Google's announcement this week of a new behaviorally targeted ad program and accompanying privacy policies seemed to follow themes raised at the OMMA Behavioral event in late February. In ads it serves on third-party sites, the company says it will offer consumers links to explanations for why they are seeing these particular ads and how Google is tracking their behavior.
The opt-out/opt-in model Google is offering consumers resembles some of the models OMMA Behavioral keynoter and Forrester analyst Emily Riley addressed. (Riley's presentation slides are now online here -- scroll down to the 2 p.m. slot -- with the video here.)
The basic idea, which has been abroad for a while, is that behavioral targeting needs to package its technologies as an "opt-in," or managed "opt-out," that can help pull the most relevant offers and content to the user. As I discussed in last week's column, almost everyone in the industry agrees that changing the conversation with consumers over BT is as critical as it is hard. Finding ways (and places) to explain these technologies clearly and efficiently is going to be a very tough nut to crack.
To that end, however, a couple of companies are trying to start that conversation and experimenting with the languages and interfaces. Both BlueKai and Google are initiating ways in which users can more selectively opt out of the tracking of their habits. At the same time, these companies are trying to persuade the consumer of the benefits of opting into the systems by declaring specific preferences. This week, let's take the first of these, BlueKai, for an opt-in/opt-out test drive. The company tells me that this system has gone through a couple of reiterations already. Next time we will look at Google's new Ad Preferences interface.
BlueKai calls itself a "registry of online preferences" without answering the natural consumer question: How do you know my preferences already? As the user drills a bit further into "Manage Preferences," one answer comes up: "Preferences are noted based on collective activities from your computer." One of the basic issues networks will have to grapple with concerning consumer-facing interface is how much to explain about the technology, and in what kind of language. Is "cookie" or "tracking" too evocative of the BT creepiness? Google is avoiding the "behavioral targeting" terminology altogether by calling its targeting method "interest-based advertising" -- but is that an obvious dodge?
Back to a bit of the old opt-in-and-out. After a visit to an auto site and some other BlueKai partner, the system was profiling me as someone in the "Lifestyles and Interest" bucket of "Online Consumer Privacy" and in the shopping buckets of "Books and Magazines" and "Autos." There are handy "Remove" buttons next to every item in my preferences list so I can selectively opt out, or just leave myself unopted-in.
Then it gets more granular. After a visit to specific car pages on an auto site, the registry also tags me as someone interested in sports cars and specific models. Again, I get to opt out of specific models. BlueKai doesn't specify in this interface how long it retains past behaviors in the profile, but this could also be a way for users to excise themselves from outdated shopping habits.
BlueKai lets you choose a charity that will receive a share of the ad dollars gained from your preferences. The charity element is a nice touch, and not only because of the halo effect. It offers the user an alternative incentive or value-add to being tracked -- even if receiving more relevant ads is, well, irrelevant to a user.
There are some global questions that also need to be addressed. First, there is the issue of opting into specific categories. BlueKai does not allow that here, but Google does. I imagine that the opting-in process will introduce a whole new tier of complexity to segmentation. Is a preference opt-in more valuable and indicative of intent than a visit to a car configurator, for instance? And how granular should an opt-in get? The interface, as we will see at Google, can get very thick with options very quickly when you are letting consumers into the full catalog of segmentation options.
As we will see next week when tackling Google's Ad Preferences page, a critical decision point for consumer-facing opt-in/opt-out pages will be brevity. BlueKai's goal here is to translate an inherently complex, sometime creepy, technological process into an efficient console that insulates the user from the sometimes ugly details. Is this a bit too slick to address the underlying privacy concerns, or does it strike the right tone and language to fit the real-world consumer's perspective?
We don't know yet, but the BlueKai console is in stark contrast to the Google more-is-more approach. One of the interesting things about the BlueKai approach is that the language around it resembles the descriptions of social network profiles. Appropriating the model of consumer profiling from social networks might be an interesting path to take. It gives the user true ownership of the process rather than management of the process, which is where we are now. Imagine a system in which consumers decide how to present themselves to the universe of marketers, much as they do on Facebook. This is what I need you, the marketer, to know. This is what I want. Make it worth my while, and you can follow me!