It was chaos. We heard a deep rumble, the great ship shuddered, and within hours the deck chairs began to slide as she listed to port. But the band still played, the bar was open, and the ship’s captain assuaged our anxiety with words of reassurance. The Titanic? No ~ IBM in the 1980’s. I joined them in 1983, fresh out of UVA’s engineering school. The first iceberg IBM hit was the PC, and later on it hit another: the Internet. For 17 years I stayed onboard as concern turned to chaos, and eventually bloodshed when in the 1990’s the company cut its bloated workforce by 60,000 souls. I was one of the survivors.

For years after, I thought of myself as “the corporate type.” I mean, what company was more corporate than IBM, with its blue suits, company song, no-alcohol policy, and standard issue haircut? But then I realized, as should everyone else ~ a house on fire is not a house, and a sinking ship is not a ship.

During the last ten of those 17 years, IBM was desperately seeking, and eventually found, a way to stay afloat. That decade was time when almost any new idea, however unorthodox, was welcome ~ a time when creative, non-linear, entrepreneurial thinkers like myself were heroes. Survivors learned to embrace adaptibility and flexibility. We learned to look outside IBM for survival lessons, and we quickly emulated best practices. We accepted that IBM was no longer setting the industry’s pace, no, they were setting ours, and it was more rapid and unpredictable than we ever could have imagined.

And so I stayed. When IBM finally righted itself in 2000 and set a stable course ~ I jumped ship. After a nomadic childhood (I attended 13 schools in nine years, some overseas) and a thrilling professional life, I am not suited to stability. I love the chaos.

I am deeply grateful, however, for what I learned during my IBM years, of the value of process, how to sell consultatively in a global market, how to comport myself in front of international executives, and when to trust my instincts and run against the tide. Most importantly, I know how to recognize the deep rumble that everyone else waves off as nothing, but we survivors know means something else. Iceberg.


“Ironman vs. Siri” and the Mobile Battle for What’s “Cool”

Fonzi. The “Fonz”. He is one of the most iconic images in television history. His character was supposed to epitomize what was considered “cool” in the 1950’s, like a comic hybrid of James Dean, Elvis, and Johnny Cash. The only thing missing was the cigarette ~ The Fonz did not smoke (“Happy Days” was a family sit-com). But lots of other cool people smoke, and many a young person takes up smoking because they think it makes them cool. Plus it gives them something to do with their hands. The social value of smoking is a primary reason why smoking is so hard to eradicate.

Which brings me to texting. My daughters, who are in their twenties, have given me the rules. If I call and they don’t answer, I am not to leave them a voice message. That’s unacceptable. In fact, they have all told me that if I do leave them a voice message, they delete it at the first sound of my voice. No, instead I am to hang up without leaving a message, and they will see that I have called and call back. If I have something important to tell them, like “Where is the $200 I lent you six months ago and that you promised to pay back last month?” ~ I am to text it. My girlfriend’s three children, who are also in their twenties, have told her the same thing. These are the rules.

To us, this is stupid and inefficient. I don’t understand this protocol. I mean, I get that in the age of tweeting, long-winded and rambling voice messages like the kind my girlfriend leaves for her children (she ignores the rules) are uncool. Then even I want to hit the 2X playback speed button I so love on the iPhone music app, which is great for listening to Podcasts and audiobooks in half the time. Afterall, our brains process verbal input much faster than the normal speaking voice, so it makes sense that my children would want me to get to the point and get there quickly. What I don’t get is the texting rule. Why would I not leave a short, concise voice message (“Where is the $200 I lent…) while I am driving, and instead pull over and text it, or worse, not pull over and text it? The answer, I believe, has to more to do with the social value of how young people interact with their mobile devices, and less to do with the practicality of it.

