The Unquantified Self

Advertising’s Opt-in Challenge

Anyone with a strong interest in either tech startups or personal fitness is by now familiar with the term “the quantified self”. The category includes things that go on your wrist (Fitbit, Basis), on your belly (Bellabeat), in your shoe (Nike+), on your phone (Strava), in your car (Dash), in your clothes (UnderArmour) and also — as if that weren’t enough — things that come out of your mouth (23andMe).

Clearly we humans are obsessed with data about ourselves. If, like me, you are cursed with a strong interest in both tech startups and personal fitness, that obsession can — at least to your friends and family — appear slightly ridiculous. Every time I work out, for example, I do so with a Garmin watch strapped to my wrist, tracking my heart rate, distance, speed, elevation, swim stroke (if swimming), power output, cadence, and watts/kilo (if cycling) — all of which gets uploaded to Garmin Connect, Strava and Training Peaks. If I don’t upload the data immediately, it’s as if the workout never happened. See!? Ridiculous.

Self-improvement through self-tracking is nothing new; Benjamin Franklin, our country’s first self-help guru, famously tracked 13 virtues in his daily journal, including Order, Frugality, Industry and — as I remind my kids daily — Silence. What’s new is the technology. Between 2010 and 2015 quarterly venture capital investments in the digital health space rose 2,000% from $15 mm to $322 mm.

It’s not clear, however, that consumers are very interested in being quantified outside an opt-in environment. In advertising, the rapid growth of programmatic buying, big data, and DMPs has allowed us to parse and target audiences with unprecedented sophistication. This should, in theory, lead to more relevant advertising, a better user experience, and higher consumer engagement. And this has happened in some areas (search, native, video). But elsewhere the user experience has degraded. All those pixels, beacons and tags we put on websites and ads bogs those sites down, especially on mobile, which is one reason Google launched their Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) project late last year.

Yesterday, the tech company Mezzobit announced its Data Transparency Index, a scorecard of five key areas of website data collection, including the quantity and type of data collected and any additional third-party code being loaded into visitors’ browsers. The company found that the average website contains 26 data tags, only 8% of sites use HTTPS, and 11% of sites use browser fingerprinting, which, unlike cookies, is very difficult for users to detect or remove.

The fact that ad blocking grew 41% last year reflects a growing user demand for better performance: using an ad blocker noticeably speeds up the user’s browsing experience. Because consumers are increasingly aware that data is being collected about them online, using an ad blocker allows them to opt-out of that exchange altogether.

Two things will help solve this. The first is better creative, which entails both killing old digital formats that don’t really work well on mobile (the classic static banner) and embracing those that do (video, native, responsive). The second is to give consumers a viable opt-in option to monetize their own data in their value exchange with brands — a consumer CRM. ProjectVRM was one attempt at this, but in 2016 we will see a new crop of startups — intensively focused on user control and user experience — grab that ball and run with it.

Stay tuned.

(originally published on MediaPost)