Me2B, ad-blocking, and the personal information economy

Brands, publishers and media owners are increasingly focused on tailoring content to meet the specific needs of individuals; and fuelling this rush to ever-greater personalisation has been a reliance on access to data – every last search term, web view, and geo-tagged movement helping firms to build a profile against which advertising can be sold.

So what does a consumer get in return for handing over all this information?

Other than being fed messages that advertisers think are relevant, they usually get nothing; but all that could be about to change…


Fuelled by this lack of balance in the customer/content-provider relationship, consumer displeasure has led to growing interest in new firms, or new ways of working, where previous norms on data use are being rewritten. Technologies are now emerging to help individuals take greater control of their data.

This new thinking has been dubbed the ‘Me2B’ economy, where consumers are empowered through personal data management and, consequently, new business opportunities exist around building trust in relation to use of an individual’s data.

Such is the interest establishing a new customer relationship across a range of digital businesses, Ctrl-Shift hosted the Personal Information Economy conference, in London last month, to feed discussion on the rise of Me2B commerce and to examine how brands can turn the strategic challenge of data trust into a sustainable business opportunities.

The crux of the argument was neatly summed up by Alan Mitchell, strategy director of Ctrl-Shift, who told the conference (you can watch him tell them in the video above):

“A brand’s relationships with its customers is becoming an essential element of their overall brand positioning… data has value to individuals, consumers, customers, and citizens, as well as companies.”

So, if that’s the current state of play, how did we get here?

A problem, and an opportunity…

In the latter part of last year, we wrote about the steady rise of ad-blocking across digital platforms and, in particular, the fears amongst advertisers and publishers about the growing use of ad-blockers on mobile devices.

Pop-up ads are generally seen as invasive by the public, many also see the use of an individual’s personal data to help contextualise these ads as an invasion of their personal space; but many media businesses rely on digital advertising to help fund their freely-available content. There is a growing conflict here, between they way media owners have generally operated and the changing expectations of individuals over use of their personal data.

But if we look a bit more closely at all this noise around ad-blocking, it serves as a good example of how Me2B opportunities might arise and how media firms might approach them.

iOS 9

A lot of the hype that built up around ad-blocking came as a result of Apple announcing, in September, that iOS 9, its new operating system for iPhone and iPad, would feature “content-blocking Safari extensions” for the first time, allowing users to install apps to prevent ads appearing in the Safari browser.

As a result of that announcement, publishers became uneasy as several new apps sprang onto the market to help users block ads in their mobile browsers. Then something even more interesting happened; for the first time since it introduced its own ad-blocking support, Apple approved for sale in the App Store an app that would help users block ads that appeared in both the browser and other apps.

Been Choice

Initially only available in the US, Been Choice arrived in October to block ads in apps by funnelling an individual’s phone traffic through a virtual private network that it administered. The early version of the app was removed from the App Store by Apple because of concerns about the way the technology identified ads. However, version 2.0 arrived in the US App Store in late December with amended technology that assuaged security concerns by placing a VPN profile on a user’s phone – instead of running it through Been Choice’s own servers.

Block or earn?

The upgraded Been Choice app also features a choice between blocking all ad content or allowing ads to flow freely through an individual’s phone. In ‘Earn’ mode, a user chooses to allow all phone traffic to go via the app developer’s VPN servers where ads can be monitored and rewards earned in return. In effect, individual users can now choose to lend access to their personal data to advertisers.

Dave Yoon, CEO of Been Choice, told The Drum his app was a platform on which agreements over privacy and data value could be struck between consumers and companies that want to advertise to those individuals.

“We think questions about privacy and ownership of data will continue to become more acute, with ad blocking creating a blunt recourse for most users,” he said. “Enabling real choice and real consent is, we think, the most effective way to leapfrog over a potential impasse.”

New culture?

Been Choice is just one example of where developers are starting to build businesses in the ‘trust gap’ that exists between firms and the general public, but issues of data use go way beyond the simple ad-blocking argument and feed into all areas of the digital economy.

David Yoon’s idea of ‘choice and consent’ is evidence of growing public empowerment, and amongst many business leaders there is an acknowledgement that, in the long term, digital businesses need to build sustainable relationships with customers based on mutual trust around use of personal information, and this is likely to mean the further development of the Me2B economy.

As Alan Mitchell, told the conference (again, see the vid): “For brands, Me2B is a climate of change, it’s not weather, it’s not a season. It’s a long-term direction of travel.”

If this is the case, media firms might find it useful to starting thinking about their current customer relationships and how they might want them to develop in the long-term.