Questions for Seth Goldstein

When Seth Goldstein founded the business last year, Root Markets was a fire with many irons in it.

Goldstein, who started prototypical digital agency SiteSpecific, launched Root with an “ambitious agenda to transform the consumer data world and try to put consumers back in control.” The company’s early plans included the creation of a lead capture tool, a lead sharing marketplace and a personal vault where consumers could preserve and share their click stream data, among other things.

After noticing that several Root staffers with personal blogs (among them Greg Yardley and Rob Leathern ) had recently departed the company, ClickZ called Goldstein to find out what was going on, and how the various components of the business are faring. He said Root is tightening its focus on providing a transparent lead exchange marketplace for the mortgage vertical. However, he added the more utopian vision of empowering users to own their data is “still very much alive.”

Q.A number of Root people with personal blogs have departed in the last six months. What’s that about?

A.When we began Root we had a very ambitious agenda to transform the consumer data world and try to put consumers back in control. We set out with a number of initiatives, including a lead exchange, including a platform for media companies to generate leads, including a vault for users to store and manage their data directly, and other initiatives as well.

They were all connected to the broader vision of maintaining a more transparent way to manage consumer data across the web. And that vision is still very much alive.

Root Exchange has become increasingly viable as a standalone entity. When we started Root we really didn’t know what vertical we wanted to focus on. Over the last 18 to 24 months we have really focused in on the opportunity that stares us in the face, which is to clean up the way mortgage leads are traded online and then expand into other related verticals. What that has meant is turning what was an idea into a product, a business.

It’s been the institutionalization of Root as a lead exchange that has been driving all these changes in terms of hiring on new people and saying goodbye to other folks. I’m very happy with where we are relative to the market.

Q.You still have your sights set on a rather ambitious scheme to give users more say in how their attention data is captured and who gets to see it. Any special reason to believe people want to manage their attention so scrupulously?

A.There’s no single answer why somebody wants to manage their data. Why does someone want to breathe? They sort of have to. Whether they are actively managing it or not, we as consumers produce as much as we consume. While we consume, we are excreting exhaust in the form of data. This data usually sits there in the cache or history file or, more commonly, somebody else’s server. Until recently, there haven’t been any open APIs through which one can record and distribute one’s attention data and specifically one’s click stream.

The foundation of AttentionTrust.org was the introduction of an open source click stream recorder for Firefox. That simple piece of code enables any user to store their attention data locally or send it over the network to services they trust… This is the public open infrastructure for routing attention data. It’s established in a way that it’s not the provenance of any one company or set of companies. It’s really for putting the data in the hands of the user. It’s the responsibility of the companies around this ecosystem to build products around these end users… to enable an individual to store his or her click stream and analyze it.

There are also richer applications such as enabling a person to share his data with somebody else, to be able to syndicate it as a blog widget, to be able to tune into other people’s streams in real time, and ultimately to enable individual users to sell access to their click stream. That’s in the context of something we call data points. The art of this is to enable an individual to produce a very rich and informative kind of anonymity such that a marketer can essentially subscribe to a group of individuals and learn from their behavior without violating the unique addressable identity of any one of the participants.

And again, marketers don’t want to control user data, they want to listen to it. Up until now, there hasn’t been any way for marketers to really listen to consumers.

Q.That was a rather long answer to a yes or no question. I take it the short answer is yes?

A.Yes.

Q.Do you expect recurrences of the AOL data debacle?

A.Yes. I think the fact is companies are implicated in dealing with user data that they never really should have. Their hands are bloody. It’s not their fault. It’s as if, before you know it you’re at a crime scene, somebody’s been shot and you look down at your hands and they’re bloody.

The Internet has been set up in a very asymmetrical way, where companies are recording all kinds of data about users that users themselves don’t have access to. As users are getting educated about this, often when things go wrong, users start to say wait a minute, maybe free is not really free. Maybe when I’m doing stuff online, people are doing stuff with my data that I’m not aware of.

The costs are starting to add up and people are starting to ask some questions. At the same time, Internet marketing, which is supposed to be about all the good stuff –- listening to users and enabling them –- is actually… about controlling consumers and distracting them and coercing them. Getting them to click on something or click through something or fill out something, as opposed to listening to them and helping them do something they want to do.

The question is how can you empathically align yourself with your customer? How can you as a marketer allow yourself to be informed by them? That’s a complete inversion of the traditional model that’s trying to inform customers. The highest fidelity copy of the user information is the user. The user has access to richer behavioral data than any network. When the user opts in and consents to be recorded, that will become the master copy.

What I’m hoping to help facilitate in my own small capacity is to remind users they have the ability to… become influential. They can get recognized for the influence they have. Attention is something we all want. There’s a scarcity to it. The more information you give, the more attention you get, the more attention you get, the more influential you become. Influence is one and the same with marketing and advertising.

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