Better Ads, Happier Consumers

A few weeks ago, BURST! Media released the results of a study on consumer perceptions of behavioral targeting technology. Not surprisingly, a good number of Internet users (56.9 percent, to be exact) did not approve of companies collecting non-personably identifiable data on their online behavior, even if it meant they’d receive advertising more relevant to their interests.

Then just last week, ChoiceStream made public a personalization survey that demonstrated a very different consumer viewpoint. This study reveals consumers (63 percent of 18-34 year olds and 49 percent of consumers aged 35 or older) are willing to volunteer such non-personally identifiable information as age and gender in exchange for more personalized Web content. Over half of the survey respondents said they’d be willing to spend two minutes providing such data, while 21 percent were willing to spend up to six.

Given today’s cluttered Internet landscape and the busy lives consumers lead, it makes sense Internet users would want to sidestep irrelevant content to get to information that’s specific to their interests and needs. How is it they don’t feel the same way when it comes to online ads?

Few consumers would dispute that advertising is a fact of daily life, online and off-. It’s incorporated into virtually every aspect of our world and is nearly impossible to escape. In addition to being plastered, pasted, inserted, and affixed to vehicles, bathroom stalls, email messages, and product packaging, it’s often integrated into media content itself, made to appear unbiased through product-placement initiatives and advertorials. In many cases, the advertising has become the content, customized for consumers and designed to tap into their interests, just as “real” content is.

Why is it Internet users are willing to give up their personal information for personalized content but won’t do the same to receive relevant advertising? Aren’t consumers aware that targeted advertising benefits them, too?

A few weeks ago, I exchanged email about behavioral targeting with TACODA Systems’ president (and ClickZ colleague) Dave Morgan. While ruminating on the advantages targeted advertising imparts to consumers, Dave came up with an interesting analogy. “Much like consumers have come to really value ads and coupons that they receive in their newspapers and magazines, so much that people only buy those products for the ads,” he said, “they will find the same value in better targeted ads online.”

It’s an important point. In many forms of offline media, such as newspapers and magazines, consumers are resolved to the fact they’ll be exposed to advertising. In many cases they actually appreciate, and even look forward, to viewing the ads (think classifieds, Super Bowl broadcasts, and fashion magazines), knowing they’re likely to be relevant to their interests and relate to the content at hand.

So why wouldn’t Internet users jump at the opportunity to see ads for products and services known to be of interest to their precise user group or demographic when they’re online? Ads created specifically to inform and entertain them, ads they’re very likely to find agreeable, if not flat-out enjoyable? Ads that can notify them of a new and much anticipated product, save hours of research time, or inform them of a money-saving offer they’d likely never otherwise have known about?

For consumers, behavioral targeting, contextual advertising, and techniques for delivering targeted advertising are really a blessing in disguise. Granted, they still result in advertising, which everyone tires of from time to time, but the ads they result in are both much more appealing and much less annoying than messages delivered at random. This vastly improves the consumer Web surfing experience and, at the risk of sounding melodramatic, can even improve our daily lives.

Face it, online advertising is here to stay. But with a little give and take between advertisers and consumers, it doesn’t have to disrupt your day without providing something in return. By sharing just a little more about ourselves, Internet users can ensure we receive advertising that’s relevant, interesting, maybe even useful.

Here’s hoping consumers will come to realize the value targeted ads hold for them, just as they already recognize the value of the online content those ads help support.

What are your thoughts on targeted advertising from a consumer’s point of view? E-mail me with your comments.

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