Are you creeped out? They're monitoring you for many reasons. Some are doing it to better understand if what they're creating works, in terms of how you view, click, touch, move and share through a digital experience. Others are tracking you to better understand how one piece of content leads to another. This way, they can test and learn what types of things you may be more inclined to look at. Some are tracking you in order to put more relevant ads in front of your face. So, if you were looking at a pair of shoes on Zappos and find yourself on some other website later in the day, you may find a Zappos ad with the exact brand of shoes in it that you were looking at earlier, with a call to action (like a discount code or free shipping). This is called retargeting, and it's a contentious component of online advertising, because of how your information is being shared beyond the confines of one specific site (with many potential third-parties) and because it has become an increasingly effective way to advertise.
All marketers are liars.
There is an inherent and well-deserved truth to the title of Seth Godin's 2005 seminal book, All Marketers Are Liars. It's no surprise that the marketing profession has a bad reputation. You could even call it ironic that the marketing industry is in such dire need of a better marketing campaign (and in even worse need of a complete rebrand). Editorials, like the one published in The New York Times' Sunday Review this past weekend (see: Don't Track Us), are not helping either. Privacy advocates and policy makers are naturally reacting to the public outcry that online tracking of consumers has gone from something many didn't want to openly admit to doing, to a realm where marketers who are engaged in these types of activities may not even be aware just how much of this consumer data is floating around out there, who has it, what they're doing with it and more.
What's best for the consumer?
It's clear that this entire component of the marketing industry needs a thorough review. It's clear that consumers, brands and agencies need to have a much more transparent approach to what is being collected, how it is being used, how it is being shared and more. Ultimately, consumers should have some say in what they're comfortable sharing, and what they would much prefer to have kept as private or unavailable to these websites, ad networks and third-parties. But there is a much bigger elephant in the room that needs to be drawn out, approached, copped to and discussed: this type of tracking works and consumers are loving it (because the results prove it: Study: What Actual Marketers Feel About Retargeting, FBX & More).
Pitchforks, tar and feathers.
Before you start lighting up those pitchforks and come after us marketers with a mix of mass hysteria and moral panic, take a look at your own online behavior and ask yourself, which scenario you prefer? Go to Amazon and start shopping (presuming you have been there before), and ask yourself, "what is the experience like?" Now, go back to Amazon, sign out, clear your web browser's cache and go back to Amazon, without logging in, and ask yourself, "what is the experience like?" The answer is always the same: when Amazon doesn't know who you are or have your viewing/shopping history, the experience is pretty gruesome. There's simply not much to see because you can see everything. When Zappos is better able to show you inventory because they know you're a female, what your shoe size is, and can cater the entire experience to your past shopping habits, we marvel at the ingenuity. The lesson is clear: relevancy and a more personal experience makes for a happier consumer and a better brand experience. The same is true about ads. Consumers will tell you that they hate advertising, but if they have to see ads, they prefer that they be relevant, personal and contextual.
The enigma, wrapped in bacon wrapped in a paradigm.
What consumers (and brands) really need is a win-win scenario. Digging deeper into that New York Times editorial piece, it becomes abundantly clear that we're not there yet: "For the last two years, a group of Internet and advertising businesses and experts has been working on this problem. It is hoping to create a voluntary standard that would be adopted by companies that make Web browsers, the ad networks and Web sites. But advocates for greater privacy and groups representing advertising and marketing companies remain far apart on several important issues, like what constitutes tracking." Perhaps we need to better define what is privacy and what is personalization? Instead of privacy advocates on the case, perhaps we need a healthy dose of personalization advocates. All of the "do not track" initiatives seem more like platforms to complain about advertising, than ones that help consumers understand what a world without personalization looks like. These groups - and other media pundits - are blurring the lines between what we're anonymously doing online versus who we are. What we're doing is the personalization part of the equation, and who we are is the personal stuff. If we can better help consumers understand that better brand experiences happen when these channels understand what you're doing, but not who you are, by collecting usage and not personal information, we may be able to achieve a result that truly is mutually beneficial.
The case for tracking.
Policy makers stepping in and unilaterally making the case that all tracking is a form of capturing personal information has the same whiff as all consumers thinking that their personal information is being shared when it may only be anonymous usage. This idea that "one size fits all" for tracking is silly in a world of social media, e-commerce, websites, smartphones and tablets. It's not good if the current hyperbole over tracking wins, and it's definitely not healthy if it entirely dies on the vine as well. Consumers need to better educate themselves and have the options to make intelligent decisions instead of a generalized position that will, ultimately, make the consumer experience, bland, impersonal, and so generic that their frustration over being tracked will be trumped by platforms, channels and brands that are giving them nothing personal or of value other than generic ads and products/services that they don't care about/need. We need to start asking the tough questions: what information is personal versus what information is creating a better personalized experience? What is a better experience: ads, products or services that are based on my usage and preferences or non-targeted ads and no ability for a brand experience to know me?
What do you think consumers would truly prefer? A world of no tracking or a world of personalization and context?
The above posting is my twice-monthly column for The Huffington Post. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original version online here: