Fast Company

Taking Back the Internet: Creating a Passive-Aggressive Income Stream

A Kick in the Career: If you're passing on branded messages to your contacts, don't you think you should be compensated? In this week's installment, humorist and career expert Tom Stern uncovers pre-populated signatures in e-mail and smartphone messages as supplemental income.

Psst. Hey, you. That's right, the one who's staring at your computer screen. Come over here. No, no, over here. I need a place where we can talk privately, because what I am about to tell you is so explosive, so potentially incendiary to the entire world order that I fear for my own life. It's quite possible that any day now I could be walking down the street and accosted by two artsy-looking, t-shirt wearing henchmen. These tousled slackers with wireless mouse-shaped tasers will momentarily paralyze me, throw a hood (imprinted with the Apple logo) over my head and roll me into the trunk of what will probably be a Prius, I will be told to "relax, enjoy the ride and think different." Then, I'll wake up in a pristinely bright and shiny white room strapped to a Herman Miller Aeron Chair sitting across from Steve Jobs, who'll pace back-and-forth menacingly screaming, "you thought you could get away with it, didn't you Stern?" as he commands his trendy assistant to fill a washtub with Perrier and lime slices -- so that I can be water-boarded in style (I believe the proper term is i-Interrogated). As I recount my potential fate, I do not have the temerity to speculate what torturous punishment awaits you for just reading this. But I would strongly suggest that from now on you keep a snorkel and a three-piece wetsuit in your briefcase at all times.

My whole nerve-jangling corporate kidnapping fantasy scenario began with two separate, seemingly unrelated incidents. Firstly, I received yet another e-mail from a colleague with a tagline at the bottom reading "sent from my iPhone." (It's not like I don't get these all the time from people who own BlackBerries, but somehow this was the product placement post-script that broke the consumer camel's back.) Secondly, I've been visited with a flurry of reply e-mails joking about the unlikely links to advertisers that my service provider thoughtfully, and without my consent, adds to the bottom of my outgoing messages. ("Hey, Tom, thanks for the info, but I don't need a fast-acting, imported German chocolate laxative sachertorte right now." "Appreciate the sentiment, Tom, but I'm really not looking for a pre-owned prosthetic limb, even if it does have a built-in Bose Wave radio with six-CD changer.")

We would never tolerate such promotional brashness in our everyday lives. Imagine the closing moments of a successful first date. Goodbyes are said, there is a touching acknowledgement of the fact that both parties have had a wonderful evening, and as you move in for the kiss, out comes a brochure for a low-cost, easy-to-install in-home septic system. Yet, in business, there is a tacit acceptance that we all have our own agenda, and that social intercourse is often only a preamble to the consummation of an even more important interface; the transaction. So on some level we must know that as companies romance us with volume discounts and wine and dine us with Web-exclusive pricing, they are hoping to take us home and data mine us into the night, then discreetly sneak out before breakfast.

This is how The Gap not only knows that I favor cotton blend shirts and pre-washed relaxed-fit jeans, but a piercingly spicy arrabiatta sauce followed by a flourless Tiramisu. Staples keeps track of my preference for recycled paper products, day-glo highlighters and my tendency at the end of each quarter to short-sell their stock. It's like that scene in "Minority Report," where Tom Cruise enters the mall and is bombarded with buying options based on his shopping profile. No longer that far-fetched, although in real life all Tom would really need is a collection of high-backed, sturdy velour couches that can double as trampolines or a pair of two thousand dollar Italian loafers with six inch heels.

What's being ignored throughout the marketing assault on our electronic communications is the opportunity for a second career: a passive income stream. And I'm not talking Tupperware, or becoming an affiliate in the booming koi farm business. This is a real career milestone, but it's going to take some serious chutzpah on our part to take back our power in the click-driven marketplace. Quite simply, we are being used. Every second of every day, we are carrying messages about a plethora of products to our thousands of cyberspace contacts, and nobody ever asked us if we would like a cut of the action. We, all of us, should be the tollbooth collectors on the information superhighway, except that right now every car is blowing through our gates while we sit there eating doughnuts and reading Dean Koontz.

We need to start demanding a percentage, a finders fee if you will, for every time one of our friends visits the Web site of an ad contained in our e-mail, or impulsively buys a BlackBerry or iPhone after finally succumbing to the subliminal pressure contained in the tagline of our outgoing messages. You see they've fooled us for a while now. They know that we are all brand-conscious people, and that informing someone about just what device provided the e-mail they are reading gives us a sense of identity: that we are forward-thinking enough to have the latest in cutting-edge technology. And it is with this strategy that they have taken advantage of our vanity. Letting everyone know what we use, they think, should be reward enough for us gadget-obsessed, egomaniacal workaholics. Meantime they are hoping we don't awaken to the income potential for our role as commodity mules in their marketing platforms.

So, folks, you heard it here first. Take back your power. Call the company that tags your e-mail with an advertisement and ask, no insist, they give you a referral bonus or you and everyone you know will boycott them! Keep track of your contacts and have them mention your name when they buy a new handheld device because they could no longer resist the flurry of suggestions they received from your signature lines. It's time to organize. Electronic ads are the Great White sharks of commerce, and for too long we have been the bloody chum thrown into the sea to be devoured, as our earnings potential is dashed against the paltry remains of our environmentally challenged coral reefs. People are getting rich on our backs, and the party's over. We need a new movement to unionize our up to now unwittingly non-participatory role in e-commerce, and force these cyberspace robber barons into an e-capitulation.

For the record, I'm willing to be your Jimmy Hoffa. But if I go missing, and you suspect that my dismembered body is now residing in a thousand different Hewlett-Packard circuit boards, please hold a midnight vigil for me. And know that my probable death will not have been in vain as long as the entire event is being Web-cast and sponsored by the entire Fortune 500. Oh, and you're all getting a fifty-percent revenue share.

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3 Comments

  • Dan Brantley

    This sparks another idea - Why should Nascar drivers and golf pros be the only ones with logos all over their clothes? Think what a coup it would be for the Men's Wearhouse to get a logo on Donald Trump's back. And Vicotoria's Secret would love to get a nice.. (tatoo probably) on pamela Anderson. Fraternity brothers would have Cuervo logos and ads for Trojans on their jackets and Old folks would sport Depends decals all over their walkers. - We are missing out on a lot of branding opportunities people! AdSense for Toddlers? Hmmmm I bet Huggies and Pampers would jump on that. The mind boggles.

  • Shawn Jenkins

    Great Article,
    Funny thing to mention that. There is a banner ad at the top of this page that has been offering a similar opportunity, for the past 30 years. A referral fee based on , well simply put, the amount of traffic you bring to their site. Yes a website inclusive of an amalgamation of brand names, and products, yes the ones that make us feel hip, happy, young and cool to use.