With the term "behavioral targeting" only now popping into the public lexicon, it seems fair to ask whether consumers, around which privacy and tracking controversies swirl, even know what the words mean. And so the new survey of users' knowledge and attitudes towards BT by consumer privacy group TRUSTe and TNS is one of the first benchmarks we have on general attitudes about this specific kind of tracking. We asked Colin O'Malley, vice president of strategic partnerships and programs, TRUSTe, to drill into some of the surprising results.
Behavioral Insider: Do consumers even know what behavioral targeting is? Can they distinguish it from other types of ad targeting?
Colin O'Malley: Our results were a bit surprising. We found that consumers are much more aware that they are being targeted than the industry often gives them credit for. The number we came up with was 71% of consumers are aware that their browsing information may be collected by a third party for advertising purposes. So there is a high level of sophistication and awareness. That doesn't mean that they are comfortable with that.
BI: BT in particular, though?
O'Malley: About 40% are familiar with the term, which is a relatively high figure. And 57% are not comfortable with advertisers using their browser history to serve ads. So -- high level of awareness and high level of discomfort as well.
BI: Do consumers connect tracking with some ad targeting benefit?
O'Malley: One question asked was, 'What percentage of ads that you see while browsing online are relevant to your wants and needs?' The majority, 58%, said 0% to 10% of ads are relevant, and 29% said 11% to 25% of the ads are relevant. Together you get 90% saying that less than 25% of ads that we see are relevant.
BI: The BT industry likes to argue their targeting ultimately gives consumers a less cluttered and more relevant [experience], and some of your survey results suggest consumers are willing to take some active role in creating a more relevant ad universe for themselves.
O'Malley: 55% agreed they would be willing to fill out an anonymous survey in order to limit the ads to just those products and services they like. So when targeting is used to limit their ad experience to just relevant ads, folks actually are highly motivated to participate and contribute information. There they feel there is a clear value they are getting that is more than just relevancy but also less clutter.
BI: That suggests a tactic for the industry, to start emphasizing the filtering power of BT as well as relevancy.
O'Malley: Another tactic here is education. Folks want relevant ads over irrelevant ads and are very aware they are being tracked but uncomfortable with it. I think this speaks to a poor job the industry has done in educating consumers about how they are being tracked, and the limitations of the tracking, and why it is being done.
BI: Among several proposals for protecting consumers, one is a transparency that gives people control over their profiles. But do consumers want that level of involvement in managing their profile?
O'Malley: The starting point is education. It is hard to have control over something that you haven't explained to me. Our results support the view that transparency and control is important for users. A question asks whether users would bother to use a tool like that to control their information. The answers are polarized. If people saw an icon or button on display ads that said 'click here to reduce unwanted ads,' 23% strongly agree they would click it. [Yet] you get 22% [who] strongly disagree. My read of that data point is that we have a very polarized marketplace. [We have to] acknowledge a very important and sizable minority block that is aware they are being targeted and aware there is a thing called BT and that they have a desire to take some action.
BI: Doe Do Not Track have traction?
O'Malley: There was one survey statement: 'I would sign up for an online registry to ensure that advertisers are not able to track my present behavior even if it meant I would receive more ads that are less relevant to my interests.' Our results were pretty non-compelling from the traditional advocacy point of view. The largest response, 25.7%, neither agreed or disagreed. 41% either strongly agreed or somewhat agreed, and that is a pretty strongly block. But we also had 29% disagreeing somewhat or strongly. You can interpret that to say that in general the largest block of consumers are either explicitly uninterested or disinterested.
BI: Are trust marks like TRUSTe's proving effective in elevating the relationship between consumers and publishers?
O'Malley: When people see independent and credible trust marks among sites, they transact more regularly, give higher quality of data, and they do things like sign up for newsletters etc. at a higher rate. There is no question about that.
And over time it is the responsibility of these trust marks, ourselves include, to make sure we are addressing the privacy issues that consumer are most concerned about. One question is, how do consumers react when a publisher goes through the hoops of noticing clearly to consumers about the tracking they are doing?
There is a natural hesitancy on the part of publishers in particular to do that. Do we really want them to know? I understand that tendency but completely disagree with where that leads you.
A couple of publishers have led in proactive BT messaging. EBay is one of the leading companies, I think, in that space. If you talk to the folks that are managing those educational campaigns, they will tell you, I am certain, that the opt-out rates they are seeing are absolutely miniscule. They have the upside of being industry leaders in the consumer education space, the upside of being leaders in the actual targeting space and having deeper and more trusted relationships with consumers. And they are experiencing virtually no downside in customer loss.