The Problem With Allowing Consumers To Opt Out

Posted by

You have a right to opt out of anything and everything.

As a marketing professional, there is nothing I hate more than receiving any form of communication (email, Web experience, social media, mobile, whatever) and not see an obvious place where I can either opt out of the communication or protect how much information is being captured. As a consumer, I probably hate it more. There is plenty of psychology in that statement. As a marketer, I (think) I understand the business. I’m hopeful that the vast majority of marketing organizations are using my personal information to create a more personalized experience for me. From that perspective, I have no issue with behavioral targeting so long as the social contract is fair and equitable. Namely: I get a great experience as a consumer and you, the marketer, make a lot more money because you’re able to charge advertisers a premium for having such a keen understanding of your consumer. As a consumer, I simply don’t trust marketers. They have crossed the line too many times (now, the government must be involved in terms of privacy and governance). There are spammers, dialers and nefarious online "marketers" doing some none-to-nice things that give consumers little choice but to trust marketers less than used car salesmen and ambulance chasing attorneys. There are advertisers making claims on products that simply don’t live up to the hype and, ultimately, the entire industry suffers.

Let’s not mess this up any more.

If you look to a brand like Amazon, you will see something very different. All of their data capturing is used to create a more personalized user experience. There are few online revolts about Amazon’s data capturing and, their consumer satisfaction levels are staggeringly high. In fact, one could argue that Amazon knows more about most of us than we would care to admit (they know where you live, where you ship to, what you have bought, looked at, reviewed, wishlisted, oh… and all of your credit card information too). Now, they are getting that much more aggressive on the media side. What was once a quiet and growing giant is about to be ready for their close-up. After six years of building the advertising platform – which includes powerful retargeting technology (see the Advertising Age article, Amazon: The Quietest Big Ad Business In Tech Would Like Your Brand Ads, Too, from last week) – it is becoming abundantly clear that for brands to win the new media game, they have to understand their consumer like never before.

It’s hard to understand anyone if they opt out.

On April 11th, 2013, MediaPost ran a news item titled, New App Lets Mobile Users Opt Out Of Behavioral Targeting, that featured a free iTunes app by Evidon (a privacy compliance company), which enables consumers to opt out of behavioral targeting by mobile advertising networks. From the article: "Evidon isn’t the only company that is offering ways for people to opt out of mobile targeting. TRUSTe – which also is powering some icons – has a privacy tool that allows people to avoid receiving ads targeted based on their mobile activity." This is where things get even more complicated. From the consumer’s perspective, we need to allow them to control (or, at least, understand) who has their information and what they are doing with it. From a marketer’s perspective, this is very worrisome. Over the history of time, consumers will always say that they hate advertising. If you dig beneath the surface, what they truly hate is useless, bad and non-relevant advertising. Digital media, social media and mobile marketing is finally able to deliver relevant, targeted and useful advertising to consumers, but in the worry about privacy (which is valid if you look at many of the recent hacking issues that big brands have faced), we’re confusing privacy with personalization.

A Target on our backs.

Whenever the issue of behavioral targeting (or retargeting or remarketing) is brought up, everyone points to the story about the pregnant girl whose online usage led Target to send her messaging about being pregnant (and her father was none to happy about finding out this way). It’s an extreme case, but it points to the lines that can be crossed when companies try to mix big data and behavioral targeted advertising without truly understanding their power. The marketing concern should always be sensitive to issues like this, but we must also be vigilant in better educating the mass population about what all of this opt out truly means. In the end, it spells the decline or homogenization of advertising. Without knowing what consumers are doing, it means that we have to practice the old "spray and pray" model. It means that none of the ads that consumers see will be all that interesting. It means that the deepest targeting that can be accomplished is to place ads on specific sites (Web or mobile) that are relevant to the brand’s target audience. We have seen how non-effective this can be by simply looking at the advertising we get on network and specialty television. The point is this: unless marketers become more transparent about how tracking is being down (and what, exactly, is being tracked), consumers are not going to trust us. They are going to opt out because they are confusing privacy with personalization, and they are going to have a less than stellar advertising experience. This is going to hurt the ad business. It is going to drive relevancy and revenue down. This is a very unique moment in time, where marketers can (if they have the intestinal fortitude) create a movement around ethics to better educate and demonstrate just how relevant, personalized and powerful a great advertising campaign can be to compliment the content it surrounds, without breaching anyone’s privacy. In the end, if marketers can’t demonstrate the chasm between privacy and personalization, all could be lost.

I’m hopeful consumers will ultimately understand the difference and opt out of opting out. What’s your take?

The above posting is my twice-monthly column for The Huffington Post. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original version online here:


  1. Social is teaching people to look for curated content. Once ad networks understand the point above and begin to curate their content, they will be able to charge more for it and their clients should expect a better return. If I remember correctly Mitch, you may have written about this issue in radio advertising some time ago. Right now most Internet properties have allowed ad real estate to get polluted by un-curated content, leading visitors treat the space like junk mail. Once the visitor has that habit, it is very hard to get them to pay attention moving forward.

  2. The Opt-out is the only term/response that the consumer has in the contract. As you state, some companies get it right (like Amazon) and provide a better experience with more data. Unfortunately, almost all other companies get it wrong, and merely see the email address as another revenue channel, and will spam anything and everything 2x per week.
    IMHO, the core problem is the metrics by which the ’email marketng manager’ or ‘retention marketing manager’ is held: currently gross receipts are paramount, and unsubscribe rates are secondary or tertiary. The only way to really hold a retention manager accountable is to be very very strict on the unsubscribe rate (anything over 5% annually is bad), and place much more emphasis on the click-thru rate rather than gross sales.

  3. The Opt-Out is really the only way to give the consumer control which conversely can make them more willing to go along with future marketing ploys. I for one sometimes see and consciously leave the opt-out boxes unticked and then am happier as a result to get the marketing materials from them.

  4. Ultimately there needs to be an organization with enforcement powers to control this activity. Sounds harsh? Not really. As mentioned, “The point is this: unless marketers become more transparent about how tracking is being down (and what, exactly, is being tracked), consumers are not going to trust us.” Establish a standardized process to define EXACTLY what ‘opt-in/out” is, its scope, required marketer disclosures, the rules of what can & cannot be done, the level at which enforcement takes place (industry or the “G”) and penalties for non-compliance. Visit law yale edu and search for Lee Tien for a 6 pager that discusses what’s really going on here.

  5. This is a tough one for me. I like that my pharmacy sends me coupons for the things I’m actually going to buy as opposed to random items that are of no value to me. I don’t even mind the Target story about the pregnant girl, when I first heard it I thought, wow, did dad ever need that wake up call. I think my hesitation stems from exactly what you wrote, trust. My children are growing up in a time where everybody seems to know everyone’s’ business. That ‘s not how I grew up and there’s something slightly discomfiting in knowing that an anonymous marketer has more of a clue about which deodorant I prefer than my husband does…and perhaps more disturbing still, probably more of a clue than I do.

  6. A brand that’s trusted by its consumers doesn’t need to give its consumers the option to get out of any form of advertising, remarketing, or retargeting. I agree, as your article pointed out, that bad, irrelevant advertising makes consumers suspicious. But if your brand is neither that, no need to give them the option. You will know if they trust you with whatever information they’re opening up for you.
    By the way, I liked your article so much that I shared and Kingged it on the IM Social Networking site, and left the same comment.
    Check it here, please:

Comments are closed.