Facebook and Google had YouTube and Instagram, and Twitter was playing from behind.

    In response, Twitter adopted a media-company friendly solution they called Twitter Amplify. Amplify has a unique model that fundamentally changes the power relationships between players in the media ecosystem. Most who use it give those fundamental changes little thought – they just see Amplify as a partnership tool, pure and simple. But once you grok Amplify’s unique approach, you realize its potential is wildly overlooked.

    In traditional media business models – which I call Packaged Goods Media – media companies create editorial, which attracts audience, which then attracts marketers, who pay media companies for access to the audience’s attention. Simplified, the ecosystem looked like this:

    In this simple model, marketers place their advertising messages inside the media companies owned and operated product, which the media company distributed itself. The advertising message was delivered in the context of quality editorial – editorial that the marketer had chosen proactively (within limits of church and state, of course) as part of a media planning process.  A critical assumption of this early model was this: Pairing relevant advertising messaging with quality editorial was vastly more successful for marketers – particular brand marketers – than advertising messaging delivered devoid of context. Before platforms, in fact, there were really only two channels for context-less advertising: Billboards and direct mail. Neither were particularly effective for building brands, though both had their place in the media ecosystem.

    But the rise of platforms created a new gatekeeper in this once-stable environment. Platforms quickly gained enviable audiences, but advertising models were slower to adapt.  Early in their development, Facebook and YouTube realized that to win even larger audiences, they needed to accommodate media companies’ editorial product on their platforms. To do so, they adopted a Packaged Goods Media model that looked an awful lot like the picture above.

    The bargain was simple: If you were a media company, you set up shop on the platform, acquired your own organic audience there, and once you got to a certain scale, you sold ads there – either on your own or in partnership with the platforms. Media companies early to these platforms – major TV networks, large newspapers, digital pioneers like Buzzfeed and Vox  – quickly built large audiences. But after a while, media companies realized that maintaining those audiences would prove difficult and expensive. Facebook and YouTube now controlled distribution. The media companies had built on the platform’s land, and if there’s one truth in capitalism, it’s this: landlords will always demand their rent.

    Media companies found themselves increasingly subject to the whims of the platforms’ algorithms and business models. They replicated a Packaged Goods Media model on top of the platforms, and discovered – shocker! – that they no longer owned the audiences they were trying to sell to marketers. Instead, they had to buy audience from the platforms, and resell it to marketers – again, on the platform. That deal wasn’t very good for anyone (save the platforms), and as marketers realized they could go direct to platforms to get their audiences more efficiently, the decline of traditional media was accelerated.

    How Amplify Works, And Why It (Really, Really) Matters

    Twitter’s Amplify points to a powerful new narrative. It works like this:

    1. Media company partners with Twitter to become an editorial partner, stands up editorial on platform (Twitter).
    2. Media company partners with marketer to support editorial on platform.
    3. Marketer and editorial use platform tools to identify both editorial and audience the marketer wishes to reach.
    4. Marketer uses its dollars to distribute both editorial and marketing messaging to audience.
    5. The platform and the editorial company split the revenue. All parties are aware of and read into the terms of the deal, no arbitrage is possible.

    In some ways, this feels similar to Packaged Goods Models of old. The marketer is wrapping its advertising message around editorial, just like in the pages of a magazine or a website before platforms dis-intermediated editorial from audience. And the results speak volumes: Campaigns that are contextually paired with good editorial tend to perform far better than campaigns without an editorial pairing.*

    But what gets missed is the revolution inside step #4 above. Amplify allows the marketer to use Twitter’s massive investment in advertising technology and audience development to define what audience it wants to reach, and then use a media company’s editorial as a lure to draw that audience through its marketing messaging. Let that sink in: The marketer – not the media company, not the platform, but the marketer – is responsible for putting the audience together with editorial. 

