Publishers and consumers are on the same side in a fight against gatekeepers wielding market power through inscrutable algorithms, says Marta Tellado, president and CEO of Consumer Reports. Her new book, Buyer Aware, explores the promise of today’s connected products and the many predatory practices and commonplace data harvesting and unacceptable risk.
“The marketplace is changing so dramatically, and so rapidly, but the balance of power has shifted away from consumers. I really wanted to kind of reveal to consumers: what does this new marketplace look like? What protections and rights do you have?” said Tellado in a phone interview.
That’s where her new book Buyer Aware comes in. Tellado weaves together a history of previous consumer advocacy success stories with the challenges people face today while trying to navigate a world where the gatekeepers of the digital media prefer profit over privacy and attention over accuracy.
“Consumer Reports has been around for 86 years. We’re incredibly proud of the consumer rights and protections that we’ve been able to forge with and for consumers. But the reality is, that many of those things do not translate into the digital space. Technology has raced so far ahead of us,” said Tellado.
All of these threads speak to the premise of the book: that the right of consumers to fair marketplaces be deemed equivalent to people’s civil rights – instead of being an afterthought, as it often feels. Tellado says we’ve reached a critical moment on the frontier of consumer protection, one where Consumer Reports is in a position to be highly instrumental. Throughout the brand’s history, the ongoing efforts of its team has led to accountability in the market. And today’s market is in need of increased accountability.
Publishers implicated in today’s issues
While Buyer Aware includes an overview of the state of financial scams (it’s bad), a status report of today’s latest safety issues and industry responses (also not great), a large portion of the book is dedicated to the threat of big tech’s market power and the misinformation in the media ecosystem. These are two issues in which the publishing industry is directly intertwined – Consumer Reports included.
“What many [media companies] are struggling with, is that we’re in an age where we have monopoly platforms that are essentially gatekeepers,” said Tellado. “They stand between us and the consumers we’re trying to reach.”
Tellado says the digital market doesn’t have the standards, the rules, and the guidelines to sufficiently protect consumers from exploitation. And she points out that publishers are at the mercy of search engine optimization and algorithms which ingrain society’s biases. Certainly, consumer rights are important for society. But she says that even beyond this, fundamental American values are at stake.
“Writing the book was also a way to tell a larger story about our democracy, that it can only really thrive if you have a fair and just marketplace. Those two things are incredibly connected.” However, the main thing that Tellado wants readers to take away is that there are constructive paths forward.
She points to the emergence and vilification of “hipster anti-trust” as the force which shouldn’t be underestimated through patronizing nicknames. With Lina Khan’s ascension at the Federal Trade Commission, the potential of real action taken against the big tech giants is palpable. Tellado also endorses the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act helmed by Minnesota Democratic senator Amy Klobuchar as a legislative solution.
Equipping consumers with tools
In a very on-brand “consumer-empowerment” move at the end of each chapter, Tellado suggests ways an average person could shield themselves from perils found in the previous pages. To combat big tech’s extensive reach over people’s private data, Tellado recommends people reduce the amount they hand over. More innovative options for people to leverage are found after following a QR-coded weblink. Consumer Reportshas developed online tools people can use to protect themselves. For example, they offer an app that reveals the information companies collect from individuals.
Perhaps this seems ironic considering how much the book pins on other digital systems. But that’s the point: these new marketplaces are a reflection of how our digital tools are used, not that they’re inherently bad. Despite the risks, the work by Consumer Reports and its peers in the media space show us there is a flag to rally around in defense of the rights of the consumer.
Given its effect on pretty much everything people do, weather sits at the sweet spot between content and commerce. However, it’s also information that companies can harness to do much more than trigger a purchase. AccuWeather, a weather information and digital media provider, is focused on platforms and partnerships that deliver accurate weather content and data in the proper context at the appropriate moment. The company, which counts over 30 billion data requests daily, is pursuing a strategy that spans multiple channels and touch points – ranging from apps and bots, to watches and wearables, to connected cars and devices in the home. Peggy Anne Salz – mobile analyst and Content Marketing Strategist at MobileGroove – catches up with Steven Smith, AccuWeather President of Digital Media, to discuss how the company, established in 1962, has evolved with technology, devices, and IoT to power content and services with a personal touch.
PAS: AccuWeather brings together weather information and digital media. What is the role of the data you provide across the products you power and the partnerships you pursue?
SS: To be clear, it’s more than weather data; it’s a type of content that makes what we offer part of the equation in people’s everyday lives. It is content geared towards helping people plan their day, plan their lives, plan everything around it.
