Why Behavioral Targeting May Not Be The Future Of Online Advertising

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Did you know that there are many American and British ISPs (Internet Service Providers) who are collecting keyword information along with the Websites you have been visiting in an effort to understand your online experience and target better (and more relevant) advertising to you?

If you thought the whole kerfuffle over ISPs and cookies were painful to watch during the first dot com growth spurt, this one could wind up being even more challenging. The biggest issue is the opt-out strategy that is being deployed by the ISPs. Meaning, you may not even know that your ISP is watching what you’re doing and manipulating what you see, and the only way for it to stop is for you to raise your digital hand and get them to opt you out. I’m trying to think of the last time I even tried to log directly into my ISP personal profile page to read their "what’s new" segment (and I can’t).

The promise for Digital Marketing is obvious: getting the right messages in front of the right people will convert to better performing advertising with much higher acquisition rates. That’s the good. So, why do we taint the good with the bad (opt-out)? Wouldn’t the real win be in making sure we connect with all Consumers who may be faced with behavioral targeting advertising and sell them on the benefits and value? I would guess that most people would, at the very least, give it a try.

The problem is, when they start reading articles like this, Behavioural Targeting – Not Necessarily A Bad Idea, in The Economist it looks, sounds and feels sketchy. Once again, Marketers come off as soulless shills willing do anything we can with an individual’s information to pump more advertising in front of them.

This is the wrong message to send.

"Done properly, behavioral targeting promises to make advertising more relevant for consumers, to increase conversion rates for advertisers and to make online publishers’ advertising slots more valuable," The Economist says, "but it need not involve the wholesale interception of traffic. Sites like Google, Yahoo and Amazon do a great job of building profiles on their networks and targeting ads based on those profiles. But if such targeting is going to extend to the ISP level, it’s vital that the companies behind the technology clearly explain themselves, and give users full control over their personal information. It may be that customers are happy to opt-in to targeting programs that offer incentives. But the targeting companies have to play fair, or they risk ruining a promising idea."

Let’s hope we get it right.


  1. Glad to see you raise this issue, and your quote from the Economist is dead on. While most users know (or at least suspect) that Google et al are tailoring content according to our search query history, few are aware that ISPs do the same, based on our browsing.
    Of course, the difference is that while we voluntarily surrender query information to search engines, most of us are blissfully unaware that ISPs are peering over our shoulders.
    Most users likely expect that their surfing is private and will be horrified to learn that, unlike traditional telephone calls where eavesdropping is generally illegal, the same is not true for ISPs.
    In my view, the sooner ISPs become utilities providing basic connectivity, the better. But that’s an discussion for another day.

  2. Most web users do not know that ANYONE is using behavioral targeting. I meet with advertisers on a regular basis that are spending $millions per year in advertisng, a good portion of that online, that don’t even know what it is. If they don’t know, the users don’t. The questions are: What will happen when the cat’s out of the bag? What would have to happen to stop a search engine or ISP from doing it?

  3. It really is a tough issue. So much of what we do now is online – how do you keep up with what really is secure and what isn’t? Ultimately, I guess it is going to be a necessary evil of digital growth. Go online and beware…. unfortunately.

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