    The result is that on Twitter, a marketing partnership like the one The Recount has with Bank of America is a four-way win for every participant in the media ecosystem. The marketer gets scale, precision targeting, its choice of editorial (which allows for brand safety), and the resultant lift on the performance of its campaign. The editorial gets a direct revenue and business relationship with the marketer, and is exposed to audience members it otherwise would have to pay the platform to reach. The audience gets contextual advertising wrapped in content the audience finds interesting. And the platform, in this case Twitter, has a happy marketing partner, quality content distributed across its platform, and a revenue split with editorial.  Win, win, win, win.

    Amplify’s model puts the power of connecting audience and editorial in the hands of marketers – highlighting the crucial role marketers have always played in determining which editorial thrives in the media ecosystem. As I argued in my last post, far too many marketers have abdicated their responsibility as arbiters of which editorial deserves their financial support, opting instead to let Facebook and Google’s algorithms choose their audiences and their business results. Those algorithms will always favor a platform’s bottom line over the context and healthy dialog that quality editorial can provide. Programs like Amplify finally combine the power of a platform’s scale, data, and precision with the marketers’ responsibility to support editorial’s crucial role in social discourse.

    Finally, and importantly, the best Amplify partnerships deepen what have become attenuated relationships between large brands and the media companies that depend on them. If companies really are serious about  “multi-stakeholder capitalism” and becoming a “force for good,” they have to start engaging with – and supporting – the story at a deeper level. It’s time for marketers to lead again.

    As I write this, the media world is embroiled in a multi-layered narrative involving hate speech, platform boycotts, health crises, and economic catastrophes. But the way forward is not to pull back spending indiscriminately and walk away. Instead, marketers must do the work of understanding the problems at hand, then actively lean into solutions that can address them. Memo to all you marketers out there: Don’t sleep on Twitter Amplify.

    The third post in this series will explore the current “social media boycott” in light of the first two posts. 

    * Far, far better. If you are marketer, please be in touch and we’d be happy to share just how much better – jbat at therecount dot com. 

     
  • feedwordpress 15:31:31 on 2020/06/17 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , , Recount Media, , The Recount, , ,   

    Marketers Have Given Up on Context, And Our National Discourse Is Suffering 


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    It’s getting complicated out there.

    Marketers – especially brand marketers: Too many of you have lost the script regarding the critical role you play in society. And while well-intentioned TV spots about “getting through this together” are nice, they aren’t a structural solution. It’s time to rethink the relationship between marketers, media companies (not “content creators,” ick), and the audience.

    So let’s talk about it. Grab your favorite beverage and read along. I’m heading into a bit of media theory for the next couple thousand words – I hope this will start an interesting conversation.

    For those of you who want a TL:DR summary, here it is: It’s time to get back to the work marketers used to be really good at: Deciding on the appropriate context in which to engage your audience. And it’s time to pull back from a habit most of you have fallen into: Letting the machines choose your audience for you. Thanks to new approaches which fuse at-scale ad targeting with high-quality editorial product, you can step into this renewed role without sacrificing the reach, precision, and targeting afforded by the likes of Facebook, Google, Twitter, and their kin. To understand how, let’s review some history.

    The Old Media Model

    If you read this site back when I wrote regularly on media (roughly 2003-2015), you’ll recall I laid out several basic tenets about how the media business works. It’s comprised of three core components: Editorial (the media company’s content), Audience (people who give their attention to the content), and Marketer (commercial actors who desire the Audience’s attention in the context of the Editorial). Of course, in the past ten years, a fourth component has eclipsed all three: The Internet Platform.

    Before the major Internet platforms deconstructed the media business, the three original components came together in what we’ll call a media product (I’m still partial to “publication,” but many think only of print when they hear that word). Print, television shows, and early web sites all served as vessels for a commercial relationship between  Editorial, Audience, and Marketer. The media company took the financial risk of creating and distributing the media product, and if successful, the marketer paid to run advertising inside the media product. In some cases, the audience also paid a subscription fee for the editorial. But for most media companies, advertising support was crucial to chin the bar of profitability and make a go of it as a business.

