Posted February 26, 2010 8:30 am by with 4 comments

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As marketers, the Holy Grail is to put the right message in front of the right person at the right time so that they will do what is right: buy something. It’s a simple enough idea and many feel that we are well on our way to getting to that point with the use of behavioral targeting (BT). While from the marketers’ point of view this sounds all well and good there is a rising tide of concern that this practice will hit the wall soon over the word that makes every Internet marketer shiver: privacy.

MediaPost reports from the OMMA Behavioral conference yesterday that this is not going unnoticed by its practitioners.

Speaking at the OMMA Behavioral conference in New York, Adam Kasper, director of digital media at Media Contacts, warned that a “watershed moment” is coming for behavioral targeting when consumers gain greater awareness of the extent to which their online activity can be tracked and targeted, triggering a backlash.

“It’s the elephant in the room, and there’s going to be a point where consumers get it and there’s going to be a big public outcry,” said Kasper. For the most part, people don’t read privacy terms and conditions when they’re surfing the Web, so they’re not typically focused on the issue.

More and more I get the feeling that the industry as a whole is trying so hard to hold back what it really does to get information on people. Why? Because they know that when what happens with people’s data is brought into the light many people will feel that their privacy is being violated through a campaign of check boxes about fine print that no one truly reads or understands if they do read it. The industry sounds like a bunch of used car salesmen saying “Oh, don’t worry! She runs great and if you just sign here she’ll be yours and you’ll have NO problems! (wink, wink, nod, nod). They say this as they whisper to each other that they can’t believe what they are getting away with.

This “secret” isn’t likely to stay that way for much longer. Canada and the European Union appear hell bent on making sure that the Internet is safe for all and this practice will be targeted eventually. How wouldn’t it with people in the know talking like this

Melissa Adams, executive media director at Organic, noted that clients are already asking more questions about behavioral targeting even as they are drawn to its promise of more effective Web campaigns. “Clients are more interested in the details of where data is coming from than in the past,” she said.

Asked about whether that was a good sign, Adams said, “it’s positive if we can educate clients about the anonymity of it all and how it’s used to their benefit, but it’s a big bridge to cross to get them to understand there are safeguards in place.”

When you are asked at a conference if revealing the truth is a “good sign” that makes one wonder for sure what is really going on. And if that bridge referred to is big then it means that the industry’s not exactly rock solid with the whole anonymity and safety thing. As a result the industry is bracing itself for an event when someone makes a major privacy gaffe and the jig is up.

One way that the folks in this field think they can put fears to rest about data safety and people being truly aware of how they are tracked online is to set up a third party group to monitor the whole situation.

The panel more broadly agreed on the need for some type of third-party verification to vet the quality and sourcing of data supplied to agencies by outside technology vendors. That’s especially true as digital agencies are bombarded with pitches from myriad data providers and BT firms that all make similar promises about what their platforms can deliver.

If history has shown us anything it’s that when an industry talks about policing itself it is trying to do something to put regulatory suspicions to rest. The ability to say that “We’re watching the store and we promise to behave” (pun intended) is often enough to keep stronger rules and regulations from bigger groups (the government) from going on the books.

My suggestion for this industry is to act fast because once your elephant is out the stampede to figure out what is really going on might stop you dead in your tracks.

  • Excellent post. The industry needs to move fast and put practices and procedures in place to police themselves. They also need a compelling pitch to consumers: BT should translate into lower cost products and fewer interruptions by ads that are irrelevant.
    .-= Tom Kasperski´s last blog ..Tweet me in St. Louis =-.

  • Very insightful post, Frank. I’ve already heard some non-industry friends comment about how “the Internet knows too much” about them, but it never goes much farther than a brief reflection. It will certainly be interesting to see how it all plays out. While people may be a little creeped out at first by how “the Internet” knows what info to present them with, in the end they are still getting what they want/need and that’s not so bad, right?

    -Kristina, @ion_interactive

  • Excellent post. The industry needs to move fast and put practices and procedures in place to police themselves.

  • Adi

    From a marketing perspective the only way forward is to give customers ownership of any data you hold from them. That way you’re creating a 360 degree relationship with them and using this data to help them rather than merely finding other ways to sell things to them.