Trust in Behavioral Targeting

  |  October 22, 2008   |  Comments

Five steps the behavioral targeting industry must take to build consumer trust.

New Media Age recently hosted a webinar on behavioral targeting in 2009 and beyond. The importance of establishing trust between advertisers/publishers and their perspective audiences is an issue that came up frequently.

The public's disapproval of behavioral targeting practices appears to be twofold: people don't fully understand the role of advertisements in the online medium and there's a lack of transparency between companies and services employing behavioral targeting technology. For instance, a Federal Trade Commission report found that "questions regarding the types of consumer data collected for use in behavioral advertising, how such data are used, and what protections are provided for that data remain."

After listening to the webinar, I was left with a question in mind: what can the behavioral targeting industry do to better establish trust? In order to better understand the lack of consumer trust, I explored some fundamental ways of interpreting trust and its implications for behavioral targeting.

The Psychology of Trust

"Trust is a psychological state comprising the intention to accept vulnerability based upon positive expectations of the intentions or behavior of another," according to an essay in the "Academy of Management Review" by Roy J. Lewicki and Edward C. Tomlinson.

There are three key dimensions of trustworthy behavior: ability, integrity, and benevolence.

Ability is defined as an assessment of another's knowledge, skill, or competency. For an individual to trust, she must sense that the other party can perform in a manner that meets her expectations.

Integrity is the degree to which the party adheres to previously agreed upon principles. Therefore, trust can occur based on factors such as consistency of past actions, credibility of communication, and a commitment to standards of fairness.

Benevolence refers to the sense that the party has one's best interest at heart. For trust to exist, there must be honest and open communication about the intentions and motives of the party under assessment, according to the essay by Lewicki and �¢ï¿½�¨Tomlinson on trust building.

Behavioral Targeting's To-Do List

With the three dimensions of trustworthy behavior in mind, here's a list of to-do's for the behavioral targeting industry for establishing trust with consumers:

  • Demonstrate behavioral targeting's ability to improve user experience. Consumers must see the benefits of behavioral marketing techniques in order to accept and believe. Companies need to prove that targeted advertising results in engagement and customization for consumers' online experience.

  • Establish consistency and predictability with consumers. Every effort should be made to ensure that regulations regarding privacy are carried out and congruent with consumer expectations. It's about reinforcing that "we do what we say we'll do."

  • Communicate openly and accurately. In other words, be completely transparent about intentions and motives for targeting. It also means making sure consumers will know, step-by-step, how to opt-out of a behavioral targeting program.

  • Show concern for consumers. Companies employing behavioral targeting can increase trust by demonstrating that they respect and protect their consumers and are sensitive to their needs, desires, and interests. For example, truly listen to consumer feedback on behavioral targeting programs and then address questions or concerns. After all, trust is often violated when party A perceives that party B is acting in self-interest. Subsequently, attention will be diverted to party A's own interest and self-protection, rather than on conflict resolution. With the current situation, trust violation can be avoided by communicating to consumers: "We have your best interest at heart."

  • Employ help from the media. Let's hear more positive press for behavioral targeting! Not only will positive press help establish trust and encourage consumers to be more accepting of targeting practices, it will simultaneously encourage behavioral targeting companies to abide by regulatory standards, thereby avoiding violations of trust. The media can also act as a third party that facilitates greater openness and transparency between parties. For example, companies employing behavioral targeting can use the media to provide evidence of their compliance to regulations. Lastly, the media can help dispel inaccurate and negative stereotypes that can hinder trust-building efforts. Right now, negative press is taking away from behavioral targeting's development and popularity.

The Road Ahead

The Internet has come a long way on privacy and security issues, starting from e-commerce practices and conducting monetary transactions online. However, use of personal information for advertising purposes still raises great alarm. The behavioral targeting industry must establish greater trust with consumers. As the Tomlinson-Lewicki essay points out, trust lies at the core of all meaningful relationships and is integral to social influence (e.g., it is easier to influence/persuade someone who is trusting).

Without trust, there can be no giving, bonding, or risk-taking. Since most decisions are based on some form of cost/benefit analysis, the industry needs to show the benefits of behavioral targeting as well as behaving in an honest, competent and benevolent manner.


Vicky Chen

Vicky Chen is a strategist at Sid Lee. Based in Amsterdam, she works with global clients such as Heineken, Red Bull, Swarovski, and Adidas to create and communicate desired brand experiences.

Vicky was previously a strategist at Naked New York, and started her career as a psychologist, focusing on socio-cultural dynamics and its influence on people's realities and behaviors.

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