Monday, November 16, 2009

Q&A: Steve Rubel

I recently caught up with Steve Rubel, Ad Week contributor and Edelman’s Director of Insights, for a quick chat.

According to the AP: How would you tweet your role at Edelman?

Steve Rubel: I am charged with identifying emerging digital trends, channels and technologies and helping our teams and clients fuse them into programs.

ATTAP: You've developed a very specific niche for yourself at Edelman and within the communications industry. Could you briefly describe how you got here?

SR: I have long been fascinated by technology. I got my first computer back in 1982 and was online in 1988. It's been a central part of my life since I was a boy. I have also been in public relations more than 15 years and have long been a fan of the industry and its prospects.

Until about 2004 these were separate. I ran technology PR accounts in the 1990s and early 00s. But other than that I really didn't connect the two.

That changed, however, as publishing technology became easier to use and approachable. I started dabbling with blog software in 2003. I then launched my own blog in 2004 and began to work with my current employer at the time to integrate blogs into client programs. We received a fair amount of media attention at the time because the programs were innovative.

After that I decided I need to go somewhere where I could effect broader change and that landed me in my current role with Edelman. It's my hope that I one day will end my career here and retire as an Edelman employee.

ATTAP: Nearly 70 percent of Americans object being tracked online by advertisers, according to a recent study from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of California, Berkley and a according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 60 percent of Americans restrict access to their online information.

Overall, it looks like people are becoming more savvy and more cautious with how they engage online, while at the same time jumping more enthusiastically into social networking with various Google products, Facebook and the like.

How do you see this impacting the communications industry? If information tracking is so important to the marketing function, should the real questions be around how we can better establish and maintain trust?

SR: Overall I think the data masks a lot. For example, there was a recent study that people don't want to store their data in the cloud. However, the reality is that most of us use web-based email services whether we know it or not.

The younger generations - having grown up in an American Idol culture - seem to be more predisposed to sharing their lives online. There will always be introverts. And more might become cautious as they see the potential risks involved with living a public life.

The upshot for communicators is that there will always be more data and information to contend with from more sources of authority. It might be a small subset of the audience (under 50%) but there will always be people who covet attention that we need to make sure we engage around shared mutual outcomes. That is the key to building trust - working win-win and out in the open.

ATTAP: Assuming trust is really the key to effective communication both online and off, could you briefly describe the rules of the road you live by and counsel to clients?

SR: The rules of the road vary by client but I generally advise, and myself focus, on 10 "c's": curiosity, creativity, content, consistency, confidence, connection, collaboration, commitment, communication and class.

ATTAP: Many of us are highly Google-dependent (at least I am) - from search to email to blogging and everything in between. What do you see as the biggest pros and cons to hosting so much of our personal business and online identity on a single system like this?

SR: There's more upside than downside here. The more they know about us, the more value the system becomes in helping us surface critical information in real-time. The downside is that there's a single point of failure but Google seems to manage this quite well.

ATTAP: Again, while nearly three quarters of people object to being tracked online, people seem more willing to give up their data if they see a reward of some sort. We've seen grocery stores doing this for a while - swiping your discount card for 5 cents off soup. Online privacy is a value proposition; the more information you give up, the greater (or at least more tailored) the user experience.

What have you seen is the threshold for consumers willingly and happily giving up their data for the sake of experience? Are there certain triggers sites like Facebook or Google use more effectively than others to persuade an increased level of sharing?

SR: It really varies by user and by demographic, geographic. Over time there's more value if the system learns from you as Facebook and Google both do. However, the minute they violate that trust they can lose everything they've gained so they need to walk this carefully - and they both do (Facebook is getting better at this every month). The way they can persuade is by keeping the data safe, private and secure while letting you remove it you want to. Google does this quite well. (

ATTAP: In your recent AdAge column, you talk about the two faces of Facebook, predicting a more Google-like approach to development down the road. But recently, we've seen the company stumble. For instance, the failure of its Beacon advertising product, which broadcast members purchases online.

What would you say is the Facebook's biggest vulnerability as it grows? Should it be more concerned over how to effectively and responsibly leverage user data, developing trust and loyalty - or about competitor platforms like Google Wave?

SR: Facebook's greatest liability is in developing advertising solutions that are too aggressive. Ultimately, I think we'll see them get more into the data services business as their customers begin to realize that engagement buttressed by ads as "air cover" offers the best approach.

