Trapped in the Flux of Behavioral Marketing

  |  December 8, 2010   |  Comments

Advertisers, publishers, and prospects are pitched in the flux generated by the two poles of the do-not-track debate.

While politics is typically a painful exercise in unbridled compromise, the laws and regulations that flow from these compromises can be quite polarizing. Many are caught in the field that radiates from and surrounds the space between the ends of a polarized issue.

Following the recent regulatory announcements that include possible implementation of a do-not-track list, brands are once again buffeted in the flux that surrounds this polarizing issue.

At one pole are the brands that have expanded their online businesses through implementation of technologies that Buck Rogers would marvel at. They have embraced the dance of data and creative that delivers relevant messages to hungry Web surfers, putting money in these advertisers' pockets.

At the other pole are those standing steadfast, buttressed by propriety and regulation; who – for reasons both good and bad – stand guard over the use of targeting techniques, many of which have been in use since the early 1900s.


Advertisers, publishers, and prospects are pitched in the flux generated by these poles, like iron shavings arranged in arcs by a magnet.

In almost every industry, you will find businesses at each pole. Financial services, while highly regulated – if lightly policed – must adhere to the compliance standards of governing bodies and internal guardians. Yet, many of these companies are in earnest pursuit of behaviorally targeted eyeballs made wide by their persuasive messages.

This is not an industry-specific issue. Let's take an example from the health insurance industry and look at the potential cost of extremism on the issue of ad targeting technology.

'Tis the Season

It is a magical time of year, a time in which traditions laid aside since last year are renewed.

Yes, it's Medicare enrollment time.

The Medicare enrollment period is a 45-day window between November 15 and December 31 during which those who qualify for Medicare reaffirm their desire to be covered under the myriad programs available.

This is a time in which millions of qualified citizens must make some important decisions and complete some paperwork to continue receiving their benefits. Failure to do so may result in a loss of coverage and the loss of life-giving medical care.

At one pole are the elderly and the disabled who will want to know about this enrollment process. The insurance providers that deliver services to them through Medicare and Medicaid want them to know as well, as this is the source of their income.

At the other pole are the regulators, the compliance people and those so invested in the current way of doing things that they fear any change.

Health insurance companies, who provide insurance to the disabled, elderly, and children of low-income families are funded in part by Medicare and Medicaid. Thus, they must follow some rules to qualify for state and federal dollars.

While I am not intimate with these rules, I'll hum a few bars for you. You may recognize the tune.

Caught in the Flux

Health insurance providers may "market" to anyone they wish with informational content. They may provide information on diet, nutrition, exercise, preventive care, or any other topic as long as it doesn't smell of "advertising."

This is good marketing, and health insurers shouldn't be afraid to advertise this helpful information, even to the extent of targeting likely prospects. However, it is an exercise in branding, and as such loses the urgency required when a 45-day window is closing for millions.

Adding immediacy to the message will involve a solicitation. Solicitations by these providers must be submitted for review by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), a process that takes about 45 days.

This doesn't appear to be an onerous hurdle. The elderly and economically challenged are frequent targets of bad actors: the purveyors of Ponzi schemes, phishing expeditions, and cons.

But, the subsequent back and forth and the general dulling of the persuasive content that are inherent in the approval process make marketers in this space reluctant to step up. It is safer to play it safe and stick to the informational messages.

This results in communications stripped of their urgency and immediacy. The capitalistic self-interest that should drive health insurance companies to overcome these regulatory limitations isn't enough.

Marketers and those who need their messages float in the space between the poles, rolled along by subtle changes at either end. No one is served by this. Compromise happens in the middle where there are no poles to generate a galvanizing field.

Dangerous Technology or Valuable Service?

I am not suggesting that regulators lose the reigns completely. Neither am I giving tacit approval to privacy-piercing ad technologies. If anything, I believe there should be recognition that advertising is a valuable service provided to members of a free society.

Some important values arise from this.

That advertisers and marketers realize the responsibility of their high calling and treat their work with some semblance of capitalistic reverence.

That regulators see their role as that of shaping the most effective message delivery system, not just the safest.

Like terrorists, bad actors in advertising will always be able to justify their actions. We must retain our freedom to communicate, not abdicate it in the face of appalling behavior. In the case of Medicare, some must fall victim so that thousands of others will have access to affordable health care for another year.

Thanks to Steve Smith for pointers to resources for this column.

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Brian Massey

With 15 years of online marketing experience, Brian has designed the digital strategy and marketing infrastructure for a number of businesses, including his own technology consulting company, Conversion Sciences. He built his company to transform the Internet from a giant digital-brochure stand to a place where people find the answers they seek. His clients use online strategies to engage their visitors and grow their businesses. Brian has created a series of Web strategy workshops and authors the Conversion Scientist blog. Brian works from Austin, Texas, a place where life and the Internet are hopelessly intertwined.

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