Observe young people. They hunch over their smartphones, furiously pecking out text messages with their thumbs. They are blazing fast at it. They can have several text exchanges in the same amount of time I drawl out a single sentence. To them, my vocal communiques must seem glacially slow. Plus texting and tweeting looks cool. It says, “I am always in touch. Someone wants to hear from me so badly that it cannot wait, not even a second.” That exchange is the priority ~ more important than whatever is going on right around them, which is why people text at inopportune times (In the theater? Please.) They are actually communicating two ways: 1) To the person to whom they are texting and 2) To everyone around them. The message in #2 is: “You are less important.” This technique of establishing one’s place at the top of a social hierarchy is, and always has been, a way of establishing one’s “coolness.” The mobile device, like the cigarette, is just a tool in the process.

Plus texting gives people something to do with their hands, and what young people do is simply amazing. I played my girlfriend’s son at “Gears of War 3” the other day, and he kicked my ass. Again, I was way, way, waaaaayyy too sloooow. So it only makes sense that the young man would transfer his considerable hand-eye coordination skills, learned on the X-Box, to his mobile device, and choose texting, which uses the same skills, over voice interaction, which for him is slower. This brings me to voice-recognition as a man-machine interface technique, and to “Ironman 3”.

In the movie, Tony Stark designs his Ironman suit with the help of a computer, and he interacts with that computer using…his hands. We’ve all seen this type of man-machine interaction in the movies: our hero furiously wiping and swiping psychedelic images suspended in the air while indecipherable text scatters across the screen. If you are a young person, this is how it’s done! Where is voice-reco? Nowhere! That was cool over 40 years ago when Captain Kirk of the Starship Enterprise talked to his computer, giving it commands like “Go to Red Alert” and so forth. But voice control as an interface technique is not cool now. In fact, it is positively pre-historic.

These social factors are the only explanation I can come up with for why my software development team, which are all in their twenties, rolled their eyes and resisted when I urged them to consider voice-recognition as an interface for our next mobile app. “Not accurate enough,” they said. Right. Like “y shud we uz it 2 say ne thng prolly dum lol” is more accurate. I regularly use Dragon Dictation, while driving, to create text messages, or even short emails, which I can then quickly send at a stoplight or by pulling over. Fast. Efficient. Practical. Safe. And way more accurate than texting. But not cool (apparently). Not Ironman 3.

So our hands will be, as long as young software designers get their way, the primary way we interact with mobile devices, for some rational reasons and some irrational ones. The irrational ones bother me, as I like being efficient with my time, which means choosing the right tool for the right task. I am using a full size computer keyboard to write this post, and I am using more than my thumbs. (Free tip to Dragon Dictation ~ pay for a product placement in Ironman 4 and watch sales improve.) And the irrational reasons kill. Texting while driving now surpasses drinking and driving for fatalities. It might even kill more than smoking.

And that is not cool.

Kiosk Bloodshed: What Mobile Can Learn From the Cyclops of the 1990’s

If you were around then, you remember seeing them. Lonely kiosks, gathering dust, cast aside in the corner of a hotel lobby or government office, their one dead eye staring out dark and lifeless. The once mighty cyclops of the computing world, what IBM believed would be THE way the public gained access to electronic goods and services — rendered a corpse — and a grim reminder of what fate will befall your mobile app should you fail to heed the lessons of the lonely kiosk debacle of the 90’s .

What kills technology based initiatives? Two things: A failure to deliver value, and failures in usability. Kiosks that have survived into the present day deliver superb value and are superbly easy to use, and we use them all them time. The airline ticketing kiosk. Redbox. The ATM. But what about those goofy “info only” kiosks that gave us a map to a restaurant that closed six months ago? Or those whose UI made us want to smash them with a baseball bat like in the famous fax machine scene from “Office Space”? Cue “Still” by Geto Boys. Those machines died a just death, and rightly so.

History repeats itself, as they say, and so today we see mobile apps that make all the same mistakes of the 90’s. But this too shall pass, and those apps will too. In 20 years we will will look back and it will all make sense. Apps that survive, nay, thrive, will be those that deliver value consistently, reliably, and easily, and that are compelling and “insanely” easy to pick up and use. Thriving apps will enable those line of business services that are in the critical path of a company’s strategy, essential to its customers, designed for ease-of-use, and built to last.

The question is: Will your mobile app be one of them?

