An Open Invitation to Customize Ads

I’ll be the first to say that last week’s column painted a fairly rosy picture of the current state of online advertising: advertisers work hard to deliver relevant messaging and consumers respond positively, appreciative as they are for the more meaningful ads. Any digital marketer will tell you, however, that many consumers don’t feel advertisers are doing them any favors. If you can believe it, they’d just as soon not get advertising that’s relevant at all.

If that sounds crazy, you may be forgetting how strongly many Internet users feel about their privacy, and how they’re increasingly aware that relevant advertising generally can’t be achieved without following their online behavior.

Late last year, researchers released the results of a study on consumers’ opinions about behavioral targeting. An overwhelming 66 percent of respondents said that they “do not want marketers to tailor advertisements to their interests.” That number climbs to between 73 and 86 percent when those surveyed are provided with further detail about how their data is collected for this purpose.

That said, new research based on data from 2009 further substantiates the effectiveness of behaviorally targeted ads. According to the Network Advertising Initiative (NAI), behaviorally targeted ads delivered through ad networks received a 6.8 percent conversion rate, compared with just 2.8 percent for run-of-network ads.

In a way, this contradicts what consumers themselves have indicated; they may say they don’t want relevant ads, but they’re certainly clicking on them when they appear. This superior level of effectiveness is what continues to incite media buyers to employ behavioral targeting technology, which is expected to represent a $2.6 billion market by 2014.

About a year ago, Google introduced its own version of behavioral targeting, which it dubbed interest-based advertising. In the interest of respecting consumers’ concerns about privacy, it included ways for them to opt out of the technology, along with something else: a “Google Ads Preferences” option that allows Internet users to customize their interests.

A visit to my own ads preferences page reveals that Google has associated me with such interest categories as Arts & Humanities, Computers & Electronics – Computer Security, Internet – Web Design & Development, and Social Networks & Online Communities. It gives me the option to remove myself from any or all of these, as well as manually add interests from other categories.

The conclusion reached by researchers responsible for the aforementioned study on Americans’ perceptions of behavioral targeting was that “Americans want openness with marketers.” They want transparency when it comes to how, where, when, and why their Internet data is being collected, and enough control to influence our use of it. With its ad preferences option, Google is providing just that.

It’s a trend that we’re sure to see more of in the years to come: empowering Internet users to make their own choices about data collection, and to customize the advertising they receive. The “Like/Unlike” option available on Facebook ads is another example of this, as it allows site users to optimize their advertising experience on their own terms. The ads are segmented by age, gender, location, and general interest preferences (as expressed on a user’s Facebook profile page) to begin with, but a higher degree of relevance can be achieved when the user takes the time to let Facebook and its advertisers know whether or not they’re on the right track by choosing to “Like” or “Unlike” an ad. Another way of doing this is by deleting select ads and reporting the impetus for this decision to the site, for example that the user found an ad to be misleading, offensive, irrelevant, and so on.

Surely many digital marketers would agree it would be prudent to invite consumers to take part in the advertising experience. Doing so stands to increase ad effectiveness and brand acceptance, and could significantly eliminate the negative perception of “relevant advertising” that seems to exist.

If the popularity of consumer-generated media has shown us anything, it’s that a good many Internet users are hand raisers, eager to take part in the online conversation. Can’t we assume they’re just as eager to exercise some control over the inevitable advertising that supports the content they so enjoy? At the very least, we have to give them the opportunity to do so. Their behavior may surprise us.

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