    A critical element of the media-product-as-vessel model for commercial transactions was that context matters. The media product created context for audience engagement, and if the marketer offered messaging that aligned with that context, it stood to reason that the audience would be more receptive to the advertiser’s message. Suffice to say that with the rise of audience buying on massive platforms, context has been lost, with nearly incalculable downsides across the media ecosystem (and society at large). More on that later on.

    Meanwhile, back in those pre-platform days, distribution was important, but it was also a constant. Most media companies consolidated distribution by acquiring broadcast licenses or cable networks (for television) or print distribution networks (if you were a magazine or newspaper company). And if you were a media startup, you could leverage those distribution networks for a relatively predictable rent – often without spending any capital up front. When we started Wired, for example, we secured newsstand distribution by agreeing to split the revenue earned by our nascent magazine with our distribution agent.

    I call this old-school model “Packaged Goods Media.” Fifteen years ago I noted that “PGM” was giving way to a new model, which I termed “Conversational Media,” or CM. CM, of course, was the precursor to “social media” – Twitter, Facebook, YouTube – and as I thought out loud about this new phenomenon, I noted several crucial distinctions between it and Packaged Goods Media. I predicted that the economics of Editorial, Audience, and Marketing were all going to change dramatically. In many ways I was spot on. But in several others, I was dead wrong. Here’s a summary of a few key points:

    • Editorial models would evolve from “dictation” to “conversational,” where the audience – and knowledge of the audience through data – became a central driver of editorial creation.
    • Distribution would become nearly free, obviating the rent-seeking monopolies held by major media companies. In fact, I wrote: “economic differentiation based on the control of distribution – the very heart of PGM-based business models – is irrelevant in CM-based services.”
    • Online, publications become more like a service, rather than a product. I noted that software, which was still largely a packaged product, was also heading in this direction. That means media will have different economics and different advertising models over time (I called them “native advertising” at the time).

    I’d argue that over the next ten years I got the first and third predictions relatively right, but I entirely whiffed on how distribution would play out. I simply failed to imagine how Facebook, Google, and others would leverage their newfound control of audience attention. In one piece from 2006, I wrote:

    “…finding massively scaled Conversational Media companies [besides Google] is a rather difficult search … it’s unclear whether CM companies will mature into massive conglomerates like Time Warner.”

    Well, it’s certainly clear now. Facebook, Google, and their peers are among the most powerful and well-capitalized companies in the world, and they got that way by doing one thing very well: Capturing the attention of billions of us. That gives them a near monopoly on digital distribution, which they’ve leveraged into a near monopoly on digital advertising. In the process, these tech platforms have eliminated the traditional role of publishers as a proxy for audience interest and engagement. I used to believe this trend spelled the end of high-quality independent media brands – indeed, it’s why I didn’t start a media brand after selling Federated back in 2013. But media models are always evolving, and I now see a new way forward. To understand that, we must first review where we stand today. And to do that, we must examine arbitrage.

    The Arbitrage 

    If I were writing a sequel to “The Search” focused solely on how digital media models have shifted in the past 15 years,  I’d probably title it “The Arb.”

    It would not be a pretty story. In the past ten years, audience arbitrage has become a dominant model of the digital media business. It’s an awful business practice that erodes trust, devalues media brands, and dilutes the importance of marketing. What follows is a bit of a rant, but hell, you’re still reading at this point, so refill your glass, and let’s get to it.

    The dictionary definition of arbitrage is “the simultaneous buying and selling of securities, currency, or commodities in different markets or in derivative forms in order to take advantage of differing prices for the same asset.”

    In media, the asset being arbitraged is audience attention. The arbitrageurs are publishers. Their enablers are the major tech platforms, fueled by dollars from advertisers.

