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  • feedwordpress 18:53:51 on 2020/11/30 Permalink
    Tags: , essays, , , , , , , , , the press   

    Media and Marketing Leaders: It’s Time to Stand Up For Truth 


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    Why “information equity” matters.

     

    An idea has been tugging at me for months now, one I’ve spent countless hours discussing and debating with leaders in marketing, media, and journalism. And as I often do, I’m turning to writing to see if I can push it into more concrete form. I’m literally thinking out loud here, but I won’t bury the lede: I believe it’s time for all major corporations – not just the companies that pushed for the #StopHateForProfit boycott – to call for a broader, more universal movement related to their marketing practices and their “Corporate Social Responsibility” efforts.This isn’t about punishing platforms, rather it’s about reimagining our relationship to them, and shifting our focus to the externalities our collective dependance upon them has created. For now, I’m calling the movement “Information Equity” – a rather dry and academic moniker, to be sure. Toward the end of this post, I’ll ask for your help in pushing the idea forward. But for now, let me explain what I’m on about.

    ***

    Some years back I helped start a company called NewCo, an effort to identify and promote companies that view business as a force for good. The idea sprang from an observation that the most successful companies often had purpose at their core, they were animated by a desire to make the world better in some measurable way. Lately the idea of business as a force for good has found broader appeal, to the point where the Business Roundtable recently revised its definition of purpose in business. No longer would the true north of business be the maximization of profit for shareholders. In its place would now sit a new lodestar: “Creating an economy that serves all.”

    It’s easy enough to dismiss such declaratives as lipstick on the soulless pig of capitalism, but these kind of statements shift societal expectations over time, and eventually they change outcomes as well. Large corporations are increasingly being held to account by employees, customers, and the communities they impact. It’s demonstrably true that business practices have changed in recent years. And the last nine months – replete with a global pandemic and a deadly serious racial reckoning – have deeply accelerated those changes. Driven by COVID, the Black Lives Matter movement, and an impending climate disaster, “Corporate Social Responsibility” has now taken center stage in American business.

    Now that the klieg lights are on, the question rightly becomes: What will corporations do with the microphone?

    It’d be tempting to claim victory, and point to the change that’s already here. Less than a generation ago, it would have been corporate suicide to take a stance on charged issues like race, gender, or the environment. But today, the world’s largest advertiser – Proctor & Gamble – employs its marketing budgets to create and promote powerful films decrying systemic racial and gender inequality. The world’s largest money manager – BlackRock – has put climate change at the center of its investment and governance decisions. For each of these formerly third-rail issues – race, gender, climate – hundreds of major corporates have declared similar intentions.

    But while  race, gender, and environmental equity have become rallying cries for mainstream corporate America – and rightly so – there’s another fundamental human right I’d like to see taken up by our newly woke business leaders. This particular right – or its absence – drives society’s comprehension, education, discussion, debate and ultimately, society’s actions related to resolving historically intractable issues of human rights.

    In short, if we are going to solve our largest problems, we must first solve society’s problem with the truth.

    ***

    Over the past ten or so years, American society has lost its faith in a shared truth. We simply don’t believe the same things anymore. And in the battle to defend our particular versions of truth, we have badly weakened journalism – our historical institution of truth-telling.  We’ve not simply undermined journalism’s economic models, but more importantly, we’ve marginalized its impact and primacy in helping us determine the facts upon which society determines progress. We have questioned journalism’s motives, its  business models, and the social compact granting journalism the right to determine fact, establish reason, and debate course of action.

    I am not arguing these questions should not be raised – journalism is imperfect at best. But in abandoning journalism, we might have forgotten a larger question: If a free and fair press is not the answer to finding our common truth then … what exactly is? Think for a moment on what might replace journalism in our society. You’ll likely find yourself in a rather dark mood.

    Over centuries, we have built journalism as an institution of truth telling – in concert, in opposition, and even in cahoots with institutions of power in government, religion, and business. This truth-telling organ is commonly referred to as the Fourth Estate, and its record is both speckled and glorious. But it’s also the only private institution empowered by a Constitutional name check – and in the First Amendment, at that. So as far as I’m concerned, if ever there was a purpose-driven business, it’s one built around a newsroom. The mission of a news business is to fulfill the right of the people to be informed by truth. To deliver as full and transparent an account of truth as is possible. To hold truth as a mirror to power. And to demand an accounting if, once put to power, those truths do not square with the powerful’s actions.

