How the Cookie Stole Christmas

The day after my company’s holiday party, I received a special gift from a favorite publisher: 50 Nestlé Toll House Cookies in assorted flavors. The cookies were homemade and fresh, and even today, three weeks later, I can still smell the chocolate chips dripping from them as they hit my desk. Since it was the day after our party, attendance was rather low and I found myself alone, face to face with a third grader’s wildest dream. Unfortunately, I’m not in the third grade any more and I pay a steeper price for overindulgence than I once did; but the harm done by these cookies was minimal compared to the damage I discovered later that day by the cookies living in my computer.

As a digital media professional, most of what I do relies on the use of HTTP cookies. As a consumer, I also rely on cookies to track my logins and carts. I even welcome them in advertising if they can save me some time and money by offering a relevant offer. However, during the holiday season, I’ve experienced some of the negative consequences of cookies.

Unable to tolerate any stores during the holiday season, I vowed to do all my Christmas shopping online. I thoroughly enjoyed stocking up on my nieces’ Hannah Montana and American Girl dolls without actually have to step foot in Toy “R” Us. This experience alone made me grateful for not being born earlier in the 20th century. Once the packages arrived, I hid them in a secure place where I knew my visiting nieces wouldn’t dare look(my husband’s laundry basket). I was all set, except that two weeks before Christmas my nieces — who had spent some time on our computer one Saturday afternoon — asked me when they could have their singing Miley Cyrus and Julie Albright American Girl dolls. Soon after, my husband started mentioning books and CDs I had purchased for him on Amazon and alluding to the red jacket I had bought him. Was there a Grinch spoiling my Christmas? Apparently so. And it lived in my computer.

I love e-commerce, but in the spirit of selling items and providing recommendations, online stores can also be a huge surprise spoiler. My nieces didn’t comb through dirty laundry to find their presents; instead, they went online to check their e-mail and favorite sites and saw my recent purchases lingering in site recommendation features. My husband’s intentions were even more benign. He went online to buy me a gift and saw all my previously purchased items. He must have figured out that the men’s extra-large jacket wasn’t for me, despite how many cookies I’d eaten recently.

As professionals, we also recently witnessed the backlash on Facebook’s Beacon technology, which shares information about consumers’ activity on third-party partner sites and posts it in their friends’ News Feeds. Consequently, people who purchased products on Overstock or trips on Travelocity had those purchases appear in their News Feed for their connected friends and family to see. Definitely not the way you want someone to find out about an upcoming gift.

Gift giving, a very emotional endeavor, can be spoiled by negative experiences off- or online. Imagine walking into your favorite department store with your girlfriend and the clerk greets you with, “Mr. Smith, would you like diamond earrings to match the diamond ring you purchased last week?”

Marketers can take measures to safeguard their reputation and their customers. For example, they can provide customers with reminders, even incorporating humor into the reminders, to log out if they share a share a computer with others.

For situations like Facebook’s Beacon, sending consumers an e-mail notifying them of updates or policies and providing an easy opt-out process will benefit the publisher in the long run.

The holiday season offers a great opportunity for behavioral targeting, but it can also serve as a surprise buster if handled improperly. Therefore, recency — targeting prospects within one continuous user session instead of in subsequent days — is critical for behavioral targeting. There’s an increased reliance that you’re targeting the same person during a half-hour or hour session than in separate visits. And from a messaging standpoint, the message shouldn’t be too personal, like “Mr. Smith, there appears to be three items in your cart. Would you like to checkout?” Instead, focus on time-sensitive offers and benefits. Recency also makes sense because prospects are in market for a short time.

As they say, “Another year older and another year wiser.” Hopefully we’ve learned lessons in 2007. Now if I can only get those cookies out of my head (and off my hips).

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