    Here’s how it works. A big publisher like Buzzfeed or Cheddar sells a million-dollar advertising deal to a marketing brand. The media company guarantees the marketer’s message will collect a certain number of audience impressions or views, charging the marketer a “cost per thousand” for those impressions. (Known as “CPM,” cost per thousand pricing ranges widely, from a few pennies to $25-40 for “premium” placements). Utilizing a Packaged Goods media model, the publisher might fulfill those impressions on its “owned and operated” properties, but over the past ten years, doing so  has accrued significant drawbacks. The top three:

    • It’s expensive. Acquiring and retaining audiences on a media company’s own property is often far more costly than finding those same audiences on an at-scale platform like Facebook or Google.
    • It lacks sophisticated targeting. In the past decade, marketers have grown accustomed to the data-rich precision of large platforms. They don’t want to pay for just any old Buzzfeed or Cheddar audience member. They want their messaging to reach exactly the target they specify, and most publishers don’t have either the technology or the audience scale to fulfill the data-driven demands of modern marketers.
    • It forces extra work on the marketer. I am not the first, nor will I be the last to note that marketers and agencies don’t like to do extra work. While plenty of larger publishers have built high-quality advertising solutions on their owned and operated channels, marketers view these point solutions as  just one more channel they have to manage, analyze, and report on. It’s just So Much Easier to buy Facebook, after all.

    Because of all this and more, publishers have become audience buyers on Facebook, Google, and other networks. Enterprising publishers began packaging their own content with marketing messages from their sponsors, then they got busy promoting that bundle to audiences on Twitter, Facebook, and Youtube, among others.

    This is where “the arb” comes in: The publisher will charge the marketer, say, a $15 CPM, but acquire their audiences on Facebook for $7, clearing an $8 profit on every thousand impressions.

    You might ask why the platforms or the marketers don’t put a stop to this practice, and you’d be right to ask. But consider the economic incentives, and things get a bit more clear. The platforms are getting paid for what they do all day long: the delivery of precise audience impressions at scale. As far as platforms are concerned, the media brands are just advertisers in different dress.  Over the years, Facebook and Google have even accommodated the arbitrage by connecting all parties directly through their advertising technology systems.

    OK, so the platforms get paid to deliver audiences to marketers on behalf of media companies, but why on earth do the marketers put up with being arb’d? Couldn’t they just pay the same $7 CPM directly to Facebook, eliminate the middle man, and save the $8 spread?

    Well, indeed they can, and in most cases when it comes to buying audience on Facebook or Google, that’s exactly what they do. But remember my comments about context way up toward the top of this article? Some marketers still believe that the context of a media brand can help their messaging perform better, and they’re not wrong in that belief.  So they’ll pay a bit more to have their messaging associated with what they believe is quality editorial. And if that media brand does the work of acquiring that audience for them, so much the better – that’s less work for the marketer to do.

    But let me be clear: arbitrage sucks. Arbitrage is only lucrative in markets with imperfect information. It’s usually a great strategy in the early stages of a new ecosystem, when media buyers are less familiar with how advertising technology works. As those buyers get smarter, they start to squeeze the media company’s margins, devaluing content and context, and pressing ever closer to the price they could get directly from the platform. A good example is Demand Media – a company that, a decade ago, managed to insert itself between Google’s search algorithms and an advertiser’s desire to be associated with content around a particular topic. Demand pulled off a billion-dollar IPO based on creating advertiser-friendly “content farms” around popular Google searches. But advertisers figured out the arb, and Demand’s once billion-dollar valuation fell more than twenty fold in the past five years.  A similar fate has befallen the once high-flying arbitrageurs  of social media. Cheddar, Vice, BuzzFeed, and many others all played the game, but over time, markets will root out an arb. (Cheddar was smart enough to sell before its arb was uncovered – but it sold at a fraction of the sky-high valuations its peers once held).

    But wait, one might ask – aren’t the media companies adding true value? What about that context, which makes a marketer’s message more relevant and engaging? Isn’t that worth something?