    Without standard-bearers capable of this endless and grinding work, democracy is lost.  Without access to high-quality news reporting, the citizens of this nation will make decisions based on rumor, bias, self-interest, and fear.

    I’m all for Benkler’s concept of a “networked Fourth Estate” – that the rise of the Internet has added a multitude of actors – bloggers, non-profits, citizen journalists – to the category we might call “the press.” And the rise of social media has, indeed, given everyone with a voice an opportunity to speak. But we’ve failed to place guardrails around the institutional mechanisms which determine how these new voices are distributed in our society. At present, the inscrutable algorithms and powerful business models of our largest technology platforms determine the information diets of a growing majority of Americans. And I think it’s inescapably true that as things stand, these platforms have no incentive to change how they do business. That’s where corporations – and their advertising budgets – must come into play with a more long-term solution.

    ***

    Quality journalism at scale is under extreme duress. Yes, the Times, the Post, the Atlantic, the Wall Street Journal have all experienced a renaissance in the past few years. But all you readers of long form journalism, you devourers of words by the thousand, you are not the citizens of whom I speak. Your information equities are not in peril, your privilege is intact.

    What matters here is scale. Read Charlie Warzel or listen to Kevin Roose, and ponder the citizen who can’t afford (or simply doesn’t wish) to take their news from high-quality print outlets. When more than a hundred million Americans struggle to cover a $400 medical bill, society needs an advertising-supported model that brings quality information to the masses (this of course is Zuckerberg’s favorite defense for why Facebook is ad-driven, which is one of many examples of how the company has subverted the clothing of journalism without accepting its responsibilities). When the most convenient free service for news is Facebook, then Facebook will become America’s answer to news. As a result, tens of millions of our fellow citizens are caught in the jaws of systemic information bias, of institutionally-driven information pollution. One-quarter of Americans believe the recent election was possibly stolen, and a full third of us believe that the new administration may well enslave children for sexual favors. We’re in the grip of an information-driven disease – an information pandemic –  the cancerous externality of a society which has deemed the growth of our most profitable companies more important that the dissemination of fact-based information and truth.

    ***

    So what is business going to do about it?

    Boycotts are fine, but business must make combatting the lack of quality information in our society a primary and ongoing goal. Surely if corporate America can get comfortable with activism on behalf of racial, gender, and environmental equality, it can throw its support behind every citizen’s right to quality information.

    But how? How might business lead when it comes to addressing this fundamental issue?

    There are scores of ideas yet to be imagined, and plenty of think tanks, non-profits, and other organizations already working on important parts of this problem. But for all its skill at communication, the media industry has been far too silent in advancing solutions. It was just last month – last month!! – that the Global Alliance for Responsible Media, a working group comprised of leading platforms, media agencies, and brand advertisers, added “Misinformation” to its long list of “harmful content.”

    That’s progress, but democracy can’t wait for a committee report sometime next year. The most important step we can take now is to declare information equity an issue worthy of support by the business community. Marketers must dedicate a small but substantial portion of their budgets – which in aggregate equate to hundreds of billions of dollars each year – to a stated commitment supporting the creation and distribution of quality journalism at every level of society. I’ve written extensively elsewhere about how this is possible without abandoning the benefits of scale, targeting, and efficiency that platforms unquestionably bring to our industry. Not only is it possible, it’s also good for business results – and society at large.

    The media industry helped to create this problem of misinformation – by funding the rise of platforms, by ignoring the externalities these platforms foisted onto society, and by growing addicted to the results the platforms delivered to our bottom lines. If we don’t renegotiate the relationships between marketers, platforms, media companies and the audiences we all serve, how can we expect anything to change?

    Just as the planet can no longer tolerate the externalities of an economy driven by carbon, and just as our society can no longer tolerate the externalities of a culture driven by institutional race- and gender-based injustice, we can no longer whistle past the graveyard of truth.

    If you agree, please join me in an ongoing conversation. My email is jbat @ therecount dot com – hit me up, and I’ll add you to an engaged community of agency leaders, marketing executives, media entrepreneurs, and others who are interested in finding a path forward. I look forward to the dialog, and as always, thanks for reading.

