Pay Walls and No-Track Widgets

Andrew Edwards  |  January 25th, 2011 at 4:19 pm

I was hoping the Tea Party would beat me to it, but it appears they have missed the bit about the Federal Government seeming to force browsers to add a “don’t track me” option into their list of options; and about how my favorite browser, Firefox, has apparently added one. One day I will need to find out how to activate the widget so I can leave it de-activated.

Perhaps the Tea Party cannot pick a villain here. Is it big corporations, trying to spy on citizens as they munch in the free garden of delights that is the world wide web? Or is it the evil government, trying to keep those freeborn corporations from exercising their right to watch what people do as they are gobbling up all those freebies in the interests of delivering better products and services to those same freeloaders?

On a much related note, the Tea Party also had nothing to say about the way the New York Times ( “The Devil’s Own Paper”) is rolling out a pay-for-access model that may well determine the difference between a robust digital publishing business and final capitulation to the atomization of power on the internet and the failure of big publishing to defeat the old Marxist axiom about needing to control the means of distribution. Maybe, since Tea Party People don’t ever read such a newspaper, they really don’t care whether it costs nothing or if it costs a thousand dollars a day to read the Great Gray Times.

Is any of this important for marketers?

All of it, and depending on your market, it is either of moderately high importance or critical importance.

Let’s see if we can imagine the marketing paradigm if, for instance, millions of internet users refused to be tracked–a possibility I consider unlikely but of course possible with enough fear-mongering. Any understanding of customer usage would diminish and probably, with less and less insight available, today’s advertising-supported models would slowly wilt and then be uprooted altogether. They would be replaced with focus groups and voice-of-audience technologies (which I believe are mere stand-ins for machine-gathered data about actual usage).

And how would marketing work inside a paid firewall? Would there be user tracking? Indeed. Would it matter as much? It would not. Reason: they’ve already paid. You’ve already extracted the value. Yes, you’ve got to keep the customer satisfied, but one simple metric can help you understand that (its an old fashioned thing called “subscriber base”).

However, before digital marketers and web analtysts begin rebuffing their resumes, lets look at how this might really play out.

My personal opinion is that the number of folks willing to pay for such as news, which is so very available for free, is a very low one. And only certain very top-flight brands will even be able to contemplate pulling it off (like the NY Times). Paying for news is not likely to go viral; and may even fail completely as readers stay away in droves. And if the brief history of the internet tells us anything, it’s that free stuff almost always wins big against anything you have to pay for. Hence the advertising banners shall continue to grow, and ROI will be developed out of non-monetary metrics.

As for “don’t track me”? The vast majority of internet users seem very little concerned about being tracked. And many sites may simply draw the line there and say–“okay, this will be free, but you have to let us watch you use the stuff, if that doesn’t freak you out too badly”. Let the first no-track rebel get a comeuppance at Victoria’s Secret (just a for- instance), and they will quickly unclick the “don’t track” checkbox and be on their merry way once again, helping to flood with their click-through data the databases of many a happy analyst.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about any of the above is how it invokes a sense of deja vu.

AOL learned the hard way (“you mean I don’t have to pay for the [much larger] Internet?”) And no, the Wall Street Journal, which charges a subscription and has done so for quite some time, is not a good predictor for what will happen when mainstream publications try to charge money for content much less important to their constituents than the latest business news is to brokers.

Web analytics paranoia has been around for years. Tracking has been vastly misunderstood and often misrepresented by folks who like making a ruckus about “privacy” which, for all practical purposes in marketing, is a non-issue.

Where are we now? Web analytics and user tracking is more critical than ever and its usage is at an all time high. Many site-owners know they might not spend a whole lot on a site they could not track. Perhaps a game of chicken will develop between the “no-trackers” and the analysts. But I doubt it. I think folks will just keep browsing and they are not going to go invisible on us. Moreover, a younger generation, having grown up with the internet as a fact of life, seems to care not at all about old-fashioned notions of privacy and tracking. Maybe they instinctually “get” the paradigm: freedom isn’t free.

Onward trackable, free-browsing consumers!