The Real Gator Threat

Last week’s column on Gator stirred up so much response that I called up the company’s VP of Marketing, Scott Eagle, and threw all the pointy questions at him. At the end of the ordeal – and it was a long one – I came away with two thoughts. Gator might be very misunderstood, as it doesn’t seem to pose the privacy concerns previously alleged, and that Gator poses a much larger commercial threat to online media providers than the ones they might be currently imagining.

For those of you unfamiliar with Gator, the company has an application that you can download (unless you use a Mac, like me) that will cause pop-up ad daughter windows to appear about twice a week. The ads tend to be very highly targeted based on information provided upon the initial download. People go through with this because the application also provides a password-remembering and form-filling function for web users.

The complaints about Gator generally fall into one of two categories: either people believe (erroneously) that the program puts its ads on top of and in place of existing site banners or they believe that the software gets downloaded onto the audience’s computer without permission or proper privacy protocols.



The first concern is easily put to rest. They don’t do that. The second concern, though, is of more interest to me.

Figures Eagle provided to me in my interview suggested that there is a minority of folks who might forget that they chose to download Gator along with another application – like the popular Webshots – that they received. When Gator pops up later in an attempt to help fill out a form, or some such function, the users feel invaded.

Gator gets distributed via three means. People can download it off the web deliberately at the Gator site. They can get it along with other software they want to download (they have to check a box indicating they want the extra Gator software). Or they can acquire a piece of software that uses Gator as its revenue stream. A shareware author, for instance, might allow you to download her software for free, providing you take the Gator software with it.

In effect, this formalizes the previously unwritten contract between viewers and advertisers. Content providers have long operated under the implicit social contract that people will watch their ads in return for free content. Now that same agreement can be used in fields beyond media, like software.

Some of the folks responding last week thought this was a terrible trend. Worried about the plight of the online publishers, some folks wrote in to warn of diluted revenues. But to call Gator evil simply because it competes for our online budget share, is to paint direct marketers and telemarketers with shades of the devil. OK, so maybe that’s not such a good example, but the point still stands.

The Difference Between Gator and “Scumware”

Ad software that sneaks onto people’s hard drives without notice and without an easy way of removal is called scumware. Others consider scumware to have a broader definition, including any type of software that contains advertising – a notion I find naïve at best, and more likely, paternalistic. So long as a user knowingly agreed to use the software – presumably to get something else they wanted – that ad software provides a decent service.

The Real Threat

What site managers – generally the ones crying “foul” on Gator – should be worried about has very little to do with consumer disclosures, privacy policies or the future potential of Gator-like technologies to pre-empt their own ads. The real problem, instead, is that the Gator’s targeting seems to work. With click rates approaching 25% and similar ratios of transactions, the message to sites should be to stop back-pedaling from targeting technologies.

Sites and networks have half-heartedly tried, but never really perfected user-information-based targeting on an individual level. Engage had an interesting profiling technology, but they succumbed to the dot-bomb recession. Doubleclick had a technology that it decided wasn’t worth continuing just a few weeks ago. Individual sites found that the limited content they had wasn’t broad enough or that the users weren’t numerous enough to offer efficient packages to advertisers seeking large numbers of very targeted individuals.

In essence, the people responsible for large media buys haven’t been receptive to such offerings due to a combination of lack of sophistication and the hassles involved with many smaller, targeted buys.

Gator has provided us with a service – a wake-up call. Targeting works. And, for those providing behaviorally targeted media, it sells.

Next story loading loading..