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A scene from the not so distant future…A Groupon, Facebook, Pandora mash-up app

Kayla, a college student, no longer listens to traditional radio, preferring instead to use a smartphone to listen to her favorite Pandora stations. Because she does not pay for Pandora’s premium ad-free service, she knows they will play an occasional advertisement, which she mostly ignores because the ads are for products and services she cares nothing about. The ads are simply irrelevant to her, in fact, she often mutes them.

Then Kayla learns about a new smartphone app that overlays Pandora’s ads with audio content that actually interests her: local weather, local traffic reports, and ads offering deals for things she is likely to buy, like concert tickets, jewelry, and pizza. The app “knows” her interests because Kayla used a web site from the same company that built the app to voluntarily convey her personal interests. The company then filters the ads, inserting only those that best fit Kayla’s interests. Her smartphone’s GPS ensures that appropriate local content gets inserted, no matter where she is.

When Pandora’s ads are finished playing, the app restores control to Pandora and the music resumes playing just as it would have without the app. Kayla loves the app and tells all her friends about it.

Please understand — I like Pandora. I am a fan. Building the app described above would not be my first choice for them, as it would sandwich a third company between them and their advertisers. It would be much better for Pandora and other Internet radio services to control their own ad pipeline and natively offer me customized (narrowcast) ads instead of indiscriminate (broadcast) ads. Pandora, through the genius of the Music Genome Project, is especially good at giving me exactly the kind of music I like. They of all companies should be equally good at doing the same with ads. So why don’t they? The answer is — they can — and here’s how to do it.

When advertising agents buy radio for their clients, they secure air time (spots) on a collection of radio stations most likely to target a certain market demographic, say urban males from ages 18 to 25. Once the ad gets created, it is distributed to those stations and rotated through playlists for as long as the ad campaign runs. This has been a standard business process for decades and it should remain so, for even though Internet Radio will eventually replace traditional radio, with its one-way, 100 year old analog technology, traditional radio still has far more ears tuning in (over 90% of the listening public) and is still a viable business. We should not rock that boat any time soon.

But to make Kayla’s app work, and for the radio advertising industry to migrate to the vastly superior, all digital and interactive Internet Radio, agents would need to make a few changes to their business process. Specifically, they would need to attach three additional attributes to their client’s ad before distributing them.

First, refine target markets much more specifically than they do now. So for example, instead of “urban males from ages 18 to 25,” the target market might be “urban males from ages 18 to 25 who snowboard, buy Thai food twice a month, and play electric guitar.” This kind of refinement is possible through a technology based technique calledAudience Based Advertising” (ABA) that enables content delivery services to tailor ad campaigns precisely for single person’s unique tastes and preferences…and no one else’s. Using ABA, of which there are many practitioners (Audience Science being one), advertisers come to know the person, either by asking them to volunteer information about themselves or by mining the personal informations from sources like Facebook. This practice is commonly used for for web display ads but has yet to be adopted by music delivery services.

Second, geo-tag the ad to identify its range of appeal, that is, create a “geo-fence” inside of which the advertised product has its greatest appeal. An ad for a nationally distributed product, Bud-Lite for example, would have a coast-to-coast geo-fence, whereas an ad for a local pub offering Bud-Lite for a dollar on Tuesday nights might have a geo-fence of just a few miles. Once so tagged, Kayla’s app can pull in ads that are local to wherever she happens to be at the moment.

Finally, add an attribute that allows the listener to bookmark, or better yet buy, the advertised product instantly. I have written about this in another post, as it was the goal of my first start-up, and I still believe the idea has legs. Now, over ten years after my effort, I see promising signs of this radio bookmarking service becoming a reality. Apple’s iTunes radio tagging, currently used for bookmarking music only (not ads), integrated with their newly announced Passbook app, has all the ingredients for success. Imagine bookmarking an ad for the above mentioned pub and having the deal instantly drop into your iPhone’s Passbook wallet. Very cool. Colorado based Clip Interactive has an interesting effort underway as well.

I am confident Kayla’s app will come to be in my lifetime as kind of a Groupon, Facebook, Pandora mash-up. The technical underpinnings are all in place, the market is rich, and the timing is right. With the right visionary and team, we can create both a vastly superior way of delivering audio content and an exciting new business opportunity.