    It certainly is, but this is where the lack of transparency around ad buying on platforms comes into play. Audience buying is cloaked in opacity – the major platforms are deeply invested in making sure no one truly understands how attention is priced. That means a media company buying audience on Facebook or Google will always be at an informational disadvantage – exposing them to a new kind of arbitrage, one executed by the platform’s own algorithms and benefiting the platform’s bottom line. Again, arbitrage works best in markets with asymmetric information features – and informational asymmetry is built into how Platforms operate. Over the past five or so years, most major media companies have come to realize they’re the ones being gamed.

    Audience arbitrage on platforms has even more destructive attributes. Because media buyers have outsourced their audience acquisition to either the media company or the platform itself, the marketer becomes disconnected from the context of its audience. Millions of impressions are scattered across millions of tiny content bundles, all of which are lost in a sea of endless posts on nearly every imaginable topic. The context and meaning that holds all brands together is lost.  Media companies, pressed by ever-thinning margins, will cut corners, buying “junk traffic” or worse, creating junk content that titillates or tricks audiences into false engagement. On the surface, boxes get checked, audiences get served, impressions get logged. But over time, editorial content deteriorates, deep relationships between brands and audiences attenuate, and the media ecosystem begins to fail.

    So what can be done about it?

    Well, at The Recount we’re exploring a way forward, through a brand new partnership we’re launching on Twitter this month. We’re calling it “Real-Time Recount,” and in the next installment of this post (I’m pushing 2500 words here, after all), I’ll explain more about the theory of the case behind it. For now, you can read more about what we’re doing in this Ad Age piece (paywalled, alas), or over on Fred’s blog. Thanks for coming along, and I look forward to the conversation I hope this will spark.

    Image: http://shop.drywellart.com/product/bourbon-empty-glass-print
     
  • feedwordpress 22:54:05 on 2020/06/03 Permalink  

    My New Normal 


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    Long-winding-road

    Friday will be my last day at the labor of love of a company where I spent nearly eleven years working with some of the brightest minds, world-class clients, and companies this planet has to offer. Like many others, COVID-19 and the economic fallout it causes has come knocking directly on my door, co-mingled with a backdrop of social unrest and palpable frustration that so many of us are feeling. It's the most intense of times.

    Amidst this sudden and difficult news—something caught me off guard, and as I write this I am still grappling with my emotions. I've been bombarded by an outpouring of love, support, help, and genuine well-wishes that is making me feel like I don't deserve it. My inner voice keeps saying:

    "Who is this wonderful person these people are talking about?"

    And so I find myself humbled and conflicted—working to believe I am the man these colleagues and friends of mine are saying I am. I will choose to believe them and silence the inner critic as I process the emotions of a sudden job loss at the worst time. I know I am not alone and I'm thinking of those affected in every shape way and form. I look to the news, and it gives me perspective.

    Yet still. I find myself looking at the open and winding road of this so-called new normal that we all keep hearing so much about. This is an entirely new terrain to me—I've never taken a break between jobs as I have navigated my career. I have been fortunate this way. I love to work hard—with amazing, passionate people and I MAKE things despite being a senior leader who manages too. If it doesn't have output, I don't do it. I suppose my roots as a designer are still present in my methods as a seasoned professional.

    I am hitting pause briefly, but now that I don't have the pressures of a demanding full-time job with deadlines to meet, teams to motivate, clients to solve problems for and complexity to be simplified—I will have time to talk, riff, plan, and dream of how I could put a small dent into this world with willing partners before I depart it.

    My new normal is a stretch of road to be driven and I will be looking for others to share the ride.

    Find me if you want to talk. In a little while :-)

    -David

     
  • feedwordpress 03:10:56 on 2020/04/30 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , , , , saas, , ,   

    Zoom Is YouTube, Instagram, and WhatsApp – All in Two Months. 


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    If you’ve read Shoshana Zuboff’s Surveillance Capitalism, you likely agree that the most important asset for a data-driven advertising platform is consumer engagement. That engagement throws off data, that data drives prediction models, those models inform algorithms, those algorithms drive advertising engines, and those engines drive revenue, which drives profit. And profit, of course, drives stock price, the highest and holiest metric of our capitalistic economy.

