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Something to think about... / blog
I Miss The Simple Days

Written by on July 25, 2017

Let's talk about simplicity. One of things that we all need to do is to optimize our publications so that they work better. But at the same time, we also often see how over-optimization just takes the fun out of everything.

The best example of this was something Derek Sivers said back in 2011 in his video (and book): "I Miss the Mob". If you haven't watched it already, you absolutely should.

In his video, he talks about how optimizing businesses takes all the fun out of them. Instead of feeling welcomed and part of something, you end up feeling used and kind of violated.

As he says:

I was in Las Vegas for a conference, taking a taxi from the airport to the hotel.

I asked the driver, "How long have you lived here?"

He said, "27 years."

"Wow! A lot has changed since then, huh?"

"Yeah. I miss the mob."

"Huh? Really? What do you mean?"

"When the mafia ran this town, it was fun. There were only two numbers that mattered: how much is coming in, and how much is going out. As long as more in than out, everyone's happy. But then the whole town was bought up by these damn corporations full of MBA weasels micro-managing, trying to maximize the profit from every square foot of floor space. Now the place that used to put ketchup on my hot dog tells me it'll be an extra 25 cents for ketchup! It sucked all the fun out of this town! --- Yeah... I miss the mob.''

The reason why I'm reminded of this is because I see this every single day. For instance, this morning I read an article over at The Telegraph about how "Former Doctor Who Peter Davison says casting of woman means loss of role model for boys".

At the end of this article there is a quiz, where its readers can take part in this discussion by making their own opinion known. This is brilliant from an engagement perspective, but then when you click on it, the optimization takes over.

I recorded a video of it (see below), but the first time I did this was actually even worse (before I recorded it), because that also showed a video ad after I clicked on my answer.

In other words, this was my experience:

  1. I added my answer
  2. I was shown the result
  3. ...which was then immediately replaced by a "see also" box
  4. ...which then (which you can't see in the video) was immediately replaced by a video ad

This feels exactly like what Derek explains.

As a reader, I thought we had a moment. I was reading this article, I had an opinion about it, I decided to engage with it, but then I learned that I had just been tricked by another advertising monetization optimization tactic.

Adding all this optimization noise is exactly like being asked to pay another 25 cents for ketchup. It just takes the fun out of it.

And it's not like The Telegraph doesn't have plenty of other things on their page already. By just loading the page, 27 different trackers are triggered, exposing my 'attention' to several advertising and content recommendation schemes.

But even with all that, they still thought this quiz needed another set of extra optimization elements. In that box alone, there is a share link, a 'like' link, a partner link, a brand link, two more social links, three content recommendation links and a video ad.

That's just in the quiz!

It's insane.

The problem I have as a media analyst is that I can't really say that you shouldn't do this, because I'm pretty sure that if we just look at the numbers, this type of optimization probably works.

It probably creates more social engagement and more social sharing. It probably increases additional traffic to recommended articles, and the video ad (because of how that is measured), probably works too, because the video appeared right in front of the very place I was looking at.

So, from a pure optimization perspective, this is probably the way to do it.

But at the same time, I feel the same way about this as I feel about in-app purchases in mobile games. I absolutely hate that publishers are doing this, because it ruins the moment.

Right now, the numbers tell us that this is working, but I'm reminded of Derek's video every single time I see it. And I worry that by replacing 'fun' with 'optimization' we are losing a very important element that will come back to bite us in the future.

Another problem is that it seems we are optimizing for the wrong things. One of the biggest problems we have with advertising today is that we keep optimizing for shallower and shallower interactions.

Instead of making advertising valuable (to both the readers and the brands), we keep coming up with new ways of just adding random ads absolutely everywhere in the form of noise.

Already we see the damaging effect of this, in the way that revenue (and value) per ad view is continuing to drop.

Again, we are faced with the dilemma that doing it the wrong way seems to work better than trying to create better value and experiences. And, on top of that, brands don't know what they need either. So they keep buying more of the low-end exposure, instead of trying to figure out what they really need.

But I wanted to illustrate this to you, because we are currently taking all the fun out of reading an article. Not just for the readers, but also for ourselves, the writers and publishers.

Let's make reading fun again. Let's find a better way together.

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Thomas Baekdal

Thomas Baekdal

Founder of Baekdal, author, writer, strategic consultant, and new media advocate.

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