The jury is stil out on Google Wave. It's interesting but also incredibly complex. If developers improve on it then it holds potential.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Thatcher has died

Canadian Transport Minister John Baird got some sad news the other day: His 16-year-old tabby cat had died. He let some of his friends know by a quick text reading “Thatcher has died.” And that’s when panic set in.

The text was misinterpreted, and quickly spread. Soon the Canadian Prime Minsiter was alert of Margaret Thatcher’s demise.

According to the AP: Harper's aide Dimitri Soudas, back in Ottawa, was dispatched to confirm the news and start preparing an official statement.

Except the former UK Prime Minister, like Kanye, wasn’t – and is not – dead.

So there are a few lessons learned here. One of which is that Thatcher’s office apparently doesn’t have prepared statements for the death of their 84-year-old ex-PM – which is a little astounding. The second is the speed at which misinformation can be spread. The whole ordeal was resolved within 20 minutes – but it goes to show what an impact a sliver of information can have on the web.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Where are my pancakes?

Maybe giving up a little privacy to Facebook is a good thing.

At 11:49 a.m. on October 17, 19-year-old Rodney Bradford’s Facebook updated his Facebook status from Harlem, asking “Where are my pancakes?” according to the NY Times. A moment later, someone was robbed at gunpoint in Brooklyn.

Bradford, who has other robbery charges pending was brought in for a line-up and wrongly identified as the assailant and detained.

But his father knew better, and was on the hunt for evidence – and that’s were facebook came in.

According to CNN:

It wasn't until Rodney Bradford Sr. discovered his son's Facebook update that the young man's defense attorney realized he had an unbeatable alibi.

"Throughout that week," said the attorney, Robert Reuland, "I worked with the district attorney's office and made them aware of who our alibis were, presented the Facebook evidence and generally tried to convince them that it would be wrong to proceed to an indictment in light of this evidence."

The district attorney subpoenaed Facebook for documentation that would prove Bradford had updated his account from his father's home in Harlem. It worked.

Confirmation of the time stamp on the update and the location from which it was entered showed he could not have been at the scene of a robbery in another part of New York City. After he had spent almost two weeks in jail, the case against him was dismissed.

Read the full story here.

Inconsequential to the alibi story, Gawker has clarification on the actual status update here.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Outed by Facebook?

Facebook has certainly been a helpful tool in the coming out process for many. Simply set your interests to “men,” and you can cause a flurry of interest.

But what if you want to be a little more discrete for whatever reason? Maybe you’re uncomfortable, maybe you’re shy, maybe it’s nobody’s business. That’s a discussion for another time – but OK, you want to keep your sexuality private.

Well, two MIT students recently came up with a program that can accurately predict whether someone is gay, based on otherwise innocuous information on facebook.

Here’s how it works, via The Boston Globe:

Jernigan and Mistree downloaded data from the Facebook network, choosing as their sample people who had joined the MIT network and were in the classes 2007-2011 or graduate students. They were interested in three things people frequently fill in on their social network profile: their gender, a category called “interested in” that they took to denote sexuality, and their friend links.

Using that information, they “trained” their computer program, analyzing the friend links of 1,544 men who said they were straight, 21 who said they were bisexual, and 33 who said they were gay. Gay men had proportionally more gay friends than straight men, giving the computer program a way to infer a person’s sexuality based on their friends.

Then they did the same analysis on 947 men who did not report their sexuality. Although the researchers had no way to confirm the analysis with scientific rigor, they used their private knowledge of 10 people in the network who were gay but did not declare it on their Facebook page as a simple check. They found all 10 people were predicted to be gay by the program. The analysis seemed to work in identifying gay men, but the same technique was not as successful with bisexual men or women, or lesbians.

Interesting. So that raises the question of whether Facebook then allows advertisers – like Atlantis Cruises – to specifically target the LGBT community.

Surprisingly, the short answer is no. The longer answer, via Slate, is this:

When companies advertise on Facebook, they're allowed to choose a range of demographic characteristics that determine which people see their ads. It's possible that Atlantis didn't choose to limit its ads just to gay people but, say, to all single men under 40 who live near San Francisco. This way the company gets to people like you—folks who aren't out on Facebook but who might still be in the gay-cruise demographic.