    So when an upstart company exhibits exponential growth in consumer engagement – say, oh, 3,000-percent growth in a matter of two months – well, that’s going to get the attention of the world’s leading purveyors of surveillance capitalism.

    And in the past week, Facebook and Google have certainly been paying attention to a formerly obscure video conferencing company called Zoom.

    As I’ve already pointed out, Zoom has become a verb faster than any company in history, including Google. The COVID-19 pandemic shifted nearly all of us into a new mode of video-based communication – and Zoom just happened to be at the right place, at the right time, with … a better product than anyone else. As of this writing, the company’s user base has grown from 10 million users a day to 300 million users a day – that’s two times bigger than Twitter, and nearly 20 percent of Facebook’s entire daily user base.

    That, my friends, is an existential threat if you’re in the business of consumer engagement. Which is exactly why we saw news on the videoconferencing front from both Facebook and Google this week.

    Item #1: This past Friday, Facebook announced Messenger Rooms, a video conferencing app that allows up to 50 people to have Zoom like experiences for free.

    Item #2: Not to be outdone, Google today announced that its Meet videoconferencing tool, which formerly came with its paid G Suite service, is now free and will support 100 simultaneous users.

    Item #3: Zoom’s high flying stock has lost 13% of its value since those two events.

    Both companies are attacking Zoom’s core business model: paid software as a service. As I’ve explained in earlier posts, Zoom offers a limited free service, and is in the business of convincing folks to pay for more premium features. This SaaS model works well in the world of enterprise (business to business) but when it comes to us consumers, well, the only place we’re willing to pony up at scale is entertainment (think Spotify, Netflix, etc.). Anything else, we’re fine with ads, even if they’re annoying.

    All of this forces Zoom’s hand. It’s now squarely in the crosshairs of the two most valuable advertising companies ever created. Will it pivot to an advertising model, as I speculated earlier? Will it succumb to an acquisition offer, as engagement traps Instagram, YouTube, and WhatsApp did before it? Or will it find a third way, and build an entirely new consumer behavior based on a paid service, free of the surveillance capitalism model that has dominated consumer apps for the past ten years?

    Pass the popcorn, folks. This is going to be a great show.

     
  • feedwordpress 22:01:00 on 2020/04/19 Permalink
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    New Research Shows Why and How Zoom Could Become an Advertising Driven Business 


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    As the coronavirus crisis built to pandemic levels in early March, a relatively unknown tech company confronted a defining opportunity. Zoom Video Communications, a fast-growing enterprise videoconferencing platform with roots in both Silicon Valley and China, had already seen its market cap grow from under $10 billion to nearly double that. As the coronavirus began dominating news reports in the western press, Zoom announced its first full fiscal year results as a public company. The company logged $622.7 million in revenue, up 88% from the year before. Zoom’s high growth rate and “software as a service” business model guaranteed fantastic future profits, and investors rewarded the company by driving its stock up even further. On March 5th, the day after Zoom announced its earnings, the company’s stock jumped to $125, more than double its price on the day of its public offering eleven months before. Market analysts began issuing bullish guidance, and company executives noted that as the coronavirus spread, more and more customers were sampling Zoom’s easy-to-use video conferencing platform.

    But as anyone paying attention to business news for the past month knows, it’s been a tumultuous ride for Zoom ever since. As the virus forced the world inside, demand for Zoom’s services skyrocketed, and the company became a household name nearly overnight. Zoom’s “freemium” model – which offers a basic version of its platform for free, with more robust features available for a modest monthly subscription fee – allowed tens of millions of new users to sample the company’s wares. Initially, Zoom was a hit with its new user base – stories of Zoom seders, Zoom cocktail parties, and even Zoom weddings gave the company a consumer-friendly vibe. Here, again, was the story of a scrappy Valley startup with just the right product at just the right time. According to the company, Zoom’s monthly users  leapt from a high of 10 million to more than 200 million – an unimaginable increase of 2,000 percent in just one month.