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End Starvation — A Widget for the Well Nourished Artist

A few weeks ago my friend Cheryl Pallant rescued me with a poem. She found just the right one, “Love after Love” by Derek Walcott, and emailed it to me on a day when I badly needed to hear its truth. Words cannot express how grateful I am to Cheryl, and to Mr. Walcott, and it’s even harder to put a price on my appreciation. I passed the poem on to my friends, and it went kind of viral among us. While I’m sure the poet is happy we liked his poem, that hardly pays his rent. This frames up both the problem and the opportunity: at the height of my appreciation for Mr. Walcott’s work of art, I had no easy way to pay for my benefit. Sure, I could have searched around and found his website, and then which book the poem is in, and then logon to Amazon and….opportunity lost.

What is needed for poetry, paintings, stories, sculpture…all art…is a way for the appreciator to make a payment while it is being enjoyed and commensurate with the value the appreciator gets from the work. This would be like having a digital coin box right next to the art with a sign reading “Like it? Say thanks with a donation!” The payment option would travel with the art wherever it goes, like a watermark, and especially if it goes digital and gets virally transmitted via the Internet.

For example, when Cheryl sent me “Love after Love” by email, the payment option would have travelled with it, allowing me (and others) to easily make a payment with a few clicks. A digital widget? A Facebook app? A mobile extension? Yes. All of the above. The embedded payment option would create a whole new way for artists to get paid for their work, above and beyond the traditional methods of buying the original or a copy — both fine options for collectors. But I don’t collect art, I collect experiences, and that’s what I am willing to pay for.

Hackers — let’s find a way to make this idea work and help artists get paid for the good they are doing. I was rescued by a poet, and I owe him.

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The Song Remains the Same, but My World Changed

The year was 1999. The song was “Sunburst” by guitarist Andrew York of the LA Guitar Quartet. I was driving, listening to my local NPR station. Before the song finished playing I was ready to buy it, but I knew neither the title nor the artist. It took many phone calls to the DJ and several weeks to find out. There has to be a better way, I thought, and there was. That is the moment my world changed.

I was working for IBM at the time, on a team building “in-vehicle” systems (aka telematics), which are computers designed to be embedded into the dashboard of your car. Remember, this was 1999, and such systems were not common. I presented a simple idea to IBM: capture the song in flash memory inside the telematics radio and allow the listener to press a button if he or she wants to buy it, then make the song a permanent part of the listener’s music collection. This was before iPods, before internet radio, before iTunes. Satellite radio was just launching its birds. Mine was a novel idea, and IBM suspected they could patent it. They were right.

Having worked for IBM for 17 years, I knew what would happen. They would be grateful, give me a pat on the head and a $1500 check, and send my idea into oblivion. Imagine the final scene in “Raiders of the Lost Ark“, where the crate containing the precious ark is carried off by forklift into a cavernous warehouse full of similar looking crates. Yeah, it was gonna be like that, and I knew it. IBM was then, and still is, a great company, but not an applications company. They would license the patent to others but never build it out themselves. If I was going to watch my baby grow up, I was going to have to leave IBM, and so I did.

Because IBM owns my original idea, which was for digital (satellite) radio, I had to some up with a new one: the same ability to instantly buy radio content, but for terrestrial (AM/FM) radio rather than digital. This was considerably more complex, but with the help of retired IBM senior systems engineer Bruce MacAlister and Alen Docef, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Virginia Commonwealth University, we figured it out. In a few months we had a working protoype. The business model came from my friend and partner Bob Griffith, then a Senior Executive with the Radio Advertising Bureau (RAB), and more recently with Google Radio. Bob knew squat about technology, but he knows the radio business like the back of his hand. “Make it work without station involvement,” he told us, “and focus on the ads, not just the music.” And so we did.

