Before getting too wound-up in the @d-tech hubbub, I walked across 53rd St. for a pleasant breakfast with the folks from Web3000 of Redmond, Washington.
Web3000 is building an ad network based on Internet shareware, president Gene Kavner said. His idea is to take the right side of your title bar, while your Internet connection is on, and use that to send yourself text ads to support the shareware.
If you have a single Web3000-enabled application, and use the web just 30 minutes per day, as many as 30 ads might float by on your title bar, and the owner of the application earns a cut of that revenue. If you have 30 Web3000-enabled applications, of course, they're getting credited with just one ad per day, but hopefully their circulation makes up for that, he said.
Beyond the question of sharing that title bar among several advertisers comes the big idea that makes outfits like FreePC and NetZero go, not to mention Web3000.
That idea is, of course, targeting. Since you're giving up a lot of personal information to get the free computer, free ISP service, or (as in this case) free software, advertisers can use this data to target you very precisely, and outfits like Web3000 earn a premium on those ads.
So if you're a 30-year-old male with no kids and use a Texas ISP, you'll see different ads than if you're a 75-year-old female with seven grandchildren in California. It's a win-win situation because the ad is more valuable to both you and the advertiser. So far, everything is good.
But Kavner said Web3000 has another capability, one the other "freeware" ad-supported companies also have. He called it Target Site Advertising, and said it also goes by the name of Competitive Targeting.
That is, you're on the Barnes & Noble site, looking at books, and up might pop an Amazon ad offering a discount right now, just for you. Or you could be on ABCNews.com, checking out the latest on the Egyptair plane crash, and Bryant Gumbel might invite you to watch his exclusive coverage on the Early Show.
Given the intention of Ticketmaster-CitySearch, eBay and Universal Studios (there may well be others) to control links into their sites, a nasty question occurs. What happens when you're buying tickets at Ticketmaster and Web3000 sneaks in a similar offer from Tickets.com? What if you're checking out a PC auction on eBay and Web3000 sneaks in a reminder that Ubid is auctioning the same stuff, from reliable suppliers?
This is not a point Kavner is prepared to go to war for, despite the fact I think he's right on the legal merits. He said this kind of targeting is a very small part of his revenue stream, and could be cut out without real damage to his business plan. He suggested that might also be true for NetZero and FreePC.
I came back to the show humming a tune, as I always do when I'm excited about the news. Perhaps this is a typical situation in these typical times (as Dave Mathews might say), with too many choices.
One of those choices, among big companies, is to use lawyers as attack dogs against anything on the web that threatens control of customers, and the customer's experience. If you keep the big door open, everyone will come around, including the competition, and what do you do then? Mr. Kavner seems to agree with Dave on this one - it all comes down to nothing. But does it? On the public web, what are the limits of your site's control over your users? It's a question worth talking about.
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Dana Blankenhorn has been a business reporter for more than 20 years. He has written parts of five books and currently contributes to Advertising Age, Business Marketing, NetMarketing, the Chicago Tribune, Boardwatch, CLEC Magazine, and other publications. His own newsletter, A-Clue.Com, is published weekly.