For nearly one hundred years, marketing efforts have increasingly been based on friction tactics. The practice of interrupting the consumer experience with advertising intensified via radio and then television. Friction-based marketing has come to a head with the emergence of the world wide web. Clunky banner ads have mostly given way to targeted advertising via Google Ad Sense, Facebook, Youtube, and now Amazon.
Friction in Advertising
Advertising interrupts streaming audio and video not just at the beginning but throughout the experience! (I have no idea how this possibly works, but I guess it does.) This is the definition of friction for the consumer. Friction is generated by interrupting the consumer with something they don't want, or at least at a time they don't want it.
Loyalty is generated by giving the consumer what they want when they want it. Emails, and even text messages, are less invasive than phone calls. How huge is customer care when it comes to winning our loyalty? Print advertising is another traditional example of marketing that doesn't fully interrupt the consumer experience. Ironically, newspapers, magazines, and mailers are dying out due to the pressure put on them from digital media. And for many reasons, digital media has been superior enough for us to tolerate the annoyance of the highly friction-based marketing that has come along with it.
Often times, actions speak louder than words. Many of our favorite brands have earned our loyalty by sponsoring the activities we love, by advancing the causes we care about, and by staying true to the ideals we hold dear. These actions are especially compelling when they appear to be made in the face of purely-profit-driven alternatives that the brands are nobly able to reject.
And the purely-profit-driven alternatives are out there. They're sexy. And they're friction-based. Oolala. All of this means we're doomed to continue the cyclical dance of the information dealers. We're inundated with pop-ups, until we begin using pop-up blockers. Our phones become useless until we pay for services to block spammers and bots. Television ads dull us to slumber until we pay for a device to playback our favorite shows without the ads.
Every time we find a way to remedy the pain, the information dealers find a new way to market to us, and by "market to us" I mean a new way to interrupt our fragile sanity with consumer sirens.
Smarter Advertising Won't Save Us
The horizon of online marketing is populated with smarter targeted advertising that has the potential to pop onto the consumer's awareness right at the moment they want it. This type of advertising has already begun, and it no doubt will increase in accuracy over the next year. Here's an example of what I'm talking about.
You sign up for a writing conference in Austin, TX and then message a friend about how excited you are for the trip. You invite them to go with you. Your friend asks if the conference will be smoke-free. You watch a welcome video on the conference website, but it doesn't mention smoking. You post in the conference Facebook group to see if anyone who has been there before can answer the question.
Later that day you see online advertising for hotels and rental cars in Austin, TX. They even know when you are going to be there! On Facebook, you get an add for a portable air filter for your hotel room and a mask that can filter out 99.5% of airborne pollutants and microorganisms. The next time you're on Youtube all the ads are for writing masterclasses.
While this trend in smart advertising will temporarily reduce friction, it comes at the expense of privacy, and it opens consumers up to further assault from information dealers. With this additional ammunition and the ability to target you with specific messages at specific times, information dealers will hit us with click-bait and fake news related to the places we live and travel. They'll know even more about our tendencies and the groups we are likely to be biased against.
You're now up for bid as a non-smoking, liberal, fiction writer with anti-establishment tendencies and a strange fetish for the Dallas Cowboys. It's up to the information brokers and information dealers as to who wins the bidding. Chances are the winners are going to have nothing but profit in mind, which will lead ultimately back to friction tactics.
Amazon's Allusion of Loyalty
How exactly does all of this friction advertising translate into the world of publishing? That's the next important question to answer. After all, if I'm a reader in search of a story to read, don't I want targeted advertising to suggest possibilities? If I'm looking for a book to read, and an Amazon ad suggests a book that looks interesting to me, that's a win. Right?
Sure! As long as that book is what the ad purports it to be.
Well, you say, I always check the reviews to make sure it's legit.
What if the reviews are phony?
I check the rankings.
I read the free sample.
Page stuffing...after a legitimate first few chapters.
Why do you have to be such a downer!
Meh. It gets worse before it gets better. So buckle up, while we break down the reason why Amazon's apparent loyalty-generating ads are actually generating friction over the long-haul.
Consumer Data Vs. Behavioral Data
There is a key flaw with Amazon's recommendation engine. No hanky panky or sinister intent is at play here, just a lack of technology at the time Amazon built its platform. Unfortunately for all of us, including Amazon, this flaw will continue to be increasingly exposed by information dealers until Amazon's recommendation engine will either a) lose all trustworthiness for a majority of consumers (thus devastating the ability for legit content creators to reach their audience) or b) receive a total overhaul.
The key flaw is that all of Amazon's recommendations are based on consumer data rather than behavioral data.
Okay, I see those furrowed brows. Put simply, this is a difference between knowing what people have bought and knowing what people have enjoyed. And when it comes to generating loyalty vs. generating friction in marketing, these two forms of data are worlds apart.