The idea was novel, the prototype brilliant, the business model ironclad, and the team A plus. But the venture failed. Why? Timing, and scope. We launched in March of 2000, just as the “dot com” bubble was bursting and becoming a “dot bomb.” Six months earlier and you could have raised millions by shaking a tree, having a venture capitalist fall out, showing him a “dot com” idea scribbled on a pizza box, and walked away with a contract. Now, in the spring of 2000, if you said “technology” and “start-up” in the same sentence, it had the effect of saying, “I have the Ebola virus and I’m about to sneeze.” We spent the balance of the year chasing VC’s into the hills. I gave up in December and went back to work in a cubicle.

Thinking back, I now believe the venture was far too grand in scope. It required too much capital to start, and there were too many parts that had to fall in place for it to succeed. But I had the IBM mentality of thinking big, and in those days bold, even audacious ideas, were in vogue. Today I am much more modest and prefer “bootstrapping” ventures to ones that need high dollar life support.

In the past dozen or so years, I’ve seen many try, and fail, with the idea of radio tagging. Apple has done the best, I think, the app Shazam is fabulous, and internet radio stations like Pandora and Spotify are close but need to pay more attention the the second part of Bob’s advice: focus on the ads. That’s where the money is.

I still love the song “Starburst” and remember whenever I play it. My world has changed, for the better mostly, as the opportunities to learn about and buy music are better than ever before. Ways to reduce instrusive, obnoxious ads are emerging, as I have written about in another post.
Oh, and there is one other wonderful change — I no longer work in a cubicle.

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I wanted to kill it.

5 AM. My wife is waking up to the clock/radio. She stumbles into the bathroom and closes the door. I want to sleep some more, but she leaves the radio playing so she can hear the weather, which she never does because she is in the bathroom with the door shut. I don’t hear the weather either. Instead I lie in bed with the pillow over my head, trying to block out the sound of radio advertisements blasting from the radio. Years later, after a gig as the General Manager for a radio station, I learn why the same commercials play at the same time every day: they are scheduled for periodic rotation by computers. But this morning I don’t know that, and the ads are torturing me as I lie in agony under my pillow, waiting for them to be over and the day to start.

McDonalds. Patrick Kia. The Room Store. And the ad I hated the most…The Dump furniture store. “To the dump, to the dump, to the dump, dump, dump.” Agony. Torture. The alarm clock. I wanted to kill it, every day. That was my wake-up experience…for years. There has to be a better way to wake up, I said to myself. And when I could not find one, I invented one: the Arise Inspirational Waking System.

First of all, Arise is not an alarm. According to the dictionary, the word “alarm” means “a sudden fear or distressing suspense caused by an anxious awareness of danger.” An anxious awareness of danger? Is this any way to wake up? I didn’t think so. Not much better was waking to radio and the aforementioned ads. Clocks offering a variety of nature sounds were an improvement, but they were still lacking in substance. The experience of waking up was ripe for a transformation, and I was going to provide it.

The first step was to design a waking “experience” — a process designed to gently and progressively migrate the user from one state (sleep) to another (wakefulness) in a way that promoted mental, spiritual, and physical health. This would not be an abrupt, singular event lasting as long as it takes to smash the snooze button with your fist. Rather, I wanted the experience to take time, to start small, build over a few minutes, and end big.

This was also not a process for young people, who if they are like my kids, need something akin to a nuclear blast to get them out of bed. Rather the experience was desiged for folks like me who are already stirring around wake time. I just need a gentle nudge to let me know: it’s time. If by chance the nudge didn’t do the job (hey, even I need a shove now and again), then the process would end big, as in: now it’s REALLY time.

But I wanted more. I wanted to “wake up on the right side of the bed,” as the old saying goes. Years ago I learned a trick from motivational guru Zig Ziglar, suggesting I rise triumphantly every day by clapping my hands together while saying, “Today is going to be a GREAT day.” I liked the idea if not the practice, and so my design included a middle part: the inspirational message. The small start, the inspirational middle, and the big finish became known as our “Spirit Friendly Sound Profile,” and it is used in every Arise product.

