See update to this story, added below, after conversation with John Bromley, managing director of Mail Online, this afternoon. . .
The Daily Mail let fly with one of its periodic complaints about Big Brotherism on the world wide web this morning.
Jason Lewis, the paper’s security editor, accused BT of eavesdropping on the comments of disgruntled customers who use Facebook.
A source had described BT as ‘a bunch of unaccountable, business shafting, useless b*******’on the social networking site.
Within hours, the source was contacted by a BT representative who asked: ‘Is there anything I can do to help?”
The point, of course, is that BT, like many other companies, has taken to scanning social media platforms for negative comments. To do so, it uses software called Debatescape. After harvesting negative comments from Twitter and Facebook, BT then tries to do something about them. It gets in touch with disgruntled customers and attempts to sort out their problems.
In the face of this well-established trend, we’re bound to ask what troubles the Mail so deeply. In a bid to let us know, the paper quotes Simon Davies, director of Privacy International:
This is nothing short of outright spying. . . It may not be illegal but it is morally wrong. And it is unlikely to stop there. If the regulators decide there is nothing wrong then political parties are sure to use it, along with lobbyists and firms trying to sell us things.
Firms trying to sell us things? Heaven forbid. Among their number, of course, we might count Associated Newspapers, publisher of the Daily Mail.
According to Andrew Bruce Smith, a PR professional who spends much of his time working with social media, Associated Newspapers — like many other national news sites — uses an application called Sophos3 to track and analyse the behaviour of users. Sophos3 describes its software as follows:
‘Sophus3 has the capability to identify visitors who come from online campaigns, how they behave on your website and whether they turn into a lead or buy after that. With our analysis tools we can determine the effect of online advertising on consumer interest.”
Analytics software like Sophos3 is a major component of news sites’ efforts to prove the usefulness of online display advertising. It follows users beyond the last click they make on Mail Online, in a bid to prove that users purchase stuff as a direct result of being exposed to specific online advertising campaigns.
Without technology like this, online display advertising will remain a ghetto. And if that happens, journalism itself will become ghettoised as print revenues shrivel up and die.
Eavesdropping? Spying? Big Brother?
Some of you might find the surreptitious behavioural tracking of Mail Online users far more Big Brotherish than BT’s efforts to improve customer services by acknowledging conversations that are, in any event, being held in public on the world wide web.
But don’t worry: the chances of reading a scare story about behavioural targeting in The Daily Mail amount to approximately zero.
Hammering BT for its use of social media is so much easier. Best of all, it obviates the need to answer all kinds of awkward questions about your own organisation’s propensity for spying on web users. . .
James Bromley, managing director of Mail Online, tweets that this blog post is ‘factually incorrect”.
We talk, and he tells me that Sophus isn’t actually ‘contracted individually’by Mail Online. Instead, it works for the Newspaper Marketing Agency, gathering data on visitor numbers across national newspaper sites.
The information gathered by Sophus isn’t behavioural either, says Bromley. Sophus might well be able to track readers ‘beyond the last click”, but it doesn’t do so for either the Mail Online or for the NMA.
So where does this leave us? Bromley won’t specify exactly how Mail Online tracks its users (although we know the site uses Omniture and Google Analytics). ‘We’re only doing what any news web site is doing,’he says. We discuss behavioural targeting and the last click problem, but he’s still reluctant to give anything away.
He admits that some advertisers who buy space on Mail Online may be using more sophisticated techniques. This in itself suggests that users of Mail Online are being tracked in ways that might surprise them.
‘It’s not really the publishers that hold they key to the information that is captured,’says Bromley.
Arguably, it should be. As Addiply (Rick Waghorn) asked Bromley on Twitter this afternoon: ‘If the Mail *isn’t* analyzing behaviour of its online readers, then why not?”
So the central conundrum remains. The ‘awkward questions’I referred to in the original post remain, well, awkward.
In the newsroom of the Daily Mail, BT’s practice of responding to public complaints made by customers is anathema. In the online engine room, there’s a reluctance to discuss how Mail Online currently tracks its own users, or could track them in the future. The tension between between these different approaches remains palpable.
UPDATE: 08/06/2010: And finally. . . another irony, one of those you don’t spot when it’s looming right in front of you. But which others see perfectly well. Here’s Martin Belam on yesterday’s Tweet from James Bromley of Mail Online:
What is this? A brand contacting someone who had written something negative about them via Twitter to try and put things right? Isn’t that exactly what the article was complaining about 😉
Er, yes: I think that’s about the size of it. . .