Commentary

A Brand's-Eye View of Behavioral Targeting

A man must keep a little back shop where he can be himself
without reserve. In solitude alone can he know true freedom.
-- Michel de Montaigne, Renaissance Essayist

I have been writing a lot about behavioral targeting lately. As click through rates, according to Doubleclick, have cratered at .1% on an industry average, everybody is looking for a solution to the performance crisis befalling our industry.

Is behavioral targeting (BT) the solution? The answer is a resounding "No." From faulty underlying assumptions of rational human behavior to the additional costs imposed on the marketing process, behavioral targeting is not a solution. In fact, it may very well be the problem.

One must look at BT from all angles to really appreciate its impact on the marketing ecosystem. So let's begin where the BT buck literally starts and stops and view behavioral targeting from the perspective of a consumer brand.

Could it possibly be the case that executives from well established brands are impervious to the dangers BT represents? It's not only possible but highly probable that brand stewards have little understanding of BT methodologies. Heck, they're just the poor saps paying for this folly. They lost control the moment they deferred to the legions of agency quants with no brand DNA whatsoever in their veins.

Here is the working definition of BT as offered by the FTC:
"... the tracking of a consumer's activities online -- including
the searches the consumer has conducted, the web pages visited,
and the content viewed - in order to deliver advertising targeted
to the individual consumer's interests."

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Those selling BT technology would have brands believe that the seemingly innocuous goal of delivering relevant ads washes clean any fundamental creepiness arising from the stalking tactics involved. Stalking? Yes, this is a loaded term.

But what does it mean to scrutinize every website visit, every search, and every blog post other than to invade one's digital private life? Is it reasonable to sacrifice privacy on the altar of efficiency? Yes, the fascists got their trains to run on time. But at what ultimate cost to humanity?

BT peddlers seek to avoid government regulation, a relatively empty concern given the collusion between the two in the collection and dissemination of personal data. It is always the case that the private sector does things more "efficiently" than the government. Orwellian snooping is no exception. The fact that our tax dollars fund this obscene espionage of ourselves is proof positive of a technology run amok in both theory and practice.

The real shortcoming of BT is in its misplaced focus, and in its resulting inability to convey the honest value of a brand.

Obviously a brand's number-one asset is its relationship with its customers. It is the trust between brand and consumer that develops over time and accrues value. Simply stated, brand value is achieved when you create a positive emotional connection with your customers.

Now ask yourself an overwhelmingly simple question: Will scrutinizing and stalking your customers enhance your relationship with them? How about doing it under stealth conditions? What they don't know won't hurt them...right?

Relying on stealth is not a strategy. The database is too large and consumers too inquiring to keep the genie in the bottle forever. History tells us that it won't be long before a consumer flash mob, utilizing Twitter, Facebook and other social media discover that they are being VIOLATED.

Once this happens, there will be a public hue and cry that will resonate throughout the corridors of corporate America. And there will be backtracking and finger-pointing galore. Case in point: When Jeff Bezos was off buying Zappos, some knucklehead at Amazon decided to digitally invade Kindle users and erase copies of 1984 and Animal Farm., leaving Bezos with digital egg on his apologetic face and more fodder for the growing ranks of BT skeptics.

The truth is that brands are exposing themselves to a consumer backlash unlike any other in history. This will happen sooner rather than later. Good relationships are not created by abridging freedoms. It was Justice Douglas who said, "The right to be let alone is indeed the beginning of all freedom."

I am aware of the trouble in which brands find themselves. They are at the crossroads of their intentions. One road leads to certain consumer backlash. The other road leads to the opportunity for enduring relationships based on trust, quality, and creativity.

The road to success requires that we champion the causes of freedom, dignity and respect. It's not easy. But it's the only path ultimately worthy of our time and consideration.

What we all need is a healthy dose of common sense. And that leads me to one of my all time favorite quotes from Thomas Paine's Common Sense, penned more than two hundred years ago:

Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like
men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it.

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