Posted August 3, 2010 10:40 am by with 2 comments

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I am a big fan of the Wall Street Journal. It’s a business essential and you can pretty easily avoid the politics if they do not suit your tastes. With their All Things Digital group they do a great job of giving you the lowdown and many scoops on the digital world. As for the paper? Their digital coverage is certainly improving but a recent series on behavioral targeting shows what direction they are leaning toward in their message to the business people that read it. Be afraid, be very afraid, because the digital boogeyman is out to get you. I really wish they didn’t do that and here’s why.

The title and sub title of the first part of the series takes on a National Enquirer kind of tone with “The Web’s New Gold Mine: Your Secrets A Journal investigation finds that one of the fastest-growing businesses on the Internet is the business of spying on consumers. First in a series.”

Spying? Geesh. Also, having the promise of ‘more to come’ is just enough to make any business executive break out in a tiny sweat because after all, don’t secrets eventually catch up to everyone and end careers?

For advertisers it’s a worse case scenario as well because even if the title is all that anyone decides to read it’s the kind of PR and reputation activity that can only get worse. Now the article itself.

Hidden inside Ashley Hayes-Beaty’s computer, a tiny file helps gather personal details about her, all to be put up for sale for a tenth of a penny.

The file consists of a single code— 4c812db292272995e5416a323e79bd37—that secretly identifies her as a 26-year-old female in Nashville, Tenn.

Ms. Hayes-Beaty is being monitored by Lotame Solutions Inc., a New York company that uses sophisticated software called a “beacon” to capture what people are typing on a website—their comments on movies, say, or their interest in parenting and pregnancy. Lotame packages that data into profiles about individuals, without determining a person’s name, and sells the profiles to companies seeking customers. Ms. Hayes-Beaty’s tastes can be sold wholesale (a batch of movie lovers is $1 per thousand) or customized (26-year-old Southern fans of “50 First Dates”).

“We can segment it all the way down to one person,” says Eric Porres, Lotame’s chief marketing officer.

While I am pretty sure that Mr. Porres was excited to get some space in the Wall Street Journal to promote Lotame Solutions’ abilities, I bet he wasn’t thinking that he would be the main focus of an ‘investigation’ designed to strike fear into people over his company’s activities.

This is just more evidence of the real dust-up that is brewing between the online advertising world and potential regulators. Web sites are gathering more information about visitors than ever before and most seem to be more secretive about how they are gathering and what exactly they are gathering. Now, for those who are regular readers of anything on Marketing Pilgrim, especially my take on things, you know that I do not like government intervention of any kind. In the same breath, however, I don’t completely trust self-policing efforts. So what to do?

First, we can take a look at how readers of this ‘information’ responded. This might give people a hint as to where to start.

Nice work, WSJ, you apparently have scared the crap out of the well-heeled.

I wish I could roll out some 5-step “How To” process but I’ll leave that some link-baiter who is looking for traffic and not real progress. I don’t see any easy answers here. I don’t see quick steps to appeasing both the web user and the advertisers who wants to use take advantage of target them. Like most things related to the Internet, there are very few cut and dry ‘across the board’ principles that apply because of the constant change and the high level of customization required for each online entity.

Here’s a real good first step though. If the Wall Street Journal wants to ‘blow the whistle’ on the advertising industry and get everyone in enough of a tizzy that the ability to target ads online becomes limited, let he who cast the first stone come clean.

Hey, Wall Street Journal! What are YOU doing to track your readers when they visit YOUR site? What information are YOU collecting and how are you using it? What are YOU willing to divulge to the rest of the world? Why wasn’t that part of your ‘investigation’?

Crickets. I thought so.

  • I thought that the WSJ would be against such tabloid scare mungering tactics in its journalism. Like you say, I bet the WSJ are not so squeeky clean if you turn the lens onto them regarding traffic data..!

  • Did you personally contact the writer for their take? That would be interesting. Actually, that goes to a little beef of mine. Writers leave contact info. I send a personal note seeking some interaction and they ignore me. If you don’t actually want to interact with your readers, don’t leave a way to be contacted.

    I don’t believe a website should be able to “steal” my personal data and sell it. However, if I willingly give it, that is another story. Of course, opt-outs should be much easier and obviously displayed.