Brands Adopting a Leadership Position on Do Not Track Technology

There’s an ad that’s been following me around the web. A week ago, while researching the hospitality industry, I visited a hotel website. Let me be clear – I’m not planning a trip, nor am I remotely interested in staying there – this was simply research for work. Nevertheless, as I visited other sites, an ad with the hotel’s teaser rate promotion kept popping up. And that’s a problem.

For all its targeted sophistication, online behavioral advertising (OBA) still can’t tell whether someone is actually interested in a brand. This inability to decipher intent increases frustration with a growing number of targeted online ads. Users’ dissatisfaction and privacy concerns drive the various “Do Not Track” (DNT) standards and technologies proposed by the federal government and several industry groups.

As the debate over a DNT standard rages on, brands must decide whether or not to observe DNT preferences in online and mobile experiences. Many sites only partially support the DNT options and opt-out preferences integrated into current browsers. Some ignore visitors’ DNT requests altogether.

But some highly influential brands are paving the way for transparency. These brands are helping users engage without the fear of being followed as they browse the web. Though it may seem counterintuitive, transparency creates opportunities for brands to increase value for advertisers, instead of decreasing it.

As people spend more of their lives online, they are becoming more annoyed with advertising, and more concerned with online privacy. But while they may dislike the tracking of their online activities, they are still unlikely to use the tools that prevent advertisers and sites from storing personal information and details about their online interactions. Most consumers don’t use DNT options that are already built in to their browsers and/or don’t understand opt-out links like the “AdChoices” icon. This lack of understanding presents an opportunity for brands to generate user trust by actively helping consumers to control access to their information.

Popular online destinations recognize the importance of privacy preferences in establishing such user trust. Twitter, which uses mostly native advertising, was one of the first major social media brands to acknowledge users’ DNT requests. Although it doesn’t feature standard IAB units, it does support tracking based on users’ browsing activity on sites with Twitter integration. Microsoft Internet Explorer 10 and Mozilla Firefox effectively block sponsored content and Promoted Tweets from the feeds of those who activate DNT features. Pinterest recently announced its support of DNT technology and provided helpful information about activating the feature on its corporate blog. Even Facebook, often criticized for its lack of transparency in privacy issues, has just announced its adoption of the AdChoices icon in OBA units featured in its ad exchange. Although this implementation isn’t as transparent as that of other ad units, it signals Facebook’s acknowledgment that privacy controls and ad filtering don’t have to be at odds with advertisers’ needs.

An industry standard for Do Not Track technology isn’t necessarily a draconian punishment for advertisers. More users opting in to DNT means reduced reach and ability to deliver multiple impressions for advertising networks, but it doesn’t mean that sites can’t collect users’ information. The information brands can collect (even when honoring users’ DNT requests) cannot be shared with other networks, but it can be used to display relevant ads across a brand’s own network of sites. The most important information for brands may be a user’s DNT status itself. People who have turned on or opted in to DNT protection potentially represent a more privacy-conscious, relevance-seeking segment of the online population.

The challenge to brands and advertisers is to create more personal, interest-based appeals and experiences based on stated preferences and privacy settings. Brands that add permission requests in smart, unobtrusive ways (similar to the examples proposed by researchers Jonathan Mayer and Arvind Narayanan) can create more value for consumers without alienating advertisers.

Brands need to respect consumers’ boundaries, and recognize that when it comes to creating a better user experience, less might actually be more. Consumers tend to trust companies when they know their personal information isn’t shared with advertisers (see Table 6 in PDF). Brands with online experiences that honor consumers’ DNT requests, promote a safe browsing environment, and take an active role in helping consumers manage their privacy options can build the trust that’s becoming more and more important online. Rather than ignoring DNT preferences, brands should be advocating consumer-friendly DNT standards to show how much they value consumers – not just their browsing history.

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