     
  • feedwordpress 19:23:50 on 2018/12/26 Permalink
    Tags: , , , essays, faecbook, , , , , , ,   

    It’s Not Facebook’s Fault: Our Shadow Internet Constitution 


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    Those of us fortunate enough to have lived through the birth of the web have a habit of stewing in our own nostalgia. We’ll recall some cool site from ten or more years back, then think to ourselves (or sometimes out loud on Twitter): “Well damn, things were way better back then.”

    Then we shut up. After all, we’re likely out of touch, given most of us have never hung out on Twitch. But I’m seeing more and more of this kind of oldster wistfulness, what with Facebook’s current unraveling and the overall implosion of the tech-as-savior narrative in our society.

    Hence the chuckle many of us had when we saw this trending piece  suggesting that perhaps it was time for us to finally unhook from Facebook and – wait for it -get our own personal webpage, one we updated for any and all to peruse. You know, like a blog, only for now. I don’t know the author – the editor of the tech-site Motherboard – but it’s kind of fun to watch someone join the Old Timers Web Club in real time. Hey Facebook, get off my lawn!!!

    That Golden Age

    So as to not bury the lead, let me state something upfront: Of course the architecture of our current Internet is borked. It’s dumb. It’s a goddamn desert. It’s soil where seed don’t sprout. Innovation? On the web, that dog stopped hunting years ago.

    And who or what’s to blame? No, no. It’s not Facebook. Facebook is merely a symptom. A convenient and easy stand in  – an artifact of a larger failure of our cultural commons. Somewhere in the past decade we got something wrong, we lost our narrative – we allowed Facebook and its kin to run away with our culture.

    Instead of focusing on Facebook, which is structurally borked and hurtling toward Yahoo-like irrelevance, it’s time to focus on that mistake we made, and how we might address it.

    Just 10-15 years ago, things weren’t heading toward the our currently crippled version of the Internet. Back in the heady days of 2004 to 2010 – not very long ago – a riot of innovation had overtaken the technology and Internet world. We called this era “Web 2.0” – the Internet was becoming an open, distributed platform, in every meaning of the word. It was generative, it was Gates Line-compliant, and its increasingly muscular technical infrastructure promised wonder and magic and endless buckets of new. Bandwidth, responsive design, data storage, processing on demand, generously instrumented APIs; it was all coming together. Thousands of new projects and companies and ideas and hacks and services bloomed.

    Sure, back then the giants were still giants – but they seemed genuinely friendly and aligned with an open, distributed philosophy. Google united the Internet, codifying (and sharing) a data structure that everyone could build upon. Amazon Web Services launched in 2006, and with the problem of storage and processing solved, tens of thousands of new services were launched in a matter of just a few years. Hell, even Facebook launched an open platform, though it quickly realized it had no business doing so. AJAX broke out, allowing for multi-state data-driven user interfaces, and just like that, the web broke out of flatland. Anyone with passable scripting skills could make interesting shit! The promise of Internet 1.0 – that open, connected, intelligence-at-the-node vision we all bought into back before any of it was really possible – by 2008 or so, that promise was damn near realized. Remember LivePlasma? Yeah, that was an amazing mashup. Too bad it’s been dormant for over a decade.

    After 2010 or so, things went sideways. And then they got worse. I think in the end, our failure wasn’t that we let Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon get too big, or too powerful. No, I think instead we failed to consider the impact of the technologies and the companies we were building. We failed to play our hand forward, we failed to realize that these nascent technologies were fragile and ungoverned and liable to be exploited by people less idealistic than we were.

    Our Shadow Constitution

    Our lack of consideration deliberately aided and abetted the creation of a unratified shadow Constitution for the Internet – a governance architecture built on assumptions we have accepted, but are actively ignoring. All those Terms of Service that we clicked past, the EULAs we mocked but failed to challenge, those policies have built walls around our data and how it may be used. Massive platform companies have used those walls to create impenetrable business models. Their IPO filings explain in full how the monopolization and exploitation of data were central to their success – but we bought the stock  anyway.

    We failed to imagine that these new companies – these Facebooks, Ubers, Amazons and Googles – might one day become exactly what they were destined to become, should we leave them ungoverned and in the thrall of unbridled capitalism.  We never imagined that should they win, the vision we had of a democratic Internet would end up losing.

