Go, and Target No More?

As we head toward spring, the battle lines between privacy advocates and online marketers seem to be forming again. At the center of this dispute is behavioral targeting and how advertisers use various tools and methodologies to target consumers based on their expressed and observed behaviors.

This past week, the Center for Digital Democracy, a digital targeting watchdog group, took aim at the pharmaceutical industry by asking the FDA to investigate the digital marketing campaigns of drugs and health products. At the core of its concern is that potential consumers for these drugs are being targeted through online channels based on their behaviors and the sites and topics they research while online. More specifically, the group is concerned that drug companies (and others) are using behavioral targeting to spy on unaware consumers and track them based on their concerns and anxieties.

For the record, I support the efforts of watchdog groups everywhere. Without the efforts of passionate, hardworking people striving for fairness and social balance, many aspects of our day-to-day lives would be dark today. However, I also want to be cognizant of the balance between the perceived threat of technologies that help digital advertisers target consumers based on their expressed behaviors, and the damage that these technologies may cause if left unchecked.

In this case, it appears that the CDD is promoting an anti-marketing agenda. While I would support guidelines that protect online consumers from unfair or even dangerous marketing practices, we’re still a long way off from being able to define how behavioral and other targeting practices pose a threat to consumers. However, what seems to be of greatest concern to the CDD in this case, based on its March 1 press release, is that pharmaceutical marketers are using “micro-persuasion” in order to move consumers toward their brands.

I don’t want to sound like I’ve gulped all the marketing Kool-Aid here, but persuasion is what we do. We’re marketers. We present consumers with information that they can use to make informed buying decisions related to our brands. Is it a perfect system? Nope. Are there abuses of these systems by less scrupulous advertisers? Yep.

But the good and the bad aspects of advertising and marketing aren’t about the technology being used. It’s about the ethics and goals behind their use. Behavioral targeting is like any other tool; there are ways it can be used for good and for potential harm.

Targeting, which is by no means a new marketing tool, is about using declared and observed behaviors to help identify those consumers who are most likely to find an offer personally meaningful and relevant. If I’m able to identify that a consumer is male and I follow it up with an offer for something that only men would be in the market for, is this an invasive practice, or am I providing a service that can help male consumers better identify opportunities that meet their personal needs?

Demographic targeting, for example, uses many of the same principles of behavioral profiling in order to better sort an audience into smaller groups. Likewise, geo-targeting, technographic targeting, and day-parting media buys all rely on certain consumer behaviors in order to work.

In short, consumers are largely defined by their behaviors, not only in online environs but wherever they interact with the marketplace. We buy from stores that match our needs and expectations. We eat at restaurants that meet our personal decor and food preferences. For a marketer to have an understanding of how to use this knowledge to better serve us more of what we like seems like a benefit to both the advertiser and the consumer.

When we buy an audience segment from a behavioral targeting vendor, we’re hoping to reach a group of consumers for which our message resonates so we can do a better job of getting our messages in front of the right people. In its purest sense, this is just good and efficient business practice. To avoid targeting in favor of a one-size-fits-all reach and frequency based marketing campaign leads us away from these marketing efficiencies and is wasteful, inefficient, and unnecessary.

I applaud the Center for Digital Democracy for its efforts, but it should better identify its ultimate goal. The CDD’s site and press releases read like it’s on a witch hunt against behavioral targeting because it can be used to invade personal privacy. CDD opposes using any online observed behaviors to target consumers no matter how anonymous the targeting is. This won’t help consumers, and it certainly won’t prevent online targeting technology abuses.

What are your thoughts?

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