Inspiration comes from a variety of sources and can include poetry, Bible verses, statements of affirmation, Buddhist contemplations, motivational quotes, and all sorts of things. The Arise Inspirational Waking System accommodates all of these so that you can pick the Arise product that inspires you. Whatever your flavor of choice, we carefully and prayerfully select inspirational messages that are designed to keep our mission: to transform our customer’s wake-up experience into a distinctly inspiring event. It is our hope that a positive start helps our customers lead inspired, victorious, and abundant lives.

I wake up to the Arise product of my choice every day. Gone are the days of grating buzzers, loud alarms, and obnoxious radio commercials. Now I wake to a delightful medley of singing birds, a melodic country creek, wind chimes, and beautiful music accompanied by an inspirational reading. My experience closes big, with either cathedral bells against a chorus of international good mornings, or the sound of children laughing at the seashore. It is going to be a great day indeed, thanks to the Arise Inspirational Waking System.

Inspire your morning, influence your day, transform your life. Arise.

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A Case for an Oxymoron: Intelligent Radio Advertising

It is the fall of 1972, and I am a high school student in Northern Virginia. My father has given me a Heathkit tube radio he built in the 1950’s, and I use it to tune in 102.3 — one of the few “underground” FM stations playing progressive, indie rock and roll. The jock’s opening words are like a magic incantation to my young ears. “This is Cerphe coming to you from high atop the Triangle Towers. We’re sending out some tunes tonight for the truckers, the madhatters, the ships at sea and especially … (whisper) the ladies of the night.” Then came the music. Bonnie Raitt to Bessy Smith to Hound Dog Taylor. Hendrix. Zepplin. The Who. Sometimes Cerphe would play whole albums without interruption. It would all just flow. And the best part? Very few ads.

In those days, stations like WHFS were motivated by their passion for great music and not by finance. But it was not to last. The inexorable demands for money overtook WHFS and all stations like it, forcing them to become more commercial, improving their bottom lines, and ensuring their survival for decades. But the cure was also the poison, and the presence of excessive, intrusive, obnoxious and irrelevant advertisements is causing commercial radio’s slow but certain death. Music lovers like me are turning to internet music delivery services like Pandora, Spotify, and RadioIO, where the ads are fewer (or nonexistent if one wants to pay) and one can dial-in exactly the kind of music one wants to hear. I am thrilled. It’s like 1972 all over again — great music, well programmed, and light on ads. But like WHFS, it can’t last — advertisements must eventually become a bigger part of the programming mix if these services are to survive. That development, as it turns out, is good news.

We are by now all familiar with the somewhat creepy knowledge that companies like Facebook, Google, and Visa know all sorts of things about us, including where we go and what we buy, and use that data to present us with advertisements for things we are more likely to buy than not. Less familiar to us is an organization called the Network Advertising Initiative (NAI), a coalition of more than 90 online advertising companies, which has a one-button “opt-out” tool obligating member companies to voluntarily stop snooping and collecting data on you. But wait! Before you go running to NAI’s website to click that button, take a moment to consider where we are on the long road from ads that are excessive, intrusive, obnoxious and irrelevant, to ones that actually serve a useful purpose. Ads that serve a useful purpose? What, man? Have you gone mad? No.

I am first among those who despise advertising, which is precisely why I am rooting for the success of an emerging practice called “Audience Based Advertising”, a technology based technique that enables music delivery services to tailor ad campaigns precisely for me. The ads I see and hear are customized to my unique tastes and preferences and no one else’s. To do that, the advertisers must know me — hence the data collection on me. This practice has been going on for some time now with web based display ads (the kind you see on web pages), but it is slow to reach internet music delivery systems. The ads I hear there may not be excessive (yet), but they are still irrelevant.

For example, consider that as a man, the probability that I need to be exposed to ads for uniquely feminine products like bikini waxings is pretty close to zero, and yet I have been exposed to plenty of those. Not so in the future. Knowing that I am male and thus unlikely to be shopping for a bikini wax (unless I am shopping for my girlfriend), the advertiser will ensure I never get exposed to an ad for them. So far, so good.