    It’s not that, at the very start at least, that tech companies were run by evil people in any larger sense. These were smart kids, almost always male, testing the limits of adolescence in their first years after high school or college. Timing mattered most: In the mid to late oughts, with the winds of Web 2 at their back, these companies had the right ideas at the right time, with an eager nexus of opportunistic capital urging them forward.

    They built extraordinary companies. But again, they built a new architecture of governance over our economy and our culture – a brutalist ecosystem that repels innovation. Not on purpose – not at first. But protected by the walls of the Internet’s newly established shadow constitution and in the thrall of a new kind of technology-fused capitalism, they certainly got good at exploiting their data-driven leverage.

    So here we are, at the end of 2018, with all our darlings, the leaders not only of the tech sector, but of our entire economy, bloodied by doubt, staggering from the weight of unconsidered externalities. What comes next?

    2019: The Year of Internet Policy

    Whether we like it or not, Policy with a capital P is coming to the Internet world next year. Our newly emboldened Congress is scrambling to introduce multiple pieces of legislation, from an Internet Bill of Rights  to a federal privacy law modeled on – shudder – the EU’s GDPR. In the past month, I’ve read draft policy papers suggesting we tax the Internet’s advertising model, that we break up Google, Facebook, and Amazon, or that we back off and just let the market “do its work.”

    And that’s a good thing, to my mind – it seems we’re finally coming to terms with the power of the companies we’ve created, and we’re ready to have a national dialog about a path forward. To that end, a spot of personal news: I’ve joined the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, and I’m working on a research project studying how data flows in US markets, with an emphasis on the major tech platforms. I’m also teaching a course on Internet business models and policy. In short, I’m leaning into this conversation, and you’ll likely be seeing a lot more writing on these topics here over the course of the next year or so.

    Oh, and yeah, I’m also working on a new company, which remains in stealth for the time being. Yep, it’s a media company, but with a new focus, for me anyway: Politics. More on that later in the year.

    I know I’ve been a bit quiet this past month, but starting up new things requires a lot of work, and my writing has suffered as a result. But I’ve got quite a few pieces in the queue, starting with my annual roundup of how I did in my predictions for the year, and then of course my predictions for 2019. But I’ll spoil at least one of them now and just summarize the point of this post from the start: It’s time we figure out how to build a better Internet, and 2019 will be the year policymakers get deeply  involved in this overdue and essential conversation.

     
  • feedwordpress 14:17:45 on 2018/11/27 Permalink
    Tags: , , essays, , , , mark zuckerberg, , , , , ,   

    Zuckerberg In A Bunker 


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    Mark Zuckerberg is in a crisis of leadership. Will he grasp its opportunity?

    Happier times.

    It seems like an eternity, but about one year ago this Fall, Uber had kicked its iconic founding CEO to the curb, and he responded by attempting a board room coup. Meanwhile, Facebook was at least a year into crisis mode, clumsily dealing with a spreading contagion that culminated in a Yom Kippur apology from CEO Mark Zuckerberg. “For those I hurt this year, I ask forgiveness and I will try to be better,” he posted. “For the ways my work was used to divide people rather than bring us together, I ask for forgiveness and I will work to do better.”

    More than one year after that work reputedly began, what lesson from Facebook’s still rolling catastrophe? I think it’s pretty clear: Mark Zuckerberg needs to do a lot more than publish blog posts someone else has written for him.

    And while I’m not much of a fan of the company he’s built, I think Facebook’s CEO can change. But only if he’s willing to truly lead, and take the kind of action that today may seem insane, but ten years from now, just might look like genius. What actions might those be? Well, let’s review.

    Admit you have a problem. Yes, over and over and over, Facebook executives have copped a plea. But they’ve never acknowledged the real problem is the company’s core DNA. More often than not, the company plays the pre-teen game of admitting a small sin so as to cover a larger one. The latest case in point is this post-modern gem: Elliot Schrage On Definers. The headline alone says all you need to know about Facebook’s latest disaster: Blame the guy who hired the firm, have him fall on a sword, add a bit of Sandbergian mea culpa, and move along. Nope, this time is different, Facebook. It’s time for fundamental change. And that means….