It’s also part of a concept we call Weather 2.0 – making our content relevant to the user ‘in the moment.’ That moment is influenced by the decision people want to make and dictated by the device they’re using at the time. To be relevant to their needs and their context ‘in the moment,’ you have to be on the traditional platforms – including browsers and mobile apps. But you also have to integrate into a range of other platforms, devices, delivery vehicles – or whatever you want to call them.
PAS:AccuWeather has a presence in the connected car. This makes it possible for drivers of Ford SYNC 3 cars to operate the AccuWeather app using voice commands or buttons on the vehicle display screen. What did you have to consider in order to deliver, as you put it, “meaningful impact?”
SS: Obviously, a five-day forecast is probably not the most useful piece of information at that time, in the moment. So, the product we’ve developed here tells you when it will start raining along your route, and answers key questions: When do I need to slow down? When will that heavy snow start? And it’s the same approach for a whole variety of IoT devices – whether it’s wearables for fitness or wearables for health. It’s why we have put forth several initiatives to tailor those products and the content we provide, to be contextually relevant. It’s the reality of what our content – and really all content today – needs to be.
PAS:I hear Accuweather is making a personalization play as well as a platform play. Is one more important than the other?
SS: From the browser products all the way to the traditional flagship apps, it’s about being on the relevant platform. And we make our platform choices by watching our audience. We have 300 million monthly active uniques interacting with our core digital properties. It’s activity and usage that allows us to see where there is a desire to use a product.
For me, connected car tops the list of practical platforms, which is why we are developing a product that provides users with minute-by-minute forecast along their route. The product has been developed to support driving, whether that’s a person in their car, a ride-sharing platform or an autonomous self-driving car. So, you can see how our content is transcending beyond being a feature within an app to become the heart of the driving experience. Right now, it’s contextual content, just-in-time. There’s a safety aspect as well as just what is going on with the weather.
PAS:Where do wearables come in?
SS: Wearables is also at the top of our list, and we break those down into categories. There’s Fitness, where we’ve had a partnership with Garmin for a number of years that’s geared around providing weather content related to the fitness activity like running. Our Minutecast, which is minute-by-minute forecasting for basically every exact GPS point on the route, provides the user what they need based on where they are, or will be, for that period. We also have a partnership with Samsung and a number of others in that space that we haven’t announced yet. Another category is Health. It’s where our content focuses on conditions that tangentially impact to health. So, how air quality impacts asthma, for example. We have partnerships, where our big data on the back-end is used to personalize and predict conditions.
PAS:It’s all about delivering accurate and actionable content – regardless of platform. You offer an AI-powered weather assistant for Facebook Messenger. What is the fit with bots?
SS: Imagine a scenario where there is a major line of thunderstorms coming. That’s where you want advice and help, not just the weather. It’s where a bot experience meets the requirement of the individual for real assistance in the moment. It’s why we launched a Facebook bot, and we just did the same on Google. It all gets to your point that there are scenarios when the consumer needs to make a life-management decision, and a bot is a good fit.
Voice is similar, in this respect, which is why we consider it a future path for the delivery of content and – more importantly – interaction with the consumer. We have been active in that field for a while. In fact, we power the weather on the Amazon Alexa product and the Echo. This quickly taught us how to create a voice experience and meet the consumer expectation for an answer coming back within milliseconds.
PAS:What about the role of content in effective and relevant advertising? You have a partnership with Swirl, a mobile marketing platform provider, giving them access to your weather data sets to tailor and trigger in-door shopping experiences based on the user’s local weather conditions…
SS: Weather is a universal language. It’s the classic conversation starter, regardless of language or dialect. It has relevance in all our lives all around the globe. Of those 300 million monthly active users I mentioned, 65 percent come from outside the U.S. The reality is, as an organization, we have to be global-first, and this also applies to partnerships. On the handset side, our partners range from Samsung to Sony. We also work with Naver, the popular search engine in South Korea. Globally, we have a joint venture with the Chinese Meteorological Agency within China, as companies must be licensed by the Chinese government to distribute weather data.
In all these partnerships it comes down to the same principles and paving the way to deliver meaningful content and experiences regardless of the platform consumers prefer. Advertising is also about delivering experiences. Imagine a user who’s looking at a flu index, because we create flu forecasts influenced by weather conditions. It’s not inappropriate at that point to present a product that will help with the types of conditions the user is interested in at that moment and in that context. It’s all about the ability to wrap contextual advertising around something that we know a user will find interesting.
We’ve been talking about consumer-facing scenarios, but AccuWeather is also very much a B2B partner. We help companies, do everything from logistics planning and supply chain planning, to a product by product roll out. Weather heavily influences what consumers want and product usage, so we also help companies to make decisions around where to place those marketing and advertising dollars.
