Keeping a safe distance builds consumer trust

Marketers need to ensure their use of behavioural targeting techniques do not make internet users feel like they are under Big Brother-style scrutiny, according to the results of research by Addvantage Media and YouGov.

When pop legend Sting wrote the lyric “Every breath you take, every move you make, I’ll be watching you” few consumers thought the dark suggestions behind the 1983 hit single by The Police could become a reality of everyday life. But new research by Addvantage Media and YouGov reveals that the majority of internet users see behavioural targeting akin to “Big Brother”.

According to the 2010 Online Advertising Report, which polled more than 2,000 consumers, more than half said they would unsubscribe from adverts based on behavioural targeting if they were given an opportunity.

The online advertising industry is set to grow by more than 7% this year, according to the European Interactive Advertising Association. But behavioural targeting is not growing in relevancy, according to the study, with 53% of respondents claiming they would make behavioural targeted adverts go away if it was possible.

People don’t like the thought of their every move online being tracked, says Edward Tijdink, managing partner at Addvantage Media. Privacy concerns make consumers feel uncomfortable about online advertising practices. 

This attitude is prevalent among all age groups, he adds. The older age group in this study is most suspicious, with 54% of 45- to 54-year-olds believing that something is amiss with behavioural targeting. This compares to 53% of 18- to 24-year-olds, 52% of 25- to 34-year-olds and 50% of 35- to 44-year-olds.

Tijdink comments: “I was surprised to see a younger age group put consequences against these issues. Perhaps they see the internet as ‘their domain’. Marketers need to consider such strong feelings from an influential age group, he adds. “If young consumers are taking it much harder then you have to take note of it because they are the consumers of the future.”

Consumers are willing to take action beyond their suspicious attitude. Bad online advertising behaviour can damage a brand’s bottom line, with 37% of UK adults claiming that if they found an online advert had automatically installed a tracking device or cookie-stuffing software on their computer they would be inclined to purchase fewer of that brand’s products.

The younger generation is more likely to take a stand against bad practice, with 44% of 18- to 24-year-olds saying they would take action by voting with their wallets. Such a view is shared by 41% of 25- to 34-year-olds.  

Tijdink suggests this negative attitude is linked to the fact that most people do not feel they are seeing relevant online adverts. Almost half of the respondents (45%) say they have never seen a relevant advert based on their online behaviour. This compares with 31% who believe they have experienced a relevant advert based on their online behaviour.

However, 51% of consumers in the 18- to 24-year-old age group believe they have seen a relevant ad, compared with 44% of 25- to 34-year-olds.

Common sense

Instead of signing up to the “latest online technology craze”, marketers should take a dose of common sense, argues Tijdink. “There’s quite a lot of underhand practices online. Marketers need to investigate the technology and not just blindly follow the next big thing.”

Behavioural targeting needs to be “technology enabled not technology led”, he adds. Recent cases have highlighted that some technology built to target a consumer with relevant ads is flawed. Marks & Spencer was forced to issue an apology after a mother saw one of its champagne adverts on a children’s website. The ad appeared because the mother had previously been searching for champagne.

Tijdink warns: “You can’t just look at what you think is a person’s past behaviour and assume that their mindset is the same as yesterday, or even that the person sitting at the computer is the same person as yesterday.”

This isn’t an isolated incident. GroupM – part of WPP – says it is trying to spare its clients’ blushes from similar incidents by implementing ad verification technology.

Despite the damning figures in the survey, Tijdink argues that there is value in behavioural targeting, but brands need to think very carefully about the websites they are on. “It’s about getting the right message to the right people at the right time.”

Behavioural targeting should reflect the website someone’s on rather than trying to predict who is sitting in front of a screen. “Users will respond more positively to this approach than if you apply behavioural targeting across a wide series of portals,” Tijdink suggests.

“You need to approach all advertising planning with traditional marketing values,” he warns. Otherwise, you could turn your consumers into suspicious ones.


The 2010 Online Advertising Report was commissioned by Addvantage Media and conducted by YouGov, polling 2,232 British adults aged 18+. Part of this report was first published in Marketing Week on 4 February 2010.

The frontline

Shakeel Mughal, commercial and operations director at online publisher Glam Media UK

Old-style behavioural targeting was very clunky and could feel like you were being stalked. But as technology has improved the consumer feels more like they are being served relevant ads. Behavioural targeting is as much about knowing when to stop as targeting the right people.

The results show that ads served on special interest sites play into what Glam is all about. We have more than 1,500 platforms with audiences that can’t be found elsewhere. The sites show points of interest of the user. If you’re female and interested in Manolo Blahnik shoes, then we have a site about those shoes, for example.

We give feedback to our advertisers, and can let them know if the creative doesn’t resonate with their target audience. I agree that it should be about technology enabled support rather than technology led.

Daniel King, chief commercial officer at price comparison website MySupermarket

Behavioural targeting is a byproduct of how you provide users with relevant and unobtrusive ads. Our users will be served relevant ads based on what they’ve ordered previously. We also look at their shopping list and send email alerts about specific offers – at a frequency that the customer has set – relating to what’s on the list. That means that if a mother orders nappies, and we send an email about a nappy offer, she will feel motivated to come back onto our site.     

People get suspicious when it’s done externally. About a month ago I was searching for a holiday in Dubai and was looking at the Virgin Holidays website quite a bit. Before long, the Virgin Holidays advert seemed to follow me wherever I went on the internet. I felt like I was being tracked.

Good behavioural targeting is when people find the adverts beneficial or helpful. And that’s really a key part of being a trusted brand. A good brand will be seen to be helping – a bit like the Amazon recommendations. People wouldn’t necessarily feel like they’re being tracked, rather being given relevant offers. I think that people only notice it when it’s being done badly.

If you’re doing a weekly shop and you’re in the pet food aisle and see an advert for Pedigree Chum then people see that as part and parcel of their shopping experience. But if they are in the pet food aisle and the Virgin Holidays ad pops up then that’s different altogether. So it’s as much about where that person is at the time, rather than past behaviour.

Facts and figures

53% of consumers would make behavioural targeted adverts go away if it was possible

37% of consumers would make behavioural targeted adverts go away if it was possible

45% of consumers say they have never seen a relevant advert based on their online behaviour

31% of consumers believe they have experienced a relevant advert based on their online behaviour


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