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We’re the real losers of realtime behavioural advertising auctions

Like many people in my immediate networks, I think behavioural advertising is rotting the web. It’s the reason that I have four different privacy-focused extensions in my web browser and use a privacy-focused web browser on my smartphone.

As a result, when I go start looking for some new running shoes, as I have this week, some that I considered buying yesterday don’t ‘follow me around the web’ today, popping up in other sites and tempting me to buy them.

The political implications of this behavioural advertising are increasingly well-known after the surprise results of the US Presidental election and Brexit a few years ago. Advertisers participate in real-time auctions for access to particular demographics.

But what’s less well-known, and just as important, is what happens to the losers of the realtime auctions when you visit a site.

Say you visit the Washington Post. Dozens of brokers bid on the chance to advertise to you. All but one of them loses the auction. But every one of those losers gets to add a tag to its dossier on you: “Washington Post reader.”

Advertising on the Washington Post is expensive. “Washington Post reader” is a valuable category unto itself: a lot of blue-chip firms will draw up marketing plans that say, “Make sure we tell Washington Post readers about this product!”

Here’s the thing: the companies want to advertise to Washington Post readers, but they don’t care about advertising in the Washington Post. And now there are dozens of auction “losers” who can sell the right to advertise to you, as a Post reader, when you visit cheaper sites.

When you click through one of those dreadful “Here’s 22 reasons to put a rubber band on your hotel room’s door handle” websites, every one of those 22 pages can be sold to advertisers who want to reach Post readers, at a fraction of what the Post charges.

Cory Doctorow, Pluralistic

I kind of knew this, but it’s useful to have it explained in such a succinct way by Doctorow.

So if you’re not currently performing self-defence against behavioural advertising, here’s what I use in Firefox on my desktop and laptop:

These overlap one another to a great extent, but good things happen when I use all three in tandem. On mobile, I rely on Firefox Focus and Blokada.

You might also be interested in a microcast I recorded back in January for Thought Shrapnel on the Firefox extensions I use on a daily basis.


This post is Day 25 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

My Twitter ads verdict: a waste of time and money

Update: The excellent comments on this post have made me realise that I proved exactly nothing in this experiment due to the poor way I set it up. Thanks all! Will try to do better next time.


I mentioned on Friday that I was going to experiment with Twitter ads for my book The Essential Elements of Digital Literacies. I said I’d report back on my findings.

Well, it’s a pretty stark message: either I’m doing something fundamentally wrong, or they’re a complete waste of time and money.

Here’s my results after spending $50 on three promoted tweets:

Twitter campaign overview

As you can see, not exactly stellar results.

So how did that translate to sales? Remember, I said that, “After Gumroad’s commission and the 10% discount, I need less than 10 additional people to buy my ebook to break even.”

According to my Gumroad statistics, I didn’t even sell one additional copy:

Gumroad customers

As the person who bought my book yesterday bought it at the undiscounted rate, I’m chalking that up as an ‘organic’ sale (i.e. they didn’t purchase it as a result of the advertising).

Happily, sales are going reasonably well anyway. They fluctuate each week, but are never zero. I think I’ll just let things continue as they are and not throw good money after bad. 😉

Experimenting with Twitter ads for my ebook

This morning a tweet from Rory Cellan-Jones, the BBC technology correspondent, caught my eye:

Looking back through his timeline took me to a Facebook page for the ‘BBC Tech Tent’ where Rory discussed the BBC team’s experiments with Facebook and Twitter ads.

That got me thinking.

I played around with Twitter analytics when it launched and found it pretty fascinating. However, I started to become a bit too obsessed with ‘engagement’ and put it to one side. At the end of the day, I’m not actually that bothered how many people follow me. It’s all about the exchange of ideas and having a rich information environment.

What this morning’s activity did do was give me a nudge down the path of trying out Twitter ads. I been considering it for a while and so decided to bite the bullet and set up three promoted tweets. They will show in people’s timelines over the weekend and all point towards my ebook, The Essential Elements of Digital Literacies:

Promoted tweets

As you can see, I’ve set up three different promoted tweets with the same image but slightly different text and calls to action (Learn / Order / View). I’ve put $50 in the pot  – $25 split between Saturday and Sunday – and limited the target audience to English. Specifying areas/localities to target is mandatory, so I went with UK, USA, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. For some reason I couldn’t specify India?

This is an experiment. Would I like more people to read my book? Absolutely. But it’s not just about that. The main thing here is playing with Twitter ads so I know how (if!) they work. After Gumroad’s commission and the 10% discount, I need less than 10 additional people to buy my ebook to break even. I’ll let you know the outcome. 🙂

Page Peel Script

Peel

Please note that this script is NOT my own work! As I have stated below, I am simply making it available here in case it is taken down elsewhere. I have no idea on how to modify it. Sorry.

If you’re reading this on the blog rather than via the RSS feed, you’ll probably have already noticed the new addition in the top right-hand corner. The way in which the page ‘peels back’ to reveal a link to my educational consultancy business was inspired by a number of sites I’ve seen recently who use it for advertising. It’s remarkably easy to accomplish. Here’s how… 😀

Continue reading “Page Peel Script”

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