Can my digital-self be as private as my physical-self?

“When you are not paying for a product, you are the product.” So what does it mean that Gmail, Google Trends, Google Docs, GPS and all these great Google services come to us for free? Or that Apple gives us free iCloud storage?

Google and Apple are obviously not the only two companies gathering our data and deriving a profit from them. This has become common practise. Actually worse: we consumers have been trained to accept it. So when a company like DataCoup offers to “sell [my] data for $8″ [1,2], I suddenly get relieved that finally someone is turning the odds in our — the customers — favor a little bit. Or at least trying: the value proposition is not perfect yet, given its high emotional weight: to receive the $8, I have to give DataCoup all my data, from credit card transactions, to Facebook and Twitter activities, Fitbit, Google+, etc. This almost feels like selling my soul to them. Under this perspective, the value of $8 a month sounds low. In addition, it may not be worth to take the $8 now and expose myself to price surge from retailers who would have learned about my most desired and frequently purchased items. It seems that for the consumer to accept giving up his or her data, the value proposition has to be better than targeted marketing and data should not be viewed as a currency but as an asset.

So how much are my data worth? It turns out that the range would be between $50 and $5,000 to Google, and between about $50 and $200 to Facebook, according to Privafix [3]. This figure drops down dramatically though with less diverse data, however, and can drop to as low as 40 cents according to [4].  That is because I am not a millionaire (first question in the survey), or don’t own a yacht (yes, that’s a question too). This leaves me wondering how would I feel if a company had a 50/50 split and gave me 20 cents: satisfied? angry?

Still, the issue raised here is real and actively debated by Prof. Pentland at MIT: can my digital-self be as private as my physical-self?  With the advent of Big Data, some argue that this has become a mathematical impossibility.  For example, it was recently shown that with as little as four credit card transactions, a data mining algorithm can identify me at 90% probability, all this without needing my credit card number [5]. What gives my identify away are the meta-data around my transactions: not what I bought but instead the time of purchase, place, and price of each transaction. In other words: we might be living the end of anonymization. It is a new problem which has emerged faster than companies and legal regulations have caught up with.





[4] Price of my data:

[5] Montjoye et al, “Unique in the shopping mall: on the reidentifiability of credit card metadata”, Science, vol. 347, Issue 6221, 2015.

By: Tomasz M. Grzegorczyk

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Last week, Axel Springer, a 3 billion Euro German media conglomerate that owns 97% of Business Insider along with other businesses, announced one of the most aggressive strategies against adblockers to date. Axel Springer banned users who use adblockers from the website of Bild, its most famous tabloid. Users who wish to browse content on Bild will be asked to pay 2.99 Euro or to turn off their adblocker. In a statement issued last week, Bild stated that “whoever does not switch off the adblocker or does not pay cannot see any content on Bild, as of now”. This follows a decision by a German court against Axel Springer in a case against Eyeo, a software company specialized in adblock software, in which Axel Springer accused Eyeo of breaching laws on competition, copyright and market dominance. Two similar cases were ruled against publishers ProSiebenSat and RTL Group in May, leaving little room for more judicial action against adblockers (at least in Germany).

Axel Springer’s fight against adblockers won’t be the last between publishers and adblockers as the latter continue to grow. A report by PageFair and Adobe estimates that adblockers grew by 41% in 2014 (the figure for the US is closer to 50%). In Q2 2015 there were 45 million adblockers monthly users in the US and 77 million in Europe. Most importantly, publishers are estimated to have lost over $5B in the US, a number that is expected to grow 100% year on year for the next 2 years. Globally, that figure is expected to reach over $40 billion by 2016. Comparing this figure with the estimated size of the market by 2016 – around $150 billion – we understand the size of the problem for the online advertising industry.

