Avoiding 'Truman Show' Moments

The proposition "If we build it they will come" is by now nearly universally recognized as a fallacy by marketers, as well as, nowadays, even most real estate developers. Unfortunately in many sectors of the online advertising world, where behavioral is all the buzz, another often unwarranted assumption has taken hold, namely that "If an ad is (apparently) relevant consumers will engage with it," regardless of how inappropriate or irrelevant the context of the page it runs on.

The latest survey on consumer attitudes toward privacy, advertising and related matters from Burst Media is a useful reality check on that line of thinking.

The survey, according to Burst, was administered to over 4,000 Web users and focused on understanding how web user's viewed and valued the role of privacy in their Internet experience.

On the surface the results in this survey on privacy are not vastly different from what we've been seeing over the past few years from multiple studies, including those from Burst.

The vast majority (80.1%) of Web surfers indicated concern about the privacy of their personal information such as age, gender, income and Web surfing habits. Concern about privacy is prevalent among all age segments, and increased with the respondent's age from 67.3% among respondents 18-24 years to 85.7% of respondents 55 years and older.

There are a few items that will likely jump out as red flags, however. A fairly sizeable percentage of people surveyed, despite the fact that the survey defined the difference between personally identifiable information and non-personally identifiable information, nonetheless continue to believe that targeting companies are routinely collecting PII. Nearly-half (44.5%) of respondents say it is likely that web sites track PII of web users, one-fifth (20.2%) say it is unlikely, and 35.3% are unsure. Men and women respond similarly but older segments are much more likely than younger segments to say web sites track personally identifiable information.

That suggests that educational campaigns to clarify how behavioral data is tracked have not been clear or educational enough.

Perhaps more significantly, when people surveyed are asked whether they would be agreeable to having non-personally identifiable information about themselves collected if it meant ensuring they'd get only the most relevant ads, only about a quarter of respondents saw that exchange as a value to them. According to Chuck Moran, VP of Marketing for Burst Media, "That's not a significantly different kind of response from what we'd gotten in previous years and what it suggests strongly is that there is a small stable minority of the public that 'gets it' as far as the drive to see more relevant ads and that, despite educational efforts, or lack thereof, it's not a growing portion of the public."

One takeaway of that finding is that relevance -- as behavioral targeting advocates have come to understand it, meaning a closer match-up between a consumer's actual interests and the messages they see -- is NOT, contrary to reflexive assumptions of many people in the industry, an end in itself. Nor the panacea so many insiders believe it must be. What that also means is that there's a major disconnect between what might be called general relevance as many publishers and advertisers still define it and true contextual relevance.

Moran acknowledges he relates to the negative sentiments expressed by the consumers his firm surveyed.

"I think all of us have what you might call 'Truman Show' moments," he says. " I had one when I went on a technology site and then later on that day I was on CNN.com reading about the presidential election 'Oh, my god' behavioral targeting is going haywire."

The implication for advertisers, including emphatically behavioral advertisers, is that placement and page matter, a lot.

"Consumers are getting smarter and smarter," Moran explains. "They understand, and accept, product placement. They get that. But when they see an ad that's obviously out of context, even if it's something they might well be interested in in a different context. That's where the creepiness factor comes in.

"It's not a question of not using behavioral technology but of using it wisely, judiciously, and, above all respectfully, and in context."

For publishers, though it may be the last thing many want to hear in a recession, the implications are even starker. Behavioral targeting must not become an excuse to sell more placements. Rather it should be a tool, one tool, albeit an indispensable one, among many, to help ensure better placements. The goal of behavioral targeting in context must in fact become a means to enable publishers to make less, in terms of quantity of ads on a page, more, in terms of consumer value.

"Publishers need to be aware that cluttering impacts advertising on the site," Moran says. "If people see too many thoughtlessly, clumsily placed, obvious ads, and a site gets associated with too many of those 'Truman Show' moments, they will abandon the site and they won't come back. That's something that may be hard to consider when there's such economic pressure to maximize revenues by filling up a page, but longer-term thinking about customer experience first is what will create value. The last thing you want to do, now more than ever, is alienate an audience."

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4 comments about "Avoiding 'Truman Show' Moments".
  1. Josh Miller from Performics , February 27, 2009 at 3:04 p.m.

    Regarding behavioral ads that are "out-of-context"...users may say that they believe these to be creepy but in my experience, these generally garner the highest response & back-end performance for clients.

    Just because something is in context doesn't necessarily make it guaranteed to be relevant to the user's needs at the time. If user shows interest in a particular topic/product/website/etc. but takes no action, an out-of-context ad may be even more relevant to them if they are further down the purchase funnel when they see that ad.

    Don't disagree with the fact that most people think it is creepy (if they even notice it), but that doesn't prevent them from clicking.

  2. Trent Adams from Internet Society , February 27, 2009 at 3:46 p.m.

    I would like to see a link to the survey in articles like this so that we can gain more understanding into how it was conducted. Even without it, however, it's clear that there are a number of interesting aspects (of the survey and this article) that would benefit from further scrutiny.

    For example, PII is not a clearly defined term (and definitions I've seen vary widely) and it'd help to see how the survey defined it. Regardless, statistically speaking, tracking enough clicks has been proven to lead directly to specific individuals (Google: anonymized data).

    Another area worthy of deeper exploration is the notion of "privacy" itself. I have seen studies like this conflate multiple issues such that the linear view obscures meaningful conclusions.

    Both PII and privacy are such multivariate issues that an article like this isn't terribly useful without access to the supporting data (and collection methodology).

    I caution readers to do more research into the topic rather than rely on such high-level summaries.

  3. Carolyn Hansen from Hacker Group , March 2, 2009 at 7:58 p.m.

    You quote Moran saying:

    "I think all of us have what you might call 'Truman Show' moments," he says. " I had one when I went on a technology site and then later on that day I was on CNN.com reading about the presidential election 'Oh, my god' behavioral targeting is going haywire."

    I feel kinda stupid asking . . . but what does this quote mean?

  4. Molly Curry from Molly R Curry Consulting , March 7, 2009 at 9:21 a.m.

    Carolyn - Don't feel bad. I read that quote three times trying to understand it.