How to Lose Friends and Not Influence People

There are three reactions a media planner can count on when telling non-industry people what she does for a living.

The first is the blank stare or a nod with the flickering eyes as they attempt to decipher what you just said. “You make Web sites?”

The second reaction is the one where they unequivocally know exactly how you spend each second of your day. They may even claim to have been planners when they were just starting out: “You work for Condé Nast?”

Then, there’s the disapproving, disgusted reaction, which follows with, “I hate pop-ups.”

Recently, I wondered what these people think of behavioral targeting. Do they even know it exists? If they do, what preconceived notions do they have?

I decided to conduct my own mini focus group. Of course, there’s no statistical or even directional application for this, but it fed my curiosity. If you attempt a similar project, be forewarned: despite your best efforts, your friends may walk away convinced not only that what you do is weird but also that you use your “insider information” to spy on them.

My group consisted of six professional adults, none in advertising, with household incomes of $75,000 or more, aged 30 to 45. There was an equal gender split. Professions included a teacher, a principal, a surgeon, a sales coach, a real estate investor, and a stay-at-home mom (SAHM). All reside in the U.S.’s northeast and claimed to spend very little time online, on average about five hours per week (about the amount of time I spend online in a day).

They all claimed they’d heard of behavioral targeting, but based on their definitions only the principal and the sales coach really knew what it was. The rest weren’t far off but believed personally identifiable composites were being created on them. I think they even started to worry I had these composites and would start questioning them about their surfing habits.

The teacher and SAHM believed behavioral targeting is linked to their e-mail addresses and worried about receiving spam as a result of being targeted. It was hard to convince the teacher this isn’t the case. She kept alluding to a single e-mail she received from an education publishing company she didn’t recall opting in to. She said she visited the site once and has received unsolicited e-mail from it ever since. It doesn’t bother her, since she finds it relevant, but she worries about the same thing happening with information she doesn’t want.

I asked the group if they were worried about personal information being revealed to anyone with whom they shared a computer. Although this wasn’t something they’d considered, they expressed some concern. The principal used the example of purchasing several of his wife’s Christmas presents on Amazon, only for her to discover them on Amazon’s home page prior to Christmas. Typically, he likes Amazon’s recommendation feature, but this time he was annoyed.

Another sentiment expressed by the group was behavioral targeting (as explained) seemed a valuable proposition, but they felt it remote from their experience with online advertising, which consists of pop-ups, “shoot the monkey” banners, and “locate your classmates” ads. The SAHM was the only one who cited a positive experience with online advertising, mostly the result of coupon offers on such sites as iVillage and Parenting. She said she wouldn’t mind being targeted outside these sites with similar ads because they enhance her life and she appreciates the savings.

The belief that personally identifiable information isn’t collected in behavioral targeting was a hurdle for the entire the group. They were all quite suspicious and paranoid about being directly linked with certain information that was then sold to marketers. The surgeon even worried about implications this might have on his patients.

When asked where these preconceived notions came from, all cited something they read or heard. In general, they had a feeling the Internet wasn’t a trusted source unless they were on a trusted media site, such as The Wall Street Journal Online. Of course, they were surprised to hear “The Wall Street Journal” offers behavioral targeting to its partners, as does a long list of other well-known media companies.

I must admit I was surprised at the degree of confusion and misrepresentation around behavioral targeting, and digital advertising in general. Clearly, more consumer education is necessary, beginning with gaining consumer trust and demonstrating the value digital advertising and behavioral targeting can deliver.

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