5Qs: Twist Image’s Mitch Joel

Mitch Joel, best-selling author of Six Pixels of Separation, is the CEO of Twist Image. He spoke to DIGIDAY about privacy in the age of social media, the inevitability of ad-targeting legislation and why brands need to think like publishers.

Can we safely say that the consumers have never been more in control of their digital identities? Is this good or bad for brands and digital agencies?
I think it’s actually both. It’s good for brands and agencies because as consumers start to understand what it means to publish their information and be so public, it actually creates a better level of sophistication about social media. When they are opting-in or liking or friending or following, they will have a better understanding of what that implies. I say this because I recently spoke with a very senior marketing executive who complained to me that a brand was “spamming” them. Basically what this person told me was that they had to “like” the brand on Facebook to complain about the brand. Then after they “liked” this brand, the brand’s posts were showing up in their feed and they thought that they were being “spammed.” So even a marketing professional didn’t understand what the ramifications of liking a brand were or how to unlike a brand after posting a complaint. It is all so new and there is still a lot of education that needs to take place. The good news is that once you have a consumer who is better informed and understands what they are doing, you have a better customer because they understand the implications of following, friending, etc. It’s “bad” because the mindset of traditional marketers is that we don’t necessarily want them to be better informed, we like it that they forget that they signed up through email, for example, so that we can keep emailing them. We have been too interested in having the sheer mass of numbers of people looking as good as traditional media looks, rather than focusing on connection quality. As a new media marketer I often tell people that I’m more interested in who they are connected to rather than how many connections they have.
Will the consumer push towards transparency create greater separation between brands and consumers online, or will a third way emerge that can actually bring them closer together more efficiently than in traditional digital media?
I had a long and very interesting conversation about this with Don Peppers of Peppers and Rogers, and I asked him if he thought that this was the case, because I’d been thinking about this. I’ve been kicking around this idea of open consumer data, which is essentially a scenario in which the consumer would control their entire profile. There would be one centralized place where you go in and you have your profile, and that profile can be applied to Twitter, that can be profile can be applied to Facebook, or that profile can be applied to a brands. Then suddenly what you would have is a person who has one central point that they can log in to, and then they can opt-in or out, friend, follow, whatever they want. Obviously having that sort of consumer dashboard allows one to see how many brands they are connected to and how often they are getting messaging. That’s great for a consumer, terrible for a brand. I think what it is going to have to take for us to get to a win is that when we are looking at the digital mindset to forgo the knowledge that’s been acquired on the traditional side. The traditional side of marketing was completely based on masses of volume. Obviously the digital side is much more hyper-personalized and experience-based. It will take a bit of weaning on the consumer side and on the marketers side for us to feel comfortable with the idea that mass media numbers are probably not the real numbers anyway. Although the numbers in a consumer-driven scenario may be less, the value is much more because the consumer is empowered and connected. So I hope that eventually we will have a centralized receptacle where anyone can have all of their data available and usable to them, with their permissions already in there.
Will the consumer data privacy movement, along with start-ups springing up around this issue, stifle marketing method innovation?
It’s actually a new opportunity. It’s a blank whiteboard, and we can draw whatever we want on that whiteboard as long as we have the compliance of the consumer and they have trust in that relationship. If we can do that, then it won’t matter so much what the new start-ups are doing or if existing agencies come up with new services and ideas around privacy. My main concern is that if we botch this, then it will get really difficult. If you look at the reason that that regulatory agencies like the FDA exist it’s because marketers have a knack for being examples of the “give me an inch and I’ll take a mile” cliche. We’ve been given a lot of latitude, and there’s the possibility that we could really mess things up and have much more government legislation, which we already have the beginnings of now. The opportunity now is to try and get this right. We need to show that marketers can operate in an ethical way from day one. When we don’t have government interference, then obviously there’s more opportunity. Looking at it from the macro level–we can actually undo all of the messes that we made. There is a reason that we have all of these laws. It’s because marketers got greedy–we started calling people at 6 o’clock at night and these laws came into being to stop us.
Can industry self-regulation stave off privacy legislation?
In a perfect Pollyanna world I could say yes, but in the real world, as soon as someone gets the opportunity to get a message in front of someone, they will not only use it, but they will also abuse it. The reality is that the government will get more involved. We’ve already seen the FCC get involved in regulating blogs, and we will most likely see them get involved in smaller and smaller platforms, like Twitter. My fear is that more government regulation will come in, but the reality is that it will probably have to because of some of the unsavory practices of some.
How do you see the definition of social media, and social media marketing, developing with so many forces trying to create a massive paradigm shift? 
We will see a lot of instances of the industry trying to figure out what this will look like. Social media is a publishing engine that is very agnostic. It allows us to publish instantly and for free to the entire world. What we have is this agnostic platform that is neither evil nor kind; how brands and consumers use it is up to them. The question is less how to market in social media, but what it means to be a marketer, and seeing this as more of a publisher’s role than a marketing role and understanding what that means. I recently wrote a blog post about misunderstandings about the concept of Facebook likes. There are some companies that are simply going for likes, and even forcing users to like a brand before they are allowed to interact with them. Those are just marketers being nervous that a competitor has more likes than they do. My thoughts are that they ought to open the whole experience up, allow users to see the content and connect at will. Customers will naturally want to connect.

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