    Submit to real governance. Like Google, Uber, Snap, and other controversial tech companies, Facebook implemented a two-class system of shares which canonizes their founder as an untouchable god, rendering the company board toothless in moments of true crisis (and in appeasement mode the rest of the time). Following Uber’s lead, it’s time for Mark to submit to the governance of the capital markets and abandon his super majority voting powers. He must stand before his board naked and afraid for his job. This and this alone will predicate the kind of change Facebook needs.

    Bring in outsiders. Facebook’s core problem is expressed through its insular nature. This is also the technology industry’s problem – an engineer’s determination that every obstacle can be hacked to submission, and that non-engineers are mainly good for paint and powder afterward. This is simply not the case anymore, either at Facebook or in tech more broadly. Zuckerberg must demand his board commission a highly qualified panel to review his company’s management and product decisions, and he must commit to implementing that panel’s recommendations. Along those lines, here are a two major thought starters:

    Embrace radical change. Remember “Bringing People Closer Together” and the wildly misappropriatedTime Well Spent“? This was supposedly a major new product initiative to change Facebook’s core mission, designed to shift our attention from what was wrong with the platform – data breaches, the newsfeed, false news and election meddling – to what could be right about it: Community pages and human connection. Has it worked? Let’s just be honest: No. Community doesn’t happen because a technology company writes a blog post or emphasizes a product suite it built for an entirely different purpose. Facebook can’t be fixed unless it changes its core business model. So just do it, already. Which leads to:

    Free the data. Facebook has so far failed to enable a truly open society, despite its embrace of lofty mission statements. I’ve written about this at length, so I’ll just summarize: Embrace machine-readable data portability, and build a true, Gates-line compliant platform that is governed by the people, companies, and participants who benefit from it. Yes, actually governing  is a messy pain in the ass, but failing to govern? That’s a company killer.

    Many brilliant observers are calling for Mark’s head, and/or for the company to be broken up. I’m not sure either of these solutions will do much more than insure that the company fails. What tech needs now is proof that it can lead with bold, high-minded vision that gives back more than it takes. Mark Zuckerberg has the power to do just that. The only question now is whether he will use it.

     
  • feedwordpress 23:02:06 on 2018/11/12 Permalink
    Tags: , , , essays, , ideas, , , ,   

    When Tech Loves Its Fiercest Critics, Buyer Beware 


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    Detail from the cover of Harari’s lastest work, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century.

    A year and a half ago I reviewed Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus, recommending it to the entire industry with this subhead: “No one in tech is talking about Homo Deus. We most certainly should be.”

    Eighteen months later, Harari is finally having his technology industry moment. The author of a trio of increasingly disturbing books – Sapiens, for which made his name as a popular historian philosopher, the aforementioned Homo Deus, which introduced a dark strain of tech futurism to his work, and the recent 21 Lessons for the 21st Century – Harari has cemented his place in the Valley as tech’s favorite self-flagellant. So it’s only fitting that this weekend Harari was the subject of New York Times profile featuring this provocative title: Tech C.E.O.s Are in Love With Their Principal Doomsayer. The subhead continues: “The futurist philosopher Yuval Noah Harari thinks Silicon Valley is an engine of dystopian ruin. So why do the digital elite adore him so?”

    Well, I’m not sure if I qualify as one of those elites, but I have a theory, one that wasn’t quite raised in the Times’ otherwise compelling profile. I’ve been a student of Harari’s work, and if there’s one clear message, it’s this: We’re running headlong into a world controlled by a tiny elite of superhumans, masters of new technologies that the “useless class” will never understand. “Homo sapiens is an obsolete algorithm,” Harari writes in Homo Deus. A new religion of Dataism will transcend our current obsession with ourselves, and we will “dissolve within the data torrent like a clump of earth within a gushing river.” In other words, we humans are f*cked, save for a few of the lucky ones who manage to transcend their fate and become masters of the machines. “Silicon Valley is creating a tiny ruling class,” the Times writes, paraphrasing Harari’s work, “and a teeming, furious “useless class.””

