Online advertising is an art form that not many, especially regular internet users, appreciate. In a world where consumers have more power than ever before, and where they use that power to demand greater relevance, efficiency and enhanced performance without having to do any work, online advertisers have to rely on all the advantages that technology has to offer. Even casual observers have to admit that the job is a difficult one. Companies such as Phorm and BT Webwise in the UK and NebuAd and DoubleClick (in partnership with Google) in the US have received an enormous amount of flack from the public for their information tracking and behavioural advertising technologies. As with so many issues that cause public outrage, the online advertising furore is far less serious and far simpler than it has been made out to be.
Some people think that behavioural targeting is a bad idea. They complain that they stand to gain nothing, while the targeted advertising companies stand to gain considerable profits. Which is utter bunkum. Yes, profits are at stake, such is the nature of business, but companies won`t make any money at all if people ignore their advertising efforts. And let`s all be honest here: how many of us actually pay any attention to the banner and pop-up ads that plague our internet existence? Because that`s how we think of them, as a plague. They`re irrelevant and annoying and get in the way of Garfield Minus Garfield comics. But what if ads weren`t irrelevant? What if they actually spoke to your interests on a deeper level?
I would say that with the highly targeted advertising that will be achieved with Phorm`s online advertising technology, and even NebuAd`s approach to advertising, consumers stand to gain a great deal. For instance, as a content writer I do a lot of research online, and I cover a broad range of subjects, anything from instant lawns to scuba diving, but those aren`t necessarily the things that interest me. With contextual advertising, which is widely used by most search engines (think Gmail and the weird ads that come through as Google tries to match email content), I would be bombarded with hundreds of useless adverts.
But what about the time that I spend searching for things that are of interest to me (only before work and during lunch – I swear). I love animals, if I wasn`t in the SEO business I would be a vet or something, so I spend my spare time cruising animal welfare sites, animal interest sites and basically any sites that have to do with rabbits and dogs. Unique behavioural targeting platforms, such as Phorm, would be able to provide me with a host of adverts guaranteed to catch my attention. And once my attention has been caught successfully, it`s a pretty good bet that I`ll follow through for more information. I would much rather click on a pet care ad than one that promises to shift my unsightly tummy fat (probably to my thighs).
There are, of course, other complaints against behavioural targeting, most of it unfairly aimed at Phorm and BT Webwise, (although NebuAd seems to be facing worse criticism in the United Sates) but a lot of it is just plain petty. Take for example, the argument that behavioral targeting violates user privacy, but the truth is that these companies have comprehensive privacy policies in place. Phorm`s privacy policies were described as “industry-leading” by independent auditors long before the government had to step in to quell public outcry.
After much griping by Microsoft, DoubleClick`s privacy policies were approved by the FTC (Federal Trade Commission). While on the other side of the Atlantic, Phorm and BT Webwise were likewise vindicated by the UK government, and by UK police who declined to investigate the matter any further. This means that Phorm and Webwise were able to resume their trials on the 30th Sept (you can read more about the trials here and here), and that with a bit of luck, irrelevant ads will soon be a thing of the past.
Just a tiny, last minute observation: I find it quite interesting that people are so easily het up by behavioural targeting privacy issues, but they`ve let Google`s Street View (which is far more invasive than advertising every could be) and Google`s comments that complete privacy doesn`t exist just slide right on by.