All Amazon can determine from its consumer data is what products are selling. This is fine, as far as Amazon is concerned, because this is what Amazon wants to maximize. So when you click on an Amazon ad, the subtle reality you should be aware of is that Amazon is not recommending a book they think you will enjoy reading. They have no clue about that, and they don't really care.
They are instead recommending a book they think you will buy. Amazon's algorithms are basing this estimation on the fact you are looking at a book with similar keywords (to the ones chosen by the author of the ad) and on the fact that enough other people have bought the recommended book to suggest it is a money maker. If we lived in a world without deceit, this system would work okay. Not great, but okay. Throw a bunch of information dealers into the equation, and we get a hot mess.
For the purposes of recommendation and discovery, consumer data is flawed for a handful of reasons. What if I buy a book for someone else? What if I buy a book, but then hate it? What if I buy a book, but ultimately I'm never interested enough to actually read it? All Amazon's algorithm knows is that I bought the book. As a result, it's gonna recommend others with common keywords.
On top of this shortcoming, Amazon's system makes two assumptions that can both be extremely gamified by information dealers who are up to no good. The first is the keywords. Amazon can only hope keywords are being used accurately. They're beholden to the author to input them. Nothing prevents an information dealer from falsely using hot keywords to get their product in front of readers.
The second gamified weakness is that Amazon assumes a book's ability to be a moneymaker is based on whether it has previously made money. This circular reasoning is easily hacked by information dealers. With a quickly regurgitated story that avoids obvious plagiarism, some clever usage of the right keywords, and a bit of money for ads and a click farm, an information dealer can kickstart a spammy book enough for the algorithm to pick it up and favor it for winning the competitive ad bid. This leads to more purchases. This leads to the spammy book moving up the rankings in the Amazon store. This leads to more purchases. Now the spammy book is favored even more in the competitive ad bidding process, because Amazon wants to give the ad space to money-makers!
Let's play this out in real life.
Envision this scenario. There you are, browsing Amazon for your next read. You start with a book you enjoyed reading in the past. Or you start with a keyword phrase like, "steampunk dragon female heroine who loves the Dallas Cowboys." (Hey, it's a thing.)
Either way, you find a sponsored product ad that seems promising. You click on it. The cover looks good. The product description seems to be a fit. There are 68 reviews that average 4.5 stars. It's currently $3.99 for the ebook version. You decide to give it a shot.
You read the first several pages. So far, it's okay. Nothing earth shattering, but it's not worth throwing into the fireplace either. Then the plot starts to jump around. By the third chapter, you're pretty sure you've read a section that was repeated earlier in the story.
Wondering what's up, you go back to the reviews. You dig further into the one-star reviews, and there it is. "Don't buy! This book is stuffed with flimsy, mostly stolen and then repeated content! Why is Amazon allowing this book to remain in the store?!"
Ah, crap. Now what do you do? What can you do? First, you write your own one star review. That's at least something, right? Then you wonder how to find your next book to read...
At this very moment, the moment I'm writing this, the above scenario isn't terribly common. It hasn't yet become common enough to seriously damage Amazon's reputation or the trustworthiness of its recommendation engine. But it's inevitable that the above scenario will become increasingly common.
Amazon is losing the chess game with the information dealers who stand to make buttloads of money from immoral and illegal practices. And the baseline problem is foundational to Amazon's platform. They can only recommend books they think you will buy...based on weak data that is being manipulated by information dealers.
As it becomes more difficult for readers to sift through all the bogus content to actually find a book they enjoy, the recommendation process that used to engender that reader's loyalty will quickly begin to suffer that reader's wrath. What began as a loyalty-building process results in a whole lot of friction. Damn. And that's only the half of it.
Kindle Unlimited's short-term loyalty ends in friction.
Pirate Authors also must be wary of Kindle Unlimited's all-you-can-read, buffet-style model coupled with its "peep-show-titillation" which is offered to authors through Amazon ads. These two heads of the Amazon hydra combine to suck authors into a cycle of building brand loyalty for Amazon as much or more than for themselves. And when creating loyalty for an information broker, there is a larger argument to be made that you're actually creating friction for your readers.
And I'm going to make that argument...like, right now.
Kindle Unlimited has been a smash hit with a number of readers. For readers who churn through 1 to 7 books a week, KU is a great deal...on the surface. But something insidious is happening beneath the surface that I hadn't considered four years ago when I started slamming the idea of buffet-style reading subscriptions (not to be confused with very targeted and genre-specific reader subscription services).
Kindle Unlimited has begun to impact how readers read, what readers read, and readers' expectations for a good story. In short, readers' standards are being eroded and worn down. This is not loyalty that these readers are experiencing. It's friction. This friction is transforming reading into a passive exercise much like television viewing. When reading becomes a passive exercise, its value has been destroyed.