    So here’s why I think the Valley loves Harari: We all believe we’ll be members of that tiny ruling class. It’s an indefensible, mathematically impossible belief, but as Harari reminds us in 21 Lessons, “never underestimate human stupidity.” Put another way, we are  fooling ourselves, content to imagine we’ll somehow all earn a ticket into (or onto) whatever apocalypse-dodging exit plan Musk, Page or Bezos might dream up (they’re all obsessed with leaving the planet, after all). Believing that impossible fiction is certainly a lot easier than doing the quotidian work of actually fixing the problems which lay before us. Better to be one of the winners than to risk losing along with the rest of the useless class, no?

    But we can’t all be winners in the future Harari lays out, and he seems to understand this fact. “If you make people start thinking far more deeply and seriously about these issues,” he said to the Times, “some of the things they will think about might not be what you want them to think about.”

    Exactly, Professor. Now that I’ve departed the Valley, where I spent nearly three decades of my life, I’m starting to gain a bit of perspective on my own complicated relationship with the power structure of the place. I grew up with the (mostly) men who lead companies like Amazon, Google, Facebook and Apple, and early in the industry’s rise, it was heady to share the same stage with legends like Bezos, Jobs, or Page. But as the technology industry becomes the driving force of social rupture, I’m far more skeptical of its leaders’ abilities to, well, lead.

    Witness this nearly idea-free interview with Google CEO Sundar Pichai, also in the Times, where the meticulously media-prepped executive opines on whether his industry has a role to play in society’s ills: “Every generation is worried about the new technology, and feels like this time it’s different. Our parents worried about Elvis Presley’s influence on kids. So, I’m always asking the question, “Why would it be any different this time?” Having said that, I do realize the change that’s happening now is much faster than ever before. My son still doesn’t have a phone.”

    Pichai’s son not have a phone, but he is earning money mining Ethereum (really, you can’t make this shit up). I’m not sure the son of a centi-millionaire needs to earn money – but it certainly is useful to master the algorithms that will soon control nearly every aspect of human life. So – no, son, no addictive phone for you (even though my company makes them, and makes their operating systems, and makes the apps which ensure their addictive qualities).

    But mining crypto currency? Absolutely!

    Should Harari be proven right and humanity becomes irrelevant, I’m pretty sure Pichai’s son will have a first class ticket out of whatever mess is left behind. But the rest of us? We should probably focus on making sure that kid never needs to use it.

    Cross posted from NewCo Shift. 


    By the way, the other current obsession of Valley folks is author Anand Giridharadas’ Winners Take All – The Elite Charade of Changing the World. Read them together for a one-two punch, if you dare…

     
  • feedwordpress 11:39:41 on 2018/10/24 Permalink
    Tags: , commerce, , essays, , , , , , , retail, walmart   

    This Is How Walmart Beats Amazon 


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    A scenario from the future

    (cross posted from NewCo Shift)

    In my last post I imagined a world in which large data-driven platforms like Amazon, Google, Spotify, and Uber are compelled to share machine-readable copies of data to their users. There are literally scores, if not hundreds of wrinkles to iron out around how such a system would work, and in a future post I hope to dig into some of those questions. But for now, come with me on a journey into the future, where the wrinkles have been ironed out, and a new marketplace of personally-driven information is flourishing. We’ll return to one of the primary examples I sketched out in the aforementioned post: A battle for the allegiance – and pocketbook – of one online shopper, in this case, my wife Michelle.

    ***

    It’s a crisp winter mid morning in Manhattan when the doorbell rings. Michelle looks up from her laptop, wondering who it might be. She’s not expecting any deliveries from Amazon, usually the source of such interruptions. She glances at her phone, and the Ring app (an Amazon service, naturally) shows a well dressed, smiling young woman at the door. She’s holding what looks like an elegantly wrapped gift in her hands. Now that’s unusual! Michelle checks the date – no anniversaries, no birthdays, no special occasions – so what gives?

    Michelle opens the door and is greeted by a woman who introduces herself as Sheila. She tells Michelle she’s been sent over by Walmart. Walmart? Michelle’s never set foot in a Walmart store, and has a less than charitable view of the company overall. Why on earth would Walmart be sending her a special delivery gift box?

    Sheila is used to exactly this kind of response – she’s been trained to expect it, and to manage the conversation that ensues. Sheila is a college-educated Walmart management associate, and delivering these gift boxes is a mandatory part of her company training. In fact, Sheila’s future career trajectory is based, in part, on her success at converting Michelle into becoming a Walmart customer, and she’s learned from her colleagues back at corporate that the best way to succeed is to be direct and open while engaging with a top-level prospect.