At the same time that publishers try to fight adblockers, Apple seems to embrace them. Last summer, Apple announced iOS 9 would provide developers with user-friendly tools to create adblock software. Even Google’s attitude towards adblockers changed: in 2013, it kicked out Eyeo and other adblockers from its Play store; in 2015, it was easy to find them (potentially after realizing that in several occasions “search ads do not get blocked because they are really useful” in the words of Larry Page). Given the emergence of adblockers and the support from large companies, some predicted the “end of the free internet”.

The ecosystem is being shaken. On the one hand, content/media publishers and media buying agencies are furious with adblockers and seem to be willing to do everything possible to weaken them. On the other hand, platforms like Apple and Google appear to support (or at least not get in way of) their emergence, partly to weaken their ad-dependent competitors, and party to improve its users online experience. It’s still not entirely clear who all of the winners and losers of this world are. However, one thing is very clear – the consumer is winning, and not because he can now block ads more easily.

How come? Let’s go step by step.

1.     Online advertising matters and will continue to matter. Publishers have no other clear way to monetize their content. Several models have been tested to varied success (e.g., freemium content, paywalls). However, online advertising is and will be the king of monetization in this space for a while.

2.    Online advertising is and will be a little regulated world. Advertisers and publishers are pretty much free to advertise or host whatever kind of advertising they want – the ideal ground for consumer abuse. However, regulating the Internet is difficult and requires a huge amount of resources, not to mention the presumable lobbying efforts of large, deep-pocketed online advertisers to prevent it from happening. In the absence of regulation, “self-regulation” emerges. Hence the success of adblockers.

3.    Desperate to monetize their websites/mobile apps and worried with threat of adblockers, publishers have no option but to dramatically increase the standards and frequency of their ads. This means no more irrelevant banners, annoying video pop-ups, irritating automatic downloads and other low quality ads; and more targeted and relevant solutions, sometimes based on blended advertising. In the short run, multiple websites with low profitability will struggle and might potentially shut down. These websites are most likely small and have little traffic (or they would probably be more profitable); their shutdown is probably not a big loss for the Internet world. 

Adblockers are tools to make the Internet more efficient, not more expensive. They won’t kill the free Internet, they’ll just make its dollars worth spending. And they will elevate the level of online advertising to the level of TV or newspaper advertising – not necessarily high, but definitely higher. So publishers, fear not. Just increase your standards.

By: Guilherme Cruz

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In the past couple of years, with the addition of the front facing camera on the iPhone, the selfie has not only become socially acceptable, but also incredibly popular. Instagram magnified selfie popularity with the filter. Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, and other social network feeds are now littered with posts of “shameless promotion”.

According to the Guardian, “showing-off has never been easier and, ironically, more celebrated.” People have embraced this activity so much that there’s even a song about it. As I’ve been reading more and more about social sharing and how incredibly popular the selfie has become, I can’t help but wonder – is there an opportunity here?

Interestingly enough, recently, a Y-Combinator company called Weilos pivoted their model to be a selfie sharing community. Initially Weilos was a weight loss app that connected users with fitness coaches. As they learned more from their users, they noticed that users enjoyed posting before and after selfies. Weilos is now a social network that specifically focuses on sharing weight loss selfies and users delight in generating feedback from the community.

This made me think: If Instagram or Facebook are the main repository for selfies, could the selfie phenomenon splinter into niche segments like the online dating industry has? If we can create sub-networks, then maybe each of these networks are more likely to monetize because the focus is clearer.

A selfie community focused on beauty could be a good bet: high margin beauty products coupled with product placement in the form of self promotion. In fact, Bloomingdale’s ran a selfie beauty contest that asked users to highlight their favorite beauty items. I envision a space where users can upload pictures of themselves trying on different types of makeup and tagging the photos with the colors. This way other community members can search for cosmetics and see how they look on different skin tones and body types. The next logical step would be to buy the item or receive coupons from different retailers for where to buy the item.

With companies like Ditto Labs who offer services to scan selfies for products, it’s not so hard to envision a time where we start to monetize our faces.

