Spring Cleaning…for Cookies?

The vernal equinox has passed and it’s officially springtime. Many of us are participating in the age-old ritual of spring cleaning, which doesn’t just apply to our closets and garages, but also to our computers. While it’s likely not a seasonal activity, many people conduct regular sweeps of their computers for cookies. This will have a significant impact on ecommerce and online advertising moving forward.

A recent TRUSTe study discovered 42 percent of people clean out their cookies at least once a week. Only 15 percent said they never clean cookies, instead waiting for them to expire on their own. Those statistics have a major impact on behavioral targeting, as cookies are the primary technology behavioral targeting relies upon.

Considering the superficial way most computer users understand and use their machines, it’s all the more impressive and disturbing that so many people proactively clean their cookie files.

The study also looked at consumer knowledge and opinion of behavioral targeting and found that 71 percent of online consumers were aware their browsing information may be collected by a third party for advertising purposes, but only 40 percent were actually familiar with the term “behavioral targeting.” Fifty-seven percent of respondents said they’re not comfortable with advertisers using that browsing history to serve relevant ads, even when that information can’t be tied to their names or any other personal information.

So why the rush to clean out the cookies? If there are any parallels to the home cleaning phenomenon, you might chalk it up to habit, obligation, or fear of dust bunnies. People are cleaning out cookies on a regular basis, but do they know why? Have their friends told them they’re “supposed to”? Do they think it will prevent them from being tracked? Do they know they’re anonymous?

Some do, and some don’t. Some clean their cookies with knowledge of the implications; others do it out of an abstract fear. The fact remains, however, that nearly half of the Internet users out there are opting out of the technology that allows for useful functionality on sites, hampering the necessary information gathering process for targeted ad delivery.

Marketers are looking for supplemental techniques to fill in the widening gaps caused by changing consumer habits. Some are looking to sophisticated analytics programs to ascertain where cookie trails fall off and identify incomplete and potentially misleading profiles. Many are turning to the increasingly rich pool of personal data supplied willingly by consumers through social profiles as a way to target relevant ads.

According to the TRUSTe study, 87 percent of respondents said less than 25 percent of ads they saw online were relevant to their wants and needs. Advertisers should take a lesson from this; there’s definite room for improvement when it comes to providing relevant advertising. Though study participants say they only want relevant advertising, they’re unwilling to accept the cookie trade off for fewer, more relevant ads. They would prefer to be bombarded with a greater volume of untargeted ads in the perceived safety of anonymity.

Finding a balance between consumer privacy concerns and consumer desire for relevant advertising is what our industry is trying to accomplish on a large scale. On a more fundamental level, you only clean those items you’d consider dirty. Industry education needs to continue and accelerate to clean the image of the cookie.

Although the study doesn’t cover this, most consumers have an incomplete and mistaken understanding of how cookies work and what information they capture. We need to help consumers understand their tradeoffs before they can make rational decisions about those tradeoffs.

If I asked my mother, brother-in-law, or next door neighbor about their cookie-cleaning habits, I can only imagine the quizzical looks. My working assumption is the cookie cleaners are a more sophisticated computer user segment, which has implications for some behavioral targeting marketers. Then again, maybe they’re the more security sensitive segment, or the younger, more technology savvy segment.

Unfortunately, however you describe them, that segment appears to be growing and the implications for a proven, effective marketing method are serious. We can probably safely assume that soon everyone’s brother-in-law will be deleting cookies.

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