    “Michelle, I know this seems a bit strange, but Walmart has identified you as a premier ecommerce customer – I’m guessing you probably have at least three or four packages a week delivered here?”

    “More like three or four a day,” Michelle answers, warming to Sheila’s implied status as a premium customer.

    “Yes, it’s amazing how it’s become a daily habit,” Sheila answers. “And as you probably know, Walmart has an online service, but truth be told, we never seem to get the business of folks like you. I’m here to see if we might change that.”

    Michelle becomes suspicious. It doesn’t make sense to her – sending over a manager bearing gifts? Such tactics don’t scale – and feel like an intrusion to boot.

    Sensing this, Sheila continues. “Look, I’m not here to sell you anything. I’ve got this special gift for you from Doug McMillon, the CEO of Walmart. You’ve been selected to be part of a new program we’re testing – we call it Walton’s Circle. It’s named after Sam Walton, our founder, who was pretty fond of the personal touch. In any case, the gift is yours to keep. There’s some pretty cool stuff in there, I have to say, including La Mer skin cream and some Neuhaus chocolate that’s to die for.”

    Michelle smiles. Strange how the world’s biggest retailer, a place she’s never shopped, seems to know her brand preferences for skin care and chocolate. Despite herself, she relaxes a bit.

    “Also inside,” Sheila continues, “is an invitation. It’s entirely up to you if you want to accept it, but let me explain?”

    “Sure,” Michelle answers.

    “Great. Have you heard of the Token Act?”

    Michelle frowns. She read about this new piece of legislation, something to do with personal data and the right to exchange it for value across the internet. In the run up to its passage, her husband wouldn’t shut up about how revolutionary it was going to be, but so far nothing important in her life had changed.

    “Yes, I’ve heard of it,” Michelle answers, “but it all seems pretty abstract.”

    “Yeah, I hear that all the time,” Sheila responds. “But that’s where our invitation comes in. Inside the box is an envelope with a code and a website. I imagine you use Amazon…” Sheila glances toward an empty brown box in the hallway with Amazon’s universal smiling logo. Michelle laughs. “Of course you do! I was a huge Amazon customer for years. And that’s what our invitation is about – it’s an invitation to see what might happen if you became a Walmart customer instead. If you go to our site and enter your code, a program will automatically download your Amazon purchase history and run it through Walmart’s historical inventory. Within seconds, you’ll be given a report detailing what you would have saved had you purchased exactly the same products, at the same time, from us instead of Jeff Bezos.”

    “Huh,” Michelle responds. “Sounds cool but…that’s my information on Amazon, no? I don’t want you to have that, do I?”

    “Of course not,” Sheila says knowingly. “All of your information is protected by LiveRamp Identity, and is never stored or even processed on our servers. You maintain complete control over the process, and can revoke it at any time.”

    Michelle had heard of LiveRamp Identity, it was a third-party guarantor of information safety she’d used for a recent mortgage application.  She also came across it when co-signing for a car loan for her college-aged daughter.

    “When you put that code into our site, a token is generated that gives us permission to compare our data to yours, and a report is generated,” Sheila explained. “The report is yours to keep and do with what you want. In fact, the report becomes a token in and of itself, and you can submit that token to third party services like TokenTrust, which will audit our work and tell you if our results can be trusted.”

    TokenTrust was another service Michelle had heard of, her husband had raved about it as one of the fastest growing new entrants in the tech industry. The company had recently been featured on 60 Minutes – it played a significant role in a story about Google’s search results, if she recalled correctly. Docusign had purchased the company for several billion just last year. In any case, Michelle’s suspicions were defused – may as well check this out. I mean, why would Walmart risk its reputation stealing her Amazon data? It was worth at least seeing that report.

    Sheila sensed the opening. “The reports are pretty amazing,” she says. “I’ve had clients who’ve discovered they could have saved thousands of dollars a year. And here’s the best part: If, after reviewing and validating the report, you switch to Walmart, we’ll credit your account with those savings – in essence, we’ll retroactively deliver you the savings you would have had all along.”

    “Wow. That almost sounds too good to be true!” Michelle says. “But… OK, thanks. I’ll check it out. Thanks for coming by.”

