Take Two Targeted Ads and Call Me In the Morning

Among all of the possible messaging goals a marketer might get assigned, convincing online users that targeted advertising will be good for them has to be one of the toughest. As we have discussed in these columns, and at recent OMMA Behavioral shows, the communications piece of the online privacy and data collection puzzle is going to be the most daunting. How do you explain the technology behind digital ad targeting quickly and fairly enough so the consumer can make an informed choice about opting in or out, sharing their surfing history, etc.? Whatever regulatory or legislative measures come down the pike related to digital advertising in the next year, the industry still needs to find ways of translating a dark targeting art perfected by engineering dweebs into concepts and language that my 78-year-old dad can understand without reaching for his pistol.

The first step in this process involves getting users' attention and just initiating the conversation. By nature, the technology and techniques behind targeted and behavioral advertising are supposed to be innocuous. Bringing the technology forward involves finding a universally recognizable icon and button with which consumers can interact, retrieve an explanation of tracking and targeting practices, and, if desired, opting out. Earlier this month the Future of Privacy Forum released finalists in their search for a universal symbol for "privacy and personalization" that can initiate the conversation at the point when an ad is served. You can see an example of the "AdChoice" tag at the Yahoo! Green site http://green.yahoo.com/living-green/ and the "Interest Based Ad" tag at YellowPages.com http://www.yellowpages.com/. The Yahoo ad unit has a drop down window outlining the ad sponsor, the ad network, and the targeting method used as well as a link to further information. The YellowPages.com unit offers a pop up box with a brief description of ad targeting and links to the preferences profile the ad targeting company is holding for your browser.

Finding the right icon and text descriptor is not as easy as it looks, says Future of Privacy Forum Director Jules Polonetsky. The FPF has been working with WPP on crafting icons and messaging to test with focus groups. They recently concluded a study with 2,600 people who responded to various icons, labels and Web pages.

"Certain terms performed far better than others," Polonetsky says. He will be publishing a full report in January, but preliminarily, he told us that word choice proved critical in getting users to glean quickly that the ad label was not just another upsell from the sponsor.

"If there is language near an ad, the consumer thinks it is about the product. We are used to disclaimers. There were some terms that did better in clueing in the user on the ad data process and others that were easy to confuse."

In addition to the current labels now running at Yahoo! and YellowPages.com, test logos included labels such as "About this ad," "Ad Preferences," "Tailored ad," "Ad Choice," and "Why this ad?"

We will get the detailed findings in coming weeks, but Polonetsky did say that some consumers just didn't like the term "tailored ad" and while the FTC was interested in phrasing like, "Why this ad," that label didn't perform well.

While the FPF is conducting some of the most ambitious tests of universal ad labeling and messaging, the responsibility for declaring and proliferating some standardization will fall to the cross-industry task force on privacy and data use announced earlier this year. Composed of the Interactive Advertising Bureau, the American Association of Advertising Agencies, the Direct Marketing Association, the Better Business Bureau and the Association of National Advertisers, this group is also planning to make news in coming weeks.

"You can expect to see the cross-industry group making some decisions and major announcements most likely in January," says Mike Zaneis, vice president of public policy at the IAB. The consortium of associations has been working with FPF and WPP on these tests and will incorporate other research as well as input from FTC and Capitol Hill.

Beyond ad labels, the longer goal is consumer education about targeting practices and data collection, but Zaneis says that consumers are not as clueless about the technology as some might suppose. He points to research from TRUSTe earlier this year that showed two-thirds of U.S. users were now aware that their online behavior is tracked by advertisers, although a majority say they are uncomfortable with the practice.

"We aren't starting from zero-level understanding," says Zaneis. "We need to continue to enhance that level through better transparency, plain language and notices that are more easily discoverable."

In fact, Zaneis says that initial response to a PSA-like campaign about ad targeting demonstrates consumer engagement in the issue. Earlier this month, the cross-industry group launched the IAB's "Privacy Matters" site and a banner campaign of 500 million impressions at IAB member sites. The initial results of the campaign are just coming in, but Zaneis says the clickthrough rates were on the high end of typical PSAs but that the level of interactivity in the text-heavy ads was encouraging.

"There was shockingly high engagement with the ad creative itself, even if they didn't click through," he says. "They are engaging with the ads for long periods of time and reading the educational materials."

Raising awareness of online ad targeting and tracking was phase one of the program. Once a standardized set of ad labels and icons is chosen, phase two will involve educating the online user about the symbols and heightening their recognition. Both Zaneis and Polonetsky use the analogy of the green circle of arrows that are now ubiquitous and easily associated with recycling. They would like to see a common icon on ads and Web pages that everyone recognizes as a visual cue that an ad is being targeted by some sort of background technology the user can control, refine or reject. In this case, however, it is a user's personal behaviors that are being recycled and re-fashioned, not a soda can. It is less clear from these early tests of language and symbols whether the pitch will be that consumers should regard behavioral targeting as a necessary and relatively inoffensive aspect of the Web's free content economy or whether engaging with the technology really does produce a better, more relevant ad experience. The first goal may be attainable. The second, well that might be a pill (or an icon) too big for most consumers to swallow.

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2 comments about "Take Two Targeted Ads and Call Me In the Morning".
  1. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited , December 31, 2009 at 12:49 p.m.

    What a tale we weave when we practive to deceive. You do know where consumers will want that pill to go.

  2. Mark Stoneham , December 31, 2009 at 10:56 p.m.

    Has it occurred to anyone that the industry is devising detailed answers the wrong question? If you are having trouble getting users' attention for the actual advertising, then why would anyone think that it will be possible to get users to pay attention to some icon attached to the ads?

    While the proposed pathway to the targeting information is a good step toward openness, is there a single consumer out there who will bother to look at it after the tenth ad or so? (Perhaps that's part of the secret plan...)

    Instead the industry should concentrate on engaging consumers in a more meaningful way - by reducing clutter, using opt-in and not opt-out, and by giving consumers a reason to engage with the advertising process. The existing proposal does none of the above and simply requires the consumer to do more work to find out something they don't want to know about in the first place.