    Just as quickly, however, Zoom became the subject of controversy. Like Google and Facebook before it, Zoom’s success as a product comes from an unwavering focus on convenience. Zoom makes it as easy as possible to use its platform. Employing invisible technical tricks, Zoom engineers made the platform easy to install, easy to share, and … easy to hack. Press reports about “Zoom bombing” began dominating the headlines, and as reporters dug in, so did reports of significant (and long ignored) security failings. Large corporations, state governments, and school districts banned the company’s products. Media outlets began to investigate the company’s Chinese roots – only to discover that the young firm had mistakenly routed user sessions through its servers in mainland China. Zoom responded quickly, freezing product development and focusing entirely on responding to critical security issues. The company then updated its privacy policies, in response to criticism that it might use user data in the same ways that Google and Facebook currently do (more on that below).

    But with China and the United States entering a third year of an increasingly heated trade war, and now blaming each other for the origin of the novel coronavirus, Zoom finds itself in an extraordinary position that no amount of crisis communications can overcome.  Zoom’s founder and CEO, Eric Yuan, is a Chinese ex-pat and naturalized American citizen. More than 700 of his 2,500+ employees live and work in China. Until March of this year, Yuan was held up as an example of the best that global capitalism can offer – an ingenious immigrant who bootstrapped his way to America and leveraged hard work, smarts, and venture financing into a multi-billion dollar fortune.

    Now Zoom’s brand – and its future – live under storm clouds of suspicion. In just four weeks, the company has inherited the full force of the American “techlash.” And the companies previously at the center of that storm – in particular the “Big Four” of Apple, Facebook, Google and Amazon – are  happy to pass along that unpleasant mantle. What might it do next?

    * * *

    As some readers know, I’ve been a student of the “Big Four” for more than two decades. For the past 18 months, that work has focused on the terms of service and privacy policies of the Big Four. Thanks to the work of researchers and faculty at Columbia’s School of International Public Affairs and Graduate School of Journalism, we’ve published a study of the underlying architecture of the Big Four’s core policies, a visualization we call “Mapping Data Flows.” This tool breaks down and compares each company’s core privacy and data use policies, with a goal of giving both ordinary consumers and academic researchers insight into the architecture of control currently dominating our economy’s relationship to data.

    Given its very recent and extraordinary rise as a consumer tool, we decided to apply this approach to Zoom’s terms of service and privacy policy as well. You can find our initial findings here.

    As with every research project, our study of Zoom’s policies began with a working hypothesis. One of the most interesting findings from our initial study of the Big Four was how similar their policies were – they all collect vast sums of data, and their terms of service allow them nearly unlimited usage of that data. And of course, all four granted themselves the right to collect, process, and employ user data for the purpose of pursuing advertising businesses – a multi-hundred billion dollar industry driving what Harvard scholar Shoshana Zuboff calls “surveillance capitalism.” We therefore asked ourselves two questions: First, would Zoom’s current terms of service and privacy policies allow them to join the Big Four in the pursuit of an advertising business? And second, given Zoom is (or was) an enterprise facing (focused on business users), as opposed to a consumer facing platform, would its privacy policies and terms of use be markedly different from the Big Four?

    The short answer to that first question is yes. And for the second? That’d be a no. As the first image below demonstrates, Zoom collects a ton of data, and its policies are quite similar to those of its Big Four cousins.

    Figure 1 – Zoom’s Data Collection visualized

    But exploring that first question – whether Zoom might become an advertising-driven business – yielded even more interesting insights:

    Figure 2 – Zoom’s data collection for purposes of Advertising.

    As the illustration from our new visualization above demonstrates, our research shows that nearly all data collected from Zoom user sessions may be used for the purpose of advertising. Despite the clarification of Zoom’s privacy policies posted on March 29th around usage of data from user sessions, nothing material changed in its actual policies. Indeed, the company writes that “We are not changing any of our practices. We are updating our privacy policy to be more clear, explicit, and transparent.”