SS: That’s an interesting one. We have also partnered with Spotify, on a new site titled Climatune aimed at giving music fans around the world the perfect musical score for any weather. That’s a perfect example of how we are at the intersection of where weather meets and mixes with another data set – and it shows how companies can deliver experiences by taking our unique data set and combining that with another data set to offer a service that is unique and personalized. Frankly, we’ve been doing this type of big data look-up for years, long before brands and marketers got a hold of it and understood how weather influences consumer preferences and behavior. The Spotify example is interesting because it provides insights into mood and what people do musically.
PAS:We agree that weather content must be contextual and can be incredibly valuable to users. What is the best way to get it in front of consumers in a way they will appreciate, and not find annoying?
ISS: n our product team, we talk about push moments, as opposed to pull moments. Before everything was about the user pulling information. They opened an app, went onto a website, entered an environment to access content. As a content company, you tried to triage the three pieces of information about the user to decide what to present them. Today, it’s about creating push moments, where content and information is front and center – right in front of the user at the right time, and when they want to see it.
PAS: So, we’re right back at personalization?
SS: Yes, it’s personalization, and it also takes contextual awareness into account. Am I at the office? Am I at home? In each case, the content and information will differ. But what’s really key is how you craft that delivery. We all know what it’s like to have too much clutter – like 17 notifications on your smartphone and more coming in. The push I’m thinking of adds value by delivering what people expect in the way they need it right then and there. This why much of our product development going forward focuses on technologies to avoid clutter. Whether it’s a push technology or some of the new notification technologies on the market – or whether it’s a wearables device or a connected car – it’s about using the right platform to bring that content – that experience – to life for that user in that moment.
Peggy Anne Salz is the Content Marketing Strategist and Chief Analyst of Mobile Groove, a top 50 influential technology site providing custom research to the global mobile industry and consulting to tech startups. Full disclosure: She is a frequent contributor to Forbes on the topic of mobile marketing, engagement and apps. Her work also regularly appears in a range of publications from Venture Beat to Harvard Business Review. Peggy is a top 30 Mobile Marketing influencer and a nine-time author based in Europe. Follow her @peggyanne.
It seems quaint to remember when mobile-first was considered radically forward thinking. Now, given the Internet of Things, not only does “mobile” mean so much more than phones, the places content can (and will) go are boundless. Daunting? Yes. But also exciting.
When David Mitchell joined AccuWeather eight years ago, he had responsibility for all of the company’s digital platforms, which at the time meant anemphasis on mobile. Now, as the Vice President of Digital Media, Emerging Platforms, he’s heading up a team focused on the (new) future. , Mitchell and his team are exploring the myriad opportunities presented by the ability to connect current and historical weather data to all of the rich contextual data that is now being collected through wearables and the Internet of Things.
Mitchell describes it as early days in terms of what is possible. “We’re launching some 101 stuff that goes beyond simply providing the weather on another device” he says, pointing to the company’s work with partners such as Garmin, for which it developed an app that gives users air quality and allergy information. He describes AccuWeather’s first-generation wearable apps as “one size fits all, based on location.”
However he is very enthusiastic about what the next generation or two of applications will bring. His team is beginning to look at what is possible when AccuWeather’s data—which was recently enhanced by the acquisition of WeatherBank—is combined with the data collected by internet-connected devices themselves. He looks forward to seeing what his team can come up with when, for example AccuWeather.com’s Lifestyle Forecasts, which offer localized insights into things like flu, skiing, lawn and garden and snow days, can be combined with device data for use in other areas.
The second stage of development, he believes, will be the tailoring content by general categories such as gender and age, eventually leading to truly personalized content experiences if people opt-in to providing more specific information about themselves.. This might mean that your watch notifies you on days when you’re most likely to perform your personal best, according to your vital signs and recent eating habits. The goal, he says, would be for devices to be helpful and even save you time and money: “Right now, you can adjust your thermostat remotely with your phone, but wouldn’t it be great if it would auto-adjust based on your habits and preferences to save you money—and be the perfect temperature when you walk in the door?”
Of course there are potentially lucrative advertising opportunities that come with an informed universe of connected devices. (Setting out for a new personal best today? Perhaps these shoes would help…) While Mitchell concedes that advertising will likely be a part of funding AccuWeather’s wearable future, he says that right now he’s not focused on it. “We need to build this ecosystem. If we worry too much about the business models, we aren’t going to focus enough on getting stuff right.”
In a recent panel at Mobile World Congress, Mitchell had an opportunity to give his opinion on what needs to happen for wearables and Internet of Things to build that mainstream momentum. “On top of the things the other panelists pointed to, such as a need for standards and a business model, the big thing I see that we need is trust between organizations. We are at the very beginning of this stuff, but the potential is phenomenal.” That potential, says Mitchell, is not just to earn money for organizations, but to “positively affect people’s lives.”