No need to recount the many reasons why online continues to dominate. There is one issue, however, that is central to the success of internet-based advertising that will require a great deal of debate in the coming year, which is the precise targeting of ads to appropriate audiences and a corollary: privacy.
At MediaPost's Search Insider Summit a couple of weeks ago, the privacy issue was debated in a panel and came up around the edges of many other presentations. What resonated most for me was the oft-repeated paradox that consumers want, on the one hand, content that matches their interests and desires, but, on the other, want to share as little about themselves as possible.
The other paradox is that consumers have long been happy to accept advertising in exchange for what they want most of all: tailored content that is otherwise absolutely free to them. It shouldn't be surprising. Americans (and perhaps all citizens of the world) are full of these little paradoxes. We want, for instance, to fly free from the fear of suicide bombers, but object to the scanning devices that ensure would-be passengers don't have something strapped to their private parts that might also detonate. We want a broad range of services from our government but object to actually paying the taxes necessary to cover their costs. Hell, I wouldn't mind six-pack abs, but object to the sit-ups required to achieve them.
In other words, it's a basic desire to want something for nothing. And while the truth is nothing is free, we marketers capitalize on that desire by offering something for not that much more than free. Want smoother skin in just five days? What's $45 compared to giving up a lifetime of sun-tanning on the beach? Want lower fuel costs and to save the environment to boot? At $35,000, a new hybrid automobile is a bargain.
So what should be the cost of ensuring that a young single guy who loves sports, his job on Wall Street and his alma mater is served ads that don't include coupons for a jar of L'Oreal because he happened to do a little gift shopping for his mom online? How much sharing of what's personal is too little, just right or too much? Who knows? We're all Goldilocks, at this point.
Some folks at the Search Insider Summit agreed a new era of transparency and choice might make a difference. What free content? Great -- choose how you want ads served to you. Don't want to be targeted with advertising? No problem -- except you've gotta pay one way or another.
In this world, we consumers might each have a unique digital thumbprint to which we can attach a set of preferences for the ways in which our online activities are tracked, recorded and shared, and how ads are targeted to us. And since even TV will one day be totally online, the vast majority of ad spending would be governed by that thumbprint. Over time, we'd be able to fine-tune our settings based on a variety of factors across multiple marketing channels, brands or market segments.
The ideal, of course, is that the industry would figure all this out before the government mandated it somehow. But it would require an extraordinary act of submission and compliance by a diverse group of marketers who are hard-wired to buck convention to achieve a competitive edge. Someone would also have to string together the appropriate technologies and standards. And the unscrupulous out there are always looking for ways to spoil everything.
Maybe something short of the ideal, then...
In any event, the pressure is on. It could be that 2011 is the year advertisers crack the nut on these and possibly other problems to deliver genuine self-regulation where privacy matters are concerned. Or maybe not. I sure wouldn't bet on government getting at the right solution. One thing is for sure: before you know it, online will be the top advertising channel on the planet. Then where will we be?