But all sorts of complexities are sure to arise on the aforementioned long road to useful ads. There is the matter of privacy. Do I want my health insurance company knowing that I toked up on a hookah pipe last night? No. They will surely not understand that I am not a regular smoker and are likely to mismanage the information, raising my premiums. There is the matter of timeliness. “You can stop the car pitches now, thank you, because I bought one two months ago.” I am convinced, however, that these complexities will be worked out to our advantage. Audience Based Advertising, or Intelligent Advertising as I think of it, will be continually refined and updated, becoming more and more effective — more intelligent. But that progress will require our cooperation, and to cooperate we must first get over “the Facebook effect.”

I was naive when I joined Facebook. Maybe we all were. When it finally dawned on me that the company was using every tidbit of data from my profile and posts to turn me into a resource to be “mined”, like one of the human batteries from “The Matrix”, I was repulsed. The Facebook effect. There was a sense of betrayal, and then a lack of trust. I wanted to wear a tin-foil hat to keep Facebook from reading my brain waves.

But for Intelligent Advertising to work, a good amount of trust must exist between shopper and merchant before we shoppers will voluntarily offer intimate information about ourselves. Even then egregious violations of that privilege are sure to ensue. For a depiction of the dark potential of Intelligent Advertising, look no further than the freaky scene in the 2002 film “Minority Report,” where Tom Cruise’s character is aggressively pitched by 3D billboards trying to sell him a pair of jeans. “Hey, hey! Stop!” the billboard hollered at him as he ran by. “You look like a size 34.” Yikes! No thanks. To avoid that kind of intrusiveness, we shoppers must move past our distrust and become partners in the process of shaping how, when, where, and what kind of ads we get. And there are ways to do that.

Internet based music services, for example, offer me this incredibly nifty tool that makes me feel like the master of my universe: the thumbs down button. Don’t like a song? Press that button and the service actually apologizes for playing it and promises to never play it again. Whoa. I’m diggin’ the power here. How about extending that power to ads? If the ad is obnoxious, intrusive, or irrelevant — the hallmarks of most radio advertising — then I can give it the royal heave-ho out of the line-up with the click of a button. In the same way this “teaches” the better designed music services what songs I like and don’t like, the service will learn what ads and offers I like and don’t like. Marketers will get immediate feedback on the efficacy of their ad, and if it doesn’t work for me, they will quickly know. The result? Better, higher quality ads. Ads that don’t intrude or annoy, but rather inform and serve. Useful ads.

Over time, as my “content” delivery service gets to know me (note the name change from “music” delivery to useful “content” delivery), there will be no need to tap the thumbs down button — almost everything they deliver will be thumbs up. These services will have made the effort to get to know me, with my permission. They will have mined my data, with my permission. And I will want them to. The better they know me, the better the chances are that I will get useful content instead of banal crap. And if I do get banal crap I can use my thumbs down button and voila — never again — with an apology. Naive you say? Consider this — no advertiser wants to spend a nickel on you if you are not going to buy. So why do it? They would much prefer to target their ads.

There is one more important milestone on the long road to Intelligent Advertising — the ever critical paradigm shift. Today’s music delivery services offer to take away ads for a price, because they know we hate irrelevant and intrusive advertising. “Ad-free” to them means “Bad-free,” and they are right to think that way — for now. But as ads become more intelligent, more useful, music delivery services must shift their thinking 180 degrees. They might look to Costco or Sam’s Club, where we pay a membership fee to actually increase our exposure to goods and services. Why? Because those goods and services are generally of high quality and a good deal. They are useful, and we pay for the privilege of being exposed to them. The same will eventually be true of music delivery services, who must undergo this paradigm shift on their long road to transformation to content delivery services.

I waited decades for music delivery systems, formerly FM, now internet based, to get back to delivering the kind of quality programming I enjoyed on WHFS in the early 70’s. They finally did, and listening to music today is every bit as exciting as it was back in the day. The ads are still off-target, but there is a vision, a plan, for more intelligent, relevant advertising. It will get better, especially if we listeners take an active role. As my favorite guitar player, the great Jimi Hendrix, said, “In order to change the world, you have to get your head together first.” We will get it together with Intelligent, Audience Based Advertising, and the sooner the better.

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