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We live in a very interconnected world, such that we are simultaneous on several social networks and can reach each other through multiple channels. We connect with our friends on Facebook, our colleagues on LinkedIn, follow celebrities on Twitter, and contact our family and close friends via text messages and phone calls. Facebook and LinkedIn were originally created as a virtual rolodex of our key contacts. Overtime, because we have so many “friends” and “connections,” it became harder and harder to keep track of events in our friends’ and colleagues’ lives, especially those we see only occasionally.

As business students and future business leaders, we often have face-to-face meetings to catch up on our lives, to network, or jumpstart an important business relationship. Unless we prepared in advance, we usually spend the first 10 minutes in small talks, catching up on recent events and changes, or get to know each other better. Even though such information is readily available from our social networks, we don’t actively seek them out before meetings. A new mobile app aims to make us smarter conversationalists, more charismatic business partners and better friends by leveraging our existing social networks, as well as public information. is a mobile app that aggregates useful information from our various social networks, such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Foursquare, and prepares a personalized dossier with conversation topics before each of our meetings marked in our calendars. This works for existing connections as well as people we are meeting for the first time, given there are public information available either in news or his or her public LinkedIn profile. There are definitely apps that act like social network aggregators, but the brilliance of Refresh is its execution and implementation.

Besides pooling all the relevant professional and personal information in one place, Refresh’s key value proposition is its ability to find commonalities to generate useful, insightful and interesting conversation topics. For example, for each person in the meeting, Refresh compiles a quick summary showing whether we have mutual friends, similar interests, or have overlapped either in cities we live(d) in, schools we attended, or places we visited. It also showcases unique interests or any public news the person has, such as authoring a book, being featured in TechCrunch etc. The app also keeps track of any previous meetings and interactions, again pulling data from our calendars, and prompts the user to enter insights, notes and follow-up items after each meeting. See illustrations below. Refresh’s interface is straightforward, simplistically beautiful, and easy to adopt.

Refreshs creenshots

Refresh launched this April, gained much publicity during the launch, ranked high in the Apple’s App Store, and then seemed to have trouble with growing its user base. Like most mobile apps, Refresh’s initial mobilization strategy is to offer this app to consumers for free. There is no network effect, and the app offers much standalone value by pulling data from our existing social networks. To gain traction, Refresh relied on words-of-mouth marketing and endorsement by online key opinion leaders. Apple featured Refresh as one of its “Best New App” in Productivity, Business and Social Networking! News articles and bloggers’ reviews online are also overwhelming positive. Refresh has been featured in reputable publications such as Forbes, Venture Beat, Wired and TechCrunch, has 4.5+ stars in the App Store, and deemed “one of the most useful apps” by several internet authorities, including the Business Insider. Refresh reached peak rank of #16 in the App Store right after its initial launch in April, but has since then dwindled and plateaued around #300 only six months after its launch. Although there is no public data on Refresh’s active user base, since Apple ranks its apps based on download volume and speed, we can conjecture that Refresh has not garnered a significant user volume, despite its free offerings and many endorsements. If anything, it seems that its user growth has significantly slowed and its user base seems to have plateaued or even decreased over time. Refresh is a great example that simply having a free and high-quality product with a clear and strong customer value proposition is not enough to generate significant user growth.

In the context of slowed user growth, Refresh’s recent pivot to partner with Salesforce makes a lot of sense. Just a couple weeks ago, Refresh announced a new product specifically designed for sales professionals using Saleforce’s AppExchange. Immediately, Refresh multiplied its user base by plugging this new product into Salesforce AppExchange dashboard, thus effectively acquiring Salesforce’s immense user base. More importantly, this partnership established Refresh’s first monetization strategy: Salesforce customers will pay $20 per user per month to access its data. While many consumers like you and me will not pay $20 for a personalized meeting dossier, the value provided to sales and marketing professionals easily justifies this cost for good relationship and conversation can lead to significant revenues. At the same time, Refresh’s mobile app is still available to casual users for free.

