Social Sharing Data Vampires: They Vant to Suck Your Data

Publishers Embrace Free Social Sharing Tools to Drive Page Views, but There's a Steep Price

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Publishers are bleeding themselves dry, giving up the very customer data that hold the promise of their continued relevance in the digital age. They struggle to monetize online users, as the dimes from digital will never replace the analog dollars they no longer receive from print. They see social sharing as a way to drive page views on their traffic-starved websites.

But many of these social-sharing tools are data vampires. They suck all the value out of the visitor by harvesting his data, and leave the publisher with an empty husk of a site visit.

These tools are offered free to publishers. The siren song of easy and free traffic lures publishers in. But what they give up in exchange is their livelihood. After all, these tools are owned by advertising networks.

Sharing tools target users by tracking their sharing activity from all of the websites that have their widget deployed. They collect data from the publisher's site and other sites about what users like, share, read, click on, etc. Then, free sharing tools buy ad inventory wherever they can find those audiences. That means they can buy remnant inventory at pennies on the dollar, add their own targeting layer and sell that inventory at premium prices. If the inventory happens to be on a publisher's site where their share widget lives, well so be it (yes, they will undercut you with your own visitors, on your own pages).

Instead of charging for their product, the sharing tools just take the publisher's user data. They'll hand the publisher a few pennies in remnant inventory fees for the privilege of showing their ad unit, but that 's cold comfort when it's selling at a 90% discount.

Recently, these vampires have gone one step further -- they offer the ability for users to register to make sharing even easier. Of course, the user creates an account with the sharing tool and connects her social accounts, like Facebook and Twitter. This means that the vampire now has access to all of the social-profile data of the publisher's visitors. The share tool can now drive even more targeting and segmentation using the demographic data, as well as rich social graph data and interest information from the social networks.

Not only do the publishers lose the brand affinity and all of the customer data about their audience, they lose the entire customer account. The very lifeblood of the modern content business -- visitor data -- is served up on a platter for the sharing tool to collect and monetize.

How could something this blatantly bad for publishers ever happen? This scheme is so smooth that the mark has not even noticed. So many cliches apply that it spins heads: there's no such thing as a free lunch; you get what you pay for; and, of course, if you're not the customer, you're the product.

The reality is that the internal organization of publishers actively works against ferreting out data leakage. The advertising sales team is focused on selling premium inventory. The content team is responsible for the site layout and the technology tools that live on the page. The content team is responsible for delivering page views, so they have an incentive to drive traffic. The ad sales team, which is starving for targeting data, does not have any say in what data are given up to these data vampires.

This problem is only beginning to be understood in the publishing world. A publisher recently commented that most publishers "under-invest in the technology product that runs the website." But many inside the organization are hamstrung to effect change.

The solution is for publishers to take control by ensuring that sharing is done within a brand context. Also, publishers must require that the data from sharing activity and the individual user profile data are stored for the benefit of the publisher. That data have significant implications for improving CPMs, especially considering that 47% of publishers admit they can't respond to RFPs for lack of targeting. In addition, it has broader implications for publishers looking to engage audiences -- from commenting; to content recommendations; to leveraging the social graph, data from sharing can improve the site experience in multiple ways.

Some publishers have started negotiating data-leakage policies with their onsite technology vendors, and this is a good first step. But, ultimately, if a technology provider makes money through advertising, it is a competitor to publishers. And it should not be allowed on the page.

Jamie Beckland is a strategist at Janrain. He tweets as @Beckland.
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