The Facebook rep added a couple other points: Ads aren't selected based on groups you've joined or based on your friends. You weren't shown the gay-cruise ad because your friends are gay or because you became a fan of the group "No on Prop 8," for instance.

But there is one caveat: If a friend of yours presses "Like" on an ad, Facebook will show you the ad, too, plus a note saying which of your friends liked it. The company also uses the "Like" feature to determine which ads to show you in the future.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Breaking News: People are lazy when they watch TV

When it was first introduced, advertisers and TV executives thought the DVR was going to be their downfall. They thought audiences would jet past their expensive ads and ultimately kill television.

But it didn’t happen.

Via the NY Times:

Against almost every expectation, nearly half of all people watching delayed shows are still slouching on their couches watching messages about movies, cars and beer. According to Nielsen, 46 percent of viewers 18 to 49 years old for all four networks taken together are watching the commercials during playback, up slightly from last year.

Why would people pass on the opportunity to skip through to the next chunk of program content?

The most basic reason, according to Brad Adgate, the senior vice president for research at Horizon Media, a media buying firm, is that the behavior that has underpinned television since its invention still persists to a larger degree than expected.

“It’s still a passive activity,” he said.

Two years ago, Nielsen introduced “commercial-plus-three,” to replace the then-standard program rating system. This measured how many ads were watched either live or in playback within three days of its initial airing. And what they’re finding is that with the widespread use of DVR, more people are watching ads than ever before. 

Ten percent more, in fact. 

New York Times writer Bill Carter explained it in an interview on NPR’s “On the Media:”

In the old days of television, when there was no recording at all, if you had a favorite show and it was on 9 o'clock on Thursday night, and then another network said, I'm going to move my best show there, well, you had to make a choice then. Now you don't have to make a choice at all.

The classic in this case, I think, is The Office. It’s on at 9 o'clock on Thursday night. That’s an unbelievably high-profile time period, because CSI, which has been the most popular show on television for years, is also on there, and Grey’s Anatomy, which is a gigantically popular show, is also on there. All three of those shows are now hits because of timeshifting.

So while consumers object to advertisers tracking their online behavior (and yes, that now includes television watching), they’re doing it – and finding some pretty interesting stuff.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

What does Google know about you?

Google reminded us again this week of exactly how much it knows about us all, when it unveiled Google Dashboard.

Dashboard is a nifty tool that shows you all the information Google has on you. Well, maybe not all, but some. Or maybe just a sliver.

You can get to Google Dashboard through a link in the “personal settings” section the “my account” page. According to the Google Systems Blog:

The dashboard lists some of the information associated with the Google services you use: your name, your email address, the number of contacts, the number of conversations in your Gmail inbox, your Google profile, the most recent entries from the web history etc.

It's a long answer to the question: "What does Google know about me?".

Yeah, except it really doesn’t answer that question at all, according to many. Google knows a lot more about you than that. Of course they know your email address and Gmail history. But what they’re not telling you is what they know about server logs, cookies and internet-based advertising systems that pull various pieces of data about all of us.

Dashboard is a good step in the direction of transparency and reinforcing a level of trust among Google users. But this service raises more questions than it answers and it will be interesting to see how high Google is willing to raise the curtain on the data they keep.

Incidentally, all these links track back to Google. Think they know that? Probably – but they won’t tell you.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Parenting in the Digital Age

I’ve posted before about my four-year-old niece. She can use the computer, she can navigate the cable box and she’s comfortable with a cell phone. But the scary part is none of this is extraordinary for her – it’s just part of life.

WIRED’s Geek Dad blog takes on this topic in a recent post about how to raise an internet-savvy kid:

When I was growing up, getting a phone in your room (or even your own line!), if you were fortunate enough, was a major step in the process between feeling like a child and growing into an adult. Like driving your own car or getting your own bank account, getting your own phone was a step towards independence and a nexus moment between a trusting parent and a maturing child. Today, the phone is no longer even the standard communication method between two 13-year-olds. E-mail, IM and social networks are the most common forms of communication between teens and new studies have shown that Generation Y is becoming increasingly reliant on e-mail as their preferred form of communication. This means kids are growing up to become even more reliant on the internet and technology in their lives.

So what is the right age to let your kids get online? Obviously it’s a moving a target, but perhaps Billy Ray should have had a chat with Miley, before she dove head-first into Twitter.

The full post is worth a read. Check it out here.