Targeting and the Privacy Issue

Over the course of the past few weeks, we’ve discussed various methods for targeting web advertising. Since my first column on this subject, we’ve covered the major events in the evolution of online ad targeting. The intent was not to cover every single method by which a site might target ads. Rather, I wanted to give everyone an idea of how different sites use various types of information to target ads, as well as make a few important points:

  • There is no preferred standard for targeting ads. Some sites do it better than others.

  • Planners and buyers need to ask questions about how the sites on their buys target advertising.
  • Everyone in the industry needs to ask himself how sites are acquiring the information that allows for targeted advertising.

Lately, the information-gathering process has been under the microscope, given the recent concern about privacy. DoubleClick has taken quite a bit of heat for its plans to merge offline profiles with online ones. Although to be fair, other companies with plans to do the same have somehow managed to slip under the radar. In any case, consumers are now a lot more aware of what goes on behind the scenes at database marketing companies, and more people are aware that ads are being targeted to them on the Internet. As marketers, we need to be ultra-sensitive to any concerns consumers might have about targeting.

Early last year, IBM announced that it would no longer advertise on sites that didn’t post a clear privacy policy. Although I think this was a misguided action, IBM showed its characteristic concern for its brand in formulating its online advertising policy. The brands we represent as media planners and buyers should be afforded the same respect as IBM shows its own brand. Information-gathering by our advertising partners has the potential to cast a negative light on brands advertised there, so we should all be asking questions about how ads are targeted.

Imagine what a consumer would feel like if he confided in one of his favorite sites and released some personal information about himself, only to have that information used by other sites with which he may not have the same level of trust. One consumer may not care, but another may feel betrayed. And you don’t want your brand being associated with feelings of betrayal, do you?

The need for sites to gather enough information about their users to be able to target ads is definitely there. One user profile can change all of that user’s page views into premium targeted ad inventory, as opposed to low-cost Run of Site inventory. From a site’s perspective, you can either build user profiles yourself (slowly) or you can contract with an outside vendor or formulate a data-sharing partnership to build profiles (quickly). You can see how this situation might invite the abuse of information.

The point is this: We need to protect our clients’ brands from potential backlash from consumers on the privacy issue. Thus, we should be asking some important questions when buying targeted advertising:

  • What is the targeting methodology?

  • If a profile is used, where is the information coming from?
  • Have site users consented to the information-gathering techniques used by a site?
  • Does a site have any data-sharing partnerships or shared profiles in place?

I think asking these questions can help uncover any situations in which information might be abused. From there, you can act accordingly.

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