The questions facing Refresh now are two fold: should they pivot and focus on a B2B business model, selling to sales and marketing professionals, or should they pursue a dual B2B and B2C business? If they keep their consumer segment, what’s the best way to scale its user base? Should they start advertising, introduce new features with network effects to lock-in users and accelerate growth, or stay with its current organic, word-of-mouth growth strategy with a standalone product? On the B2B side, is $20 per user per month the right price? Would that hinder Refresh’s much needed growth? What other partnerships should Refresh seek beyond Salesforce? Having an excellent product is not enough to become a sustainable business.


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LINE may not be well-known in the US, but it has been exploding in Asia, Middle East and Europe since its launch in 2011. LINE is a messenger app with 300 million users worldwide and its growth is accelerating. The last 100 million users were added in mere 4 months. Some argue that LINE may replace Facebook or Twitter as the most popular social platform. LINE is expected to go public next year with an estimated valuation of over $10bn.

What is LINE?

LINE is somewhat similar to other messaging applications, including WhatsApp, KakaoTalk, or Facebook messenger. LINE allows users to send text, share photos/videos, and make phone calls/video calls to another LINE account(s) for absolutely free.

What’s different is that LINE also has a huge library of “stamps” – a small picture of a character that describes emotion, thoughts, actions, and objects. Stamps act as a way to mimic real human interaction by communicating very subtle points. Some of these stamps are sold for a price (usually $1 for a set of 30 stamps) and LINE shares revenue with its media partners. This has been the major source of revenue ($132M for 2013 Q2) since its launch.

Another difference is that LINE is quickly moving towards platform strategy. The initial version of LINE was only able to handle messaging, but now that LINE is installed in virtually everybody’s smartphone, LINE started to expand its offerings. LINE Mall offers online shopping, LINE Game is consistently topping ITunes rankings, LINE Camera competes against Instagram, and LINE Card is a dominant e-card service in Japan. All these services that be accessed thru LINE application and more and more people are using them.

Birth of LINE and its mobilization strategy

The birth of LINE is somewhat interesting. NAVER Japan, a subsidiary of Korean internet company, was in the midst of developing a photo sharing application when a big earthquake hit Japan in March 11th, 2011. As mobile network was disrupted, people formed lines in front of public phone booth (public phone act as emergency line in Japan and never gets interrupted).  Realizing there is a strong need for efficient and easy communication; the development team switched their focus and started developing messaging application. LINE was launched 3 months after the earthquake.

LINE faced a classic chicken-and-egg problem and tackled to solve the problem in two ways; technical and marketing. LINE has an auto-sync function that allows user’s existing phone book to automatically sync to LINE contact list. Even if I was the only one using LINE, I could still text my friends using LINE (my text would appear as a regular text on their screen). As I don’t have to bother importing phone book to my LINE account, once I started using LINE I had no reason to switch back. Because LINE texting was absolutely free, people quickly switched.

On the marketing front, LINE initially focused on high school girls because they are the ones who often start new trends in Japan. LINE created cute “stamps” that high school girls would love and solicit user feedback very frequently. Once high school girls adopted LINE, it spread to college girls, junior high school girls, boys, 20s, and the rest of the population.  LINE dominated Japanese market in less than a year.

 LINE’s future and competition

 LINE deliberately focused on expansion of its user base and not on monetization strategy. LINE is believed to be already making profit with its stamp and game sales, but the real monetization is expected to come after its IPO. LINE may start selling advertising space like Facebook or open its platform and charge a fee to whoever wants to access its user base.

LINE’s biggest competitors are WeChat (over 1 billion users, mostly in China) and WhatsApp (mostly in the US and Europe). As there is a strong network effect, messaging app is likely to follow the same path of SNS and one or two players will take the dominant positions. Demographic and social trends are in favor of LINE because LINE has a dominant share in Asian markets, where smartphone penetration is expected to skyrocket in the next few years. Whoever comes out as winner will enjoy the similar power as Facebook today.


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