Teacher, feminist, krautrock connoisseur, anime enthusiast, player of video games, occasional modder, intermittent blogger

'Bild' and the Intention Economy

Yesterday morning, I went to collect my post and discovered a copy of Bild sticking out of my letterbox. So I threw it in the trash with all the other unsolicited junk mail.

Bild, for those who don't know, is a German tabloid which is not even allowed to call itself a newspaper. Although that's an urban legend, the very fact that so many people believe it tells you how the German public feel about Bild. Since 1998, its circulation has fallen from 4.56 million to 2.84 million (in 2011). And in March this year, it decided to remove the daily nude from the front cover (my incredulous emphasis). But my point today is not (only) to criticise Bild, but to discuss how it ended up in my letterbox.

Today, 24 June, is the 60th anniversary of the newspaper's launch, and in order to celebrate Bild sent itself to 41 million households in Germany (the Sunday edition of Bild is a separate publication and a couple of years younger, so that's why we received the anniversary issue a day earlier). In doing so it apparently set a world record for "the largest circulation for the free special edition of a newspaper." Except, of course, nobody asked for a free Bild to be shoved into their letterbox, which makes this achievement sound rather hollow. And let's not forget that the sheer expense of the event: the printing, logistics and waste generated could hardly be anything other than significant.

Unsurprisingly, when Bild announced its plan to effectively spam every household in the country, many people were upset—upset enough to launch a counter campaign which resulted in a legally-binding right to refuse. In the first twelve days of the campaign, some 200,000 people completed an application to not receive a copy of Bild. Naturally enough, Bild is claiming some kind of victory here as well, since only 0.6% of German households did not want to receive the free issue—surely, the reasoning goes, 99.4% were happy to join Bild in celebrating its 60th birthday.

No. The reason that only 200,000 dissented was because the whole approach was opt-out rather than opt-in. After reading about the plan months ago, my girlfriend and I considered joining the counter campaign, but decided against it since opting-out actually entailed sending our personal information to Bild. And opting out would still not stop Bild from feeding our letterbox with rubbish: instead, we'd receive an envelope containing a letter which said, more-or-less, 'Thank you for not taking part in Bild's 60th anniversary celebrations...' Damned if you do, damned if you don't.

So after that I forgot about the whole thing, and only remembered yesterday when I was confronted by the offending article in my mail. And my response was the same as with any other junk: remove from letterbox and fling in the large cardboard box which stands behind the front door, specifically designed for collecting such trash. I probably didn't even break my step as I continued on the way to collect bread rolls from the bakery.

Actually going through the opt-out process seems to have met with mixed results: some people still received Bild (perhaps because they didn't click on the confirmation email they were sent), and some people received both a red envelope and Bild (perhaps because the postman/woman were not sufficiently instructed about what they were supposed to do). The counter campaign is now collecting evidence before deciding how to proceed.

Bild decided that the German public would all take part. Sure, we were able to refuse, but doing so required considerably more effort than just forgetting and using the trash when the day came. We were, without solicitation, opted into a campaign, with the choice to opt out if we could be bothered. Most people couldn't, and didn't. But what if the choice had been the other way around, if we'd had to ask to receive a free copy of Bild, rather than getting it automatically? Obviously, the entire event would have been a massive failure.

* * *

Serendipitously, a short while later the post delivered my copy of The Intention Economy, by Doc Searls. Now, I'm a slow(ish) reader, so I have barely started the book, but what I have read (and seen in his interview with Leo Laporte on this week's Triangulation) got me thinking about the Bild I'd thrown away.

In essence, the Intention Economy stands in sharp contrast to the Attention Economy, which Searls argues "has shaped marketing and sales since the dawn of advertising." In the Attention Economy, companies seek to deal with an over-abundance of information (or competition) by winning the attention of a customer. All traditional advertising is attention-seeking: even the modern, supposedly individualised online advertisements still do this by hoping to appear relevant. The first step of the AIDA principle of marketing (Attention, Interest, Desire, Action), attention is a crucial part in achieving "a customer who is ready to buy," in Peter Drucker's words:

The aim of marketing is to know and understand the customer so well that the product or service fits him and sells itself. Ideally, marketing should result in a customer who is ready to buy.

The problem with this is that it treats the customer as a subject to be studied, or a source of data to be collected. What it fails to do, and what modern technology could and should enable, is actually listen to the wishes of the customer. Instead of desperately collecting as much information about their customers as possible, in order to find the best way of attracting their attention, companies would be better off—in the long run—asking customers what they want, and finding effective ways of listening to them. Marketing typically places the customer at the centre of the operations of a company; but what it has not done is ascribe the customer agency or intention. Marketing has researched the customer rather than communicated with them.

This, I take it, is what The Intention Economy and Searls' ProjectVRM is attempting to address. And now, back to Bild.

* * *

The 60th anniversary 'celebration' of Bild is clear example of attention-seeking. Having seen its circulation fall by roughly a third over the last decade, the newspaper decided to force its way into the German consciousness like a petulant child shrieking 'Look at me! Look at me! Pay attention, damn you!' Bild did not in the slightest care what we wanted, and made it more difficult for us to object than to just let it have its little public tantrum.

Perhaps I exaggerate after the fact. But then again, perhaps we should not underestimate Bild's aggressive, cynical, opt-out-only attempt to increase its circulation. It is a particularly visible example of the Attention Economy at its worst. Bear in mind that the whole of modern advertising is based on similar principles; as are, necessarily, the advertising-supported internet and social networks. Do not forget that Facebook, with nearly a billion users, derives its (disappointing) market value from advertising and that it very much operates on a 'choose to opt-out rather than choose to opt-in' basis. Bild is far from being alone.

Yet neither are we. At the risk of sounding too inflammatory, I'll end by saying this: if we do not tell companies what we want, and what we do not want, they will never listen to us. Bild, Facebook and others like them are based on a model which, on the one hand, encourages consumer passivity, and on the other rewards whoever can make themselves heard over the attention-seeking masses, either by sheer volume, or by being the most intrusive and obnoxious. If that is not what we want, we need to find a way to gain their attention, and inform them of our intention.

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