Targeted online advertising casts the shadow of privacy concerns

Consumers are still very concerned about privacy when it comes to the internet. It is a hurdle marketers must overcome

If the promise of online advertising is one of marketing communications so targeted that they stop looking like marketing altogether, its flipside is concern about privacy.

Recently the lightning rod for this concern has been behavioural targeting, the technology that allows a person’s online activities to be tracked and advertising presented to them on the basis of what they’ve previously looked at. This can be done across a single site, across a network of sites or, in its most controversial form, across the entire internet, via ISP records. The perception of this as a “big brother” technology looking over our shoulders at all times has helped fuel the furore over behavioural targeting in recent months.

These concerns are not new. The basis of all tracking, the cookie placed on your browser when you visit a site that allows that site to welcome you back, was the subject of an EU investigation several years ago. But what the concerns indicate is a persistent set of issues that the online marketing industry has yet to fully address.

The first of these is that people are broadly unaware that interactive media allows this measurement and targeting to take place. Some years ago the think-tank Demos carried out some research into teenagers’ attitudes to their mobile phones. A uniformly positive response was quickly transformed into something much more ambivalent once the researchers explained that the technology allowed the user’s location to be tracked all the time the phone was turned on.

The second is that the industry has been very bad at explaining the technology, and at understanding the human concerns it creates. The best example of this I ever saw dates from Google’s launch of its gmail service some years ago. The service, which offered users unlimited storage for mail in return for having ads served into their emails, was greeted with concerns about the search giant spying on people’s communications. Google’s response showed the company at its most technocratic; it pointed out that concerns about privacy were misguided, since no actual people ever saw the contents of the emails. The whole process was carried out by machines.

Another problem is that people have yet to really see the benefit of all this targeting, or perhaps to recognise that it’s happening at a level above that of offline media. Even online publishers experimenting with these technologies admit that the best form of targeting is still to put ads next to relevant content. If online can’t do noticeably better than that, then people are entitled to ask why they are allowing information about themselves to be collected.

Talking about these issues, a viewpoint I often hear is that there’s a conflict between what people say and what they do. At the same time as they’re concerned about their privacy online, people are sharing all sorts of personal information on social networks. At least part of the explanation for this is that the definitions of public and private space that served us so well in the pre-interactive era are now failing.

People have tended to treat social media in the way they treat offline communications within small groups of friends, ignoring the broadcast element of interactive media. This type of behaviour is changing, with LinkedIn European managing director Kevin Eyres saying earlier this year that he is seeing people moving away from using one social network for everyone and instead choosing different kinds of social networks for different types of relationships. As Eyres puts it, you wouldn’t invite your family, current friends, old friends and work colleagues to the same party. The result of this change will be a much more granular approach to sharing personal information.

The other explanation, put forward recently by social media expert Adriana Lukas, is that people completely understand what they can share and what they shouldn’t, and that the two things fall into completely different categories. They know, for example, that stories about what they got up to on Friday night might be embarrassing, but they won’t result in their bank account being cleaned out by identity thieves. Seen like this, the seeming privacy paradox disappears.

What it leaves us with is a significant challenge. In order to be able to deliver on its promise and pull in more advertising budget, the online marketing industry needs to be able to demonstrate its effectiveness. As more and more content producers turn to advertising to support their activities, this need becomes ever greater.

In order for this shift to happen, the industry needs consumers to understand and welcome the benefits they would get in return for allowing information about themselves to be collected. However, we live in a world where no one reads the manual, and where, in the words of a popular dotcom crash era T-shirt slogan “your broken business model is not my problem”. As any teacher will tell you, you can’t educate someone who doesn’t want to listen. 

Michael Nutley is editor-in-chief of New Media Age

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