    “Absolutely,” Sheila responds. “And here’s my card – that’s my cell, and my email. Let me know if you have any questions.”

    ***

    Michelle heads back inside and places the gift box on the table next to her laptop. Before opening the box, she wants to be sure this thing is for real. She Googles “Walmart Walton Circle Savings Token”  – and the first link is to a Business Insider article: “These Lucky Few Amazon Customers Are Paid Thousands to Switch – By Walmart.” So Sheila wasn’t lying – this program is for real!

    Michelle tugs on the satin ribbon surrounding her gift box and raises its sturdy lid. Nestled on straw inside are two jars of La Mer, several samples of Neuhaus chocolates, two of her favorite bath salts, and various high end household items. The inside lid of the box proclaims “Welcome to Walton’s Circle!” in elegant script. At the center of the box is an creamy envelope engraved with her name. Michelle opens it, and just as Sheila mentioned, a URL and code is included, along with simple instructions.

    What the hell, may as well see what comes of it. Turning to her laptop, Michelle heads to Walmart.com – for the first time in her life – and enters her code. Almost instantaneously a dialog pops up, informing her that her report is ready. Would she like to review it?

    Why not?! Michelle clicks “Yes” and up comes a side-by-side comparison of her entire Amazon purchase history. She notices that during the early years – roughly until 2006 –  there’s not much on the Walmart side of the report. But after that the match rates start to climb, and for the past five or so years, the report shows that 98 percent of the stuff she’s bought at Amazon was also available on Walmart.com. Each purchase has a link, and she tries out one – a chaise lounge she purchased in 2014 (gotta love Prime shipping!). Turns out Walmart didn’t have that exact match, but the report shows several similar alternatives, any of which would have worked. Cool.

    Michelle’s eye is drawn to the bottom of the report, to a large sum in red that shows the difference in price between her Amazon purchases and their Walmart doppelgangers.

    $2,700.

    Holy….cow. Michelle can’t believe it. Is this for real? Anticipating the question, Walmart’s report software pops up a dialog. “Would you like to validate your token’s report using TokenTrust? We’ll pay all fees.” Michelle clicks yes, and a TokenTrust site appears. The site shows a “working” icon for several seconds, then returns a simple message: “TokenTrust has reviewed Walmarts claims and your Amazon token, and validates the accuracy of this report.”

    Michelle is sold. Next to the $2700 figure at the bottom of her report is one line of text, and a “Go” link. “Would you like to become a founding member of the Walton Circle? We’ll take care of all your transition needs, and Sheila, who’ve you already met, will be named as your personal shopping concierge.”

    Michelle hovers momentarily over “Go.” What the hell, she thinks. I can always switch back. And with one click, Michelle does something she never thought she would: She becomes a Walmart customer.

    Satisfied, she turns her eyes back to her work. Several new emails have collected in her inbox. One is from Doug McMillon, welcoming her to Walton’s Circle. As she hovers over it, mail refreshes, and a new message piles on top of McMillon’s.

    Holy shit. Did Jeff Bezos really just email me?! 

    ***

    Is such a scenario even possible? Well, that question remains unexplored, at least for now. As I wrote in my last post, I’m not certain Amazon’s terms of service would allow for such an information exchange, though it’s currently possible to download exactly the information Walmart would need to stand up such a service. (I’ve done it, it takes a bit of poking around, but it’s very cool to see.) The real question is this: Would Walmart spend the thousands of dollars required to make this kind of customer acquisition possible?

    I don’t see why not. A high end e-commerce customer spends more than ten thousand dollars a year online. Over a lifetime, this customer is worth thousands of dollars in profit for a well-run commerce site like Walmart. The most difficult and expensive problem for any brand is switching costs – it’s at the core of the most sophisticated marketing efforts in the world – Ford spends hundreds of millions each year trying to  convince customers to switch from GM, Verizon spends equal amounts in an effort to pull customers from AT&T. Over the past five years, Walmart has watched Amazon run away with its customers online, even as it has spent billions building a competitive commerce offering. What Walmart needs are “point to” customers – the kind of people who not only become profitable lifelong buyers, but who will tell hundreds of friends, family members and colleagues about their gift box experience.

    But to get there, Walmart needs that Amazon token. Wouldn’t it be cool if such a thing actually existed?

     
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