The Double Edge of Behavioral Targeting

In 1984, Michael Jackson sang the chorus, “I always feel like somebody’s watching me.” Checking your email or browsing the internet, you may feel the same. Rockwell may have been paranoid, but you’re likely not. In industry lingo, you’re being behaviorally targeted.

How it works:

  • Companies contract with a publisher for ad space on a site
  • The publisher puts a piece of code on his website
  • As you browse the web, the site puts a cookie on your browser
  • Now the targeting begins and data is collected
  • Over time, you’ll see ads resembling your browsing history

For example, search for Galaxy Foods International and browser their website. Click away and forget about it, then likely get a coupon ad while you’re listening on YouTube.

Or look up ASPCA after seeing a flyer at a local running store and you might see these ads in your email sidebar.

That these ads reach interested persons is positive. However, when they’re served repetitively to users who have already expressed an interest, it may be counterproductive to the advertiser and frustrating to the user. Advertising is meant to draw in new consumers. If you already have Galaxy’s dairy free cream cheese in your fridge, great, you can get a coupon, but what about a user who doesn’t know non-dairy cream cheese even exists?

Mashable’s Lauren Drell notes that, “Companies that specialize in targeting can nearly promise more ad engagement by targeting people who have indicated -– through their behavioral patterns on the web -– that they might be interested in the product at hand.”

The key word is nearly. Banner clicks do not automatically guarantee user follow through. You may click-thru to WWF’s donate form, but they won’t necessarily know whether you donated. Targeting systems are constantly evolving, though, and being able to track such information is likely forthcoming.

Creating a more individualized user experience is deemed one of the successes of behavioral targeting. However, consumer concerns over privacy is surely one of it’s weak points. In 2007, the Federal Trade Commission proposed five guidelines:

  • Every Web site where data is collected for behavioral advertising should provide a clear, consumer-friendly, and prominent statement that data is being collected to provide ads targeted to the consumer and give consumers the ability to choose whether or not to have their information collected for such purpose.
  • Any company that collects or stores consumer data for behavioral advertising should provide reasonable security for that data and should retain data only as long as is necessary to fulfill a legitimate business or law enforcement need.
  • Companies should obtain affirmative express consent from affected consumers before using data in a manner materially different from promises the company made when it collected the data.
  • Companies should only collect sensitive data for behavioral advertising if they obtain affirmative express consent from the consumer to receive such advertising.
  • FTC staff also seeks comment on what constitutes “sensitive data” and whether the use of sensitive data should be prohibited, rather than subject to consumer choice.

“But the fact that many websites continue to bury this opt-out disclaimer doesn’t encourage consumer trust in the process” (CBS NEWS, 2008)

Digital media is the future. Billboard advertisers can poison all the trees they want to give drivers a few more seconds of viewing time, but those billboards cannot follow drivers around the highway. Your kitty might be a goner if it ever peed on your laptop, but that full page newspaper ad for Macy’s one-day-sale can just as likely end up on the floor of your bird’s cage.

In response to the regulators, a standard icon has been created that is added to most online ads that utilize demographic and behavioral targeting to select viewers, see at right in the ads above. (New York Times, 2010)

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