Is Behavioral Targeting Held to a Higher Online Standard?

The manager at my favorite clothing boutique knows I love styles by designer Trina Turk. She’ll often set aside certain Turk pieces in my size and call to let me know to come by and try them on. It’s a personal touch and one reason I keep coming back to the shop.

I’ve exhibited a certain buying behavior, so the store manager acts to increase her chance of making a sale to a qualified customer. It usually works.

Why is the perception of similar targeting different when it’s practiced online?

Every morning at 7:50 a.m., a colleague walks into a particular coffee shop and orders a vanilla soy latte with an extra shot of vanilla. Her order never deviates, and her timing is never off by more than a minute or so. After a few months of this routine, she noticed her hot latte would be waiting there for her. She appreciates this little touch of customer service.

When online marketers follow the same tact with behavioral targeting, why is there concern over personal profiling, like Big Brother watching consumers’ every move?

Much of our personal business occurs online. Why buy a stamp at the post office to mail a bill that you can pay in two seconds with the click of a mouse? Why check your balance through the automated phone service when you can log in to your online account? Why drive to the mall when your shopping needs can be satisfied online?

Shopping and other online activities leave a trail. A lot of those transactions require social security numbers, credit card numbers, PINs, phone numbers, addresses, and the like that most people selectively share with trusted businesses. When those trusted partners offer customized promotions or opportunities, it feels more akin to a call from that boutique manager. It’s relevant, timely, and desirable information that provides demonstrable value to the consumer. It’s CRM (define).

Customer Service Means You’re a Customer First

But consumers in the relative anonymity of surfing can get unnerved by the creepy feeling they’re being shadowed. It’s as if the boutique and the coffee shop and all the stores have gotten together to profile me, then provided that information to strangers. You and I know behavioral profiles are built from anonymous cookies, so names and numbers aren’t attached to them. But average consumers don’t know the specifics, and they just don’t like that feeling.

CRM-type outreach and behavioral targeting incite different consumer reactions due to differences in perceived permissions and degrees of relevancy. Consumers have already granted personal information to selected businesses. They are also conditioned to expect some reasonable level of follow up from any good business.

The follow up should have a high degree of relevancy to the consumer because the business is working with good, solid purchase data and sometimes a long history. There is no perceived permission in the case of behavioral targeting because there is no starting relationship. There’s also likely less relevance to the communications because observed behaviors can have many true meanings, and modeling a consumer behavior type, persona, or profile is just not the same thing as a real relationship.

Behavioral targeting should deliver more relevant ads to consumers and more ad opportunities to commercially viable and attractive businesses. It’s mutually beneficial. Consumers are going to be exposed to ads. Both advertisers and consumers would prefer the ads relate to the products and services consumers need or want. Anything else is noise and will be disdained or disregarded.

If we acknowledge the differences between CRM and behavioral targeting, then true customer service remains a service, and profiled advertisements, however smart and even relevant, are still advertisements. As such, they’re in advance of a customer relationship and don’t enjoy the same rights.

Would you be a little irked if you walked into a new coffee shop and you were offered a beverage an employee thought you might enjoy? He needs to wait until you order, then he can feel free to offer discounts and information about things he actually knows you like. That’s customer service. In the meantime, consumer exposure to behaviorally targeted ads should be tempered by advertisers who understand the line between customer and prospect — and which side of the line they’re on.

Join us for the ClickZ Specifics: Web Metrics seminar on May 2 at the Hilton New York in New York City.

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