This one isn't super intuitive, so hang with me. Again, on the surface, everything about KU is loyalty building. As a "whale reader" you pay a monthly subscription price and read to your heart's content. It feels like "free books!" The hurdle to trying a new book is virtually not there. Or this is how it feels.
On the flip side of Kindle Unlimited is the partner hydra head of Amazon Ads. We've already talked about how this works with typical book and ebook sales, but it's slightly different with KU because Amazon's KPI (key performance indicator) is different. When it comes to Kindle Unlimited, keeping the reader loyal to their Amazon Prime membership is first and foremost. Amazon is going to pay out for page reads at the end of the payment period. It matters not one iota to Amazon what content KU readers are reading, as long as they find enough content to renew their Prime Membership year after year.
Thus, Amazon has become good at estimating which book you are likely to read next. Remember, they don't know or care about your enjoyment. They simply need to know that other similar readers kept reading when offered this book, AND the author is pumping sufficient advertising dollars into the book. You finish one book and Amazon waives the next in front of your face. It's basically free, so why not?!
You read another. You finish the entire series...even though the fourth and fifth books were pretty slow. You're not sure you even remember reading the fifth. But the sixth got better...didn't it? Yes, you think it did. You read them all so fast.
Actually, now that you think of it, you can't remember all the books you've read this month...or much about many of them. Meh. There were a couple of good ones in there.
Much like with Amazon's recommendation engine, Kindle Unlimited initially makes it soooo easy to find new books to read. There are virtual buttloads, and even one buttload is quite a bit. This is the definition of removing friction for readers, right? Right, at first.
The Satellite TV Effect
Over time, two things happen. First, you start to find it slightly harder to find a new series or a new author. You cruise through all the content you recognize or that came recommended. You try a few new series blindly, but they aren't very good. You get through the first book, maybe the second. A friend recommends a series. You gobble that up, but once again you're left in the "series hole."
At this point, the second thing happens. You shrug your shoulders and give in to a bubble-gum series that you know won't be very good. Meh, there's eight books, and they'll keep you busy for the next couple of weeks. Once you get through them, you find another series quickly. You do this for several months before you start to wonder what has happened to you.
Why does reading feel so vapid and mindless these days? Books used to inspire your imagination. They used to keep you up at night. They used to give you life. Now they're just sucking out the hours.
Gradually you realize the extreme convenience of Kindle Unlimited combined with the commodification of the stories and the leveraging of the content to keep you loyal to Amazon Prime has ruined reading for you. What started off as loyalty-building has ended in friction! Damn, so much friction!
It's the satellite TV effect. There is such a thing as too much meaningless content. The next thing you know, you've spent an entire evening watching C-span or reruns of "I Love Lucy."
I'm not saying that Kindle Unlimited doesn't have quality content. It has tons of it. But, it has tons more of quasi-quality, ho-hum content. And Amazon doesn't care what gets read. They don't care how satisfying it is. Amazon cares that people re-up with Prime, and that Authors keep a constant stream of ad money flowing. You pay, you play...and then we'll pay you.
The reader experience is peripheral. That's a problem for our industry. That's a problem for reading, and that's a problem for the human race. We should be concerned about the fact that Amazon's interest in selling books has NOTHING TO DO WITH QUALITY STORYTELLING. The platform that is running away with the publishing industry is not concerned about our craft.
All of us should be concerned.
Okay, now that I've made a superlative statement, I can dial it back just a little. Amazon does have one concern regarding quality storytelling. They are surely aware that if sleazy information dealers and hackers continue to run rampant on their platform, it will continue to have a negative impact on readers. And Amazon most certainly cares about the reader experience. But, as Amazon has proven repeatedly, readers are less concerned about the craft of storytelling than authors would like.
Amazon knows they can water down the quality of the content considerably and weather a certain amount of bad actors negatively impacting the reader experience before readers will object, as long as Amazon makes up for the degenerating quality with discount prices. Enter Kindle Unlimited. Enter free shipping. Problem solved...except that for authors, the problem just got ten times worse.
This is a major problem. By dominating the market and introducing elements of gamification, recommendation algorithms, and ad spend (payment for impressions) to publishing, Amazon has exposed book selling and narrative fiction to the same pitfalls that have swallowed journalism. Readers are now being fed lesser quality books from content creators who focus on the algorithms rather than the content. Books backed with enough money and the ability to play to base human emotions, such as fear and hatred, can now infiltrate KU the same way they infiltrate our feeds on Facebook.
I'm not an Amazon hater. Bezos has deftly built a strong company that has taken advantage of weak players in key markets. Kudos to Amazon. But as a storyteller and writer, I will not passively watch Amazon commodify and then leverage publishing in an effort to sell more crap. I will not simply try to take advantage of the temporary wave Amazon has created for indies. The long term effects of what is happening to stories and to readers will be devastating if left unchecked. We should see these events as a call to arms, as a call to return to the high seas as Pirate Authors hellbent on Pirate Publishing.