Online ad targeting must be more subtle

If targeted ads are going to start following us around the internet, they need to be careful not to become an irritant as opposed to an assistance. And they mustn’t be seen to restrict consumers’ options.


Behavioural targeting, where ads are served to internet users according to their browsing habits, is one of the great hopes of the online advertising industry. It will mean individual consumers see more relevant and timely ads, marketers increase their response rates while spending less money, and media owners increase the revenue they yield from selling ads targeted to smaller groups of consumers – a win-win-win, or so the sales pitch goes.

There’s no doubt that all these things can happen, but as with any young technology, marketers, creatives and media buyers need to be wary of blundering in blindly, assuming these positive outcomes are guaranteed. Done badly, behavioural advertising can just seem like an inconsiderate nuisance, and that could harm brands in the long run.

Consider a hypothetical situation. While doing your seasonal shopping, you go online to look up the generically branded coffee maker your non-gender-specific significant other has requested. But instead of buying it over the internet, you go to the nearest department store, which just happens to be down the road from where you work, saving you the delivery fee.

You triumphantly cart the machine back to the office to await the upcoming non-denominational winter celebration, when it will undoubtedly be unwrapped with great enthusiasm. Unless, that is, you got the wrong one – a seed of doubt that your computer seems gleefully to cultivate, thanks to a small file on your internet browser that ensures you now see nothing but ads for coffee machines wherever you go.

There’s nothing much the retailer can do about this. It has no way of knowing that its retargeted ad, which you’re seeing because you once went online to research coffee machines, is now gnawing away at your soul.

Granted, this is among the worst of worst-case scenarios, and most online ads are unlikely to cause this much existential angst. But it ought to serve as a warning that the apparent benefits of behavioural targeting have commensurate dangers attached – mostly to do with the fact that consumers could end up seeing the same, very specific ads repeatedly at the expense of all others.

Marketers could do a great deal to minimise the downsides by taking a few simple steps. These could include having various executions for each product ad, varying the featured product, or choosing an ad format that quickly and easily allows the consumer to select what brands or products they’d rather see instead. They should probably also err on the side of caution when it comes to deciding how many times to serve the same ad if the user doesn’t click on it.

Behavioural targeting has the potential to make online advertising much more efficient and effective. But only if the execution is given due care and attention.


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