When Popups Starts Leaking

There was plenty of hubaloo and excitement around Apple’s iPhone event today, but perhaps nothing generated so much buzz as the announcement that the headphone jack is going away. What’s interesting is that it’s not being replaced with anything new: the new modus operandi for headphone usage with an iPhone 7 will be bluetooth, a technology standard that’s been around since 1994.

Why is that interesting? Well, what’s most interesting about it to me is that it’s an addition to an ever-expanding list of signals that our phones are sometimes or always producing: NFC, AirDrop, WLAN, and GSM to name a few. Many of these services—and now Bluetooth, too—are nearly always on. How often have you gone to connect a bluetooth device in a crowded terminal to see a 20 or more options? How often have you attempted to connect to a wireless network in a public place to see a half dozen ad-hoc hotspots named “Tim’s iPhone” or “Madison’s iPad”?

All these networks are extremely useful to consumers because of the different affordances they allow us: tangle-free, wireless music at the touch of a button, file sharing, payments, or even just cellular communication. But what affordances do they allow other entities?

As consumers in the Internet Age, we’re already inundated by highly targeted ads. It’s uncanny: you look for a nearby gym, and your ads are suddenly all protein powder and supplements. Or you read a consumer reports article about the best backpacking tents, and suddenly every sidebar is a tent, sleeping bag, or camp stove.

Advertisers pay quite a bit of money for these highly-targeted ad slots. That’s how services we love to use every day—Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, to name a few—can afford to be free for their billions of users across the planet.  They collect data about their users, and then they sell highly-targeted ad slots to advertisers to turn a profit.

But what if they could use that data outside of their own domain? What if Facebook could sell ads not just on Facebook, but also on billboards? Or subway ads? Or taxi screens?

Here’s a reality: the information that Facebook et al has about their users is useful outside of Facebook. Perhaps it isn’t currently being monetized, but that doesn’t mean it won’t ever be.

Right now, advertising networks use cookies to track user information over time. Cookies are simple: they’re just little pieces of information that the advertising network can leave on a user’s machine and retrieve later. Alternatively, they use Mobile Ad ID (IDFA) or probabilistic signals. The point is, they're able to keep track: of your preferences, your behaviors, and your history.

I can imagine a future where advertisers could drop some variation of cookies on your device which could be retrievable later on via signals that your device emits. Of course, this would require cooperation with the device operating system, but maybe that’s not so farfetched: Apple has stated that it’s aggressively pursuing non-hardware revenue streams, and Google (the largest ad network of them all) actually owns the most common operating system in the world.

Such an interaction might look something like:


    1. You move to NYC and are looking for somewhere to live, so you join Facebook group for NYC house-hunters.

    2. Facebook says “Oh! You’re is looking for a house!”, and stores that info.

    3. Google is looking to expand advertising revenues past AdWords and AdSense. They  ask Facebook, “hey, do you have any information about this person that we can buy?”... or maybe they just look into their own archives on your behavior. Facebook sells them the fact that you are looking for a house in NYC.

    4. The MTA in NYC realizes that it could make more money with subway ads if they were more targeted, so they contact Google and say “hey, we’ll pay you to broadcast the interest and demographics of your users”.

    5. Your phone starts broadcasting that you’re looking for a home in NYC (via bluetooth, or WLAN, or NFC, or some other network), and suddenly every subway ad you see is either for Zillow, TripleMint, or Trulia. 

    6. Profit.


This particular sequence of events may not happen for a couple years (or ever!), but I’d bet my biscuits that something similar will be happening soon enough. After all, we’re living in the Internet of Things, and phones have internet, and subway ads are things.

Some more food for thought: nearly three-quarters of marketers dedicate some portion of their budget to retargeting, and Internet advertising is on pace to surpass traditional advertising methods as soon as next year. Clearly, there’s big money in targeted and retargeted advertising.

Even so, online advertisers are constantly looking for new ways to make their ads shine above the rest: banner blindness is real, and it’s a serious problem for online ads. Perhaps the best way to combat it is to go back offline—but retain all of the advantages of the internet while doing so. Dynamic, targeted content for public advertising displays will be the technology to reverse that trend, and the only way for it to work is with user data. 

And you tell me: where will that data come from?

Timothy MillerffComment