Tech viewpoint on utility
A view from Sarah Turner

Tech viewpoint on utility

A few months ago, Mr T and I were at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire to catch a household favourite, Angie Stone. We’re both too old to buy the music papers any more, so how did we find out about the gig? One word: Songkick – a fabulous service (and British business) that makes gig recommendations based on your digital listening. We’ve been tracking our listening for more than a decade now using (also British) – and because Songkick is part-based on’s APIs, it knows a lot about what we like. And, thanks to the accuracy of its recommendations, we’ve spent a small fortune on gig tickets over the past couple of years.

How do those recommendations get to us? By e-mail, of course. And a lot of them – maybe three or four a day. If that sounds like bombardment, think again. One word: utility. Send me an e-mail that’s useful and you can bombard me all you want.

Utility seems to be one of the two themes at the heart of all the issues facing the modern advertising industry. The other one is intrusion. Let’s talk about the latter for a moment.

For maybe 150 years now, the advertising model has essentially been: I have something I want to sell a lot of, so I pay someone to find a way of telling lots of people about my product by intruding into their activity in some way. And there has been a lot of intrusion: into our reading, into our listening, into our television viewing, while queuing at the Post Office. And now, inevitably, into our web use.

Even entertaining advertising loses its charm with enough repetition and reverts to being an intrusion

Of course, the intrusiveness has been ameliorated, mostly through entertainment. And so we’ve had tea-drinking monkeys and surfing horses and cigarette-pack pyramids and "tell Sid" and ninja-delivered chocolates and "hello boys"… well, you get the picture. But even the most entertaining advertising loses its charm with enough repetition (I give you the Volkswagen "Taxi Driver" cinema ad) and reverts to being an intrusion.

On the web, advertising-as-intrusion is spreading as content owners struggle to monetise their product in an environment lacking artificial scarcity. So our cursor hangs above the "skip ad" countdown on YouTube, pre-rolls like it used to over "skip intro" on Flash sites. Meanwhile, most users upgrade to get rid of the ads. To avoid the intrusion.

But it doesn’t have to be like that in the digital sphere because of – here’s where we came in – utility. Advertisers need to start thinking about smart ways to make use of all the information that is out there about us – whether we like it or not. Make advertising useful! The Songkick e-mail on the day of the Angie Stone gig gave us stage times for all the acts and transport information. Information that was previously difficult – if not impossible – to get hold of. Now that’s utility.

Sarah Turner is the director at Turner Hopkins and the founder of Angel Academe