    To be clear, Zoom does not currently run an advertising business along the lines of Facebook, Google, Apple, or Amazon’s (and yes, both Apple and Amazon have significant data-driven advertising businesses, they just don’t like to talk about them). So why, in their own policies, do they reserve the right to use all collected data for the purpose of “advertising”?

    As any lawyer will tell you, words are slippery things. Certainly in the context of Zoom’s current business, the word “advertising” covers the company’s role as an advertiser – as a brand that uses data to market to current and potential customers using platforms like Google or Facebook. But a careful reading of the company’s policies reveal how easily the same words could allow the company to pivot from advertiser to provider of advertising, should the company wish to. In other words, there’s nothing stopping the company from joining the Big Four as a major player in the provision of advertising services, should it wish.

    How might Zoom do such a thing? And  given its current privacy backlash, why would Zoom ever consider such a move?

    Let’s start with the How, then we’ll cover the Why.

    As I mentioned at the start of this piece, Zoom’s current business is based on what folks in the tech industry call a freemium SaaS (software as a service) model. The company makes a version of its platform available to anyone for free, and then “upsells” those free users to a paid version that has more bells and whistles, like the ability to record, larger numbers of participants on a videoconference, and so on. Pricing starts at $15/month, scaling up to thousands a month for large customers. This model is most often employed for enterprise customers (Slack is a good example), but it’s also found success in consumer-facing applications, where more often than not users pay to get rid of ads (think YouTube or Hulu). Regardless of whether the service is enterprise or consumer focused, free users always outnumber paying ones by an order of magnitude or more.

    One of the most difficult elements of a freemium SaaS model is luring those free users “down the funnel” into paying for a monthly subscription. So how might Zoom convince its bumper crop of roughly 190 million new consumers to start paying up?

    By now you’ve probably figured out where I’m going with all this. Zoom could implement a free service that’s supported by advertising, then encourage users to pay for a version that’s ad free. Doing so would be ridiculously simple: Just as with YouTube, Zoom could force its users to watch a “skippable” pre-roll video ad before the start of each videoconference (and it could use its data trove to make those ads extremely targeted).  Well aware that such an interruption would be an annoyance at best, Zoom could then offer to strip the ads out for customers who paid a small subscription service of, say, $5 a month. If just one quarter of its customer base decided to do so, Zoom’s revenues would jump by $250 million a month – adding a cool $3 billion a year to its top line revenue, nearly all of which would be pure profit. The resulting advertising business could easily add hundreds of millions, if not billions more. That’s five times more revenue than the company reported in its last fiscal year.

    Which brings us to the “Why” of this admittedly speculative (but nevertheless quite reasonable) exercise. And that why comes down to capitalism. Zoom is a public company with a massive valuation – more than $40 billion at the time of this writing. That gives it an unsustainable price to earnings ratio of roughly 1,750 – 76 times larger than the S&P average. The pressure to “grow into” those outsized expectations is enormous. Zoom is staring at a multi-billion dollar business model just begging to be implemented. For its shareholders, board, and senior executives, the question isn’t why it should be adopting the business model that made Facebook, Google, Apple, and Amazon the most valuable companies in the world. Instead, the question is simply this: Why shouldn’t it?

    In another post, we’ll explore answers to that question (and how Zoom, if it’s thoughtful, could help reimagine the core architecture of surveillance capitalism). For now, take a spin around our newest visualization, give us input in the comments below. Thanks for reading, and take care of yourself – and others – out there.

    ###

    The Mapping Data Flows project is seated at Columbia SIPA – we are grateful for the support of Dean Merit Janow, as well as the support of the Brown Institute at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, the Omidyar Network, and faculty and staff including Mark Hansen, Juan Francisco Saldarriaga, Zoe Martin, Matthew Albasi, Natasha Bhuta, and Veronica Penney. Hat tip as well to Doc, who’s been focused on these issues for decades as well. 

     
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