From Black Box To Buddying Up: Or, Turning 'Stalkers' Into 'Companions'

The other day my fiancée and I were discussing personalization technologies. I know; this doesn't sound like romantic couples conversation. But she is a computer scientist who works on technologies for disabled users, so the topic of predictive algorithms has a troubling tendency to creep into the dinner banter. I was describing some personalized news services that were starting to emerge here and there, and she seemed unimpressed.

Then I demonstrated the Google TV system we have been testing here in the home labs, which lets us use a drop-down search box to query the 1000 channel grid of the DISH Network. She said, "What I think would be really cool is if the interface could learn what I watch and narrow down the choices. That way I don't have to imagine what would be on but could choose from the shows that I would be most likely to watch."

So I asked her if she would mind having Google pay close attention to her TV viewing habits, or maybe even use that knowledge to feed an ad or two next to the screen or in a video stream. It gave her pause, since she had to consider the equation that with great personalization comes great data transfer. But overall she was OK with it, mainly because of the lure of a triaged TV selection process that was smart enough to keep up with her evolving tastes.



This conversation kept coming to mind at OMMA Behavioral this week. She was reminding me how eager many users are for technology to be genuinely helpful -- and how the issues of privacy and intrusiveness become less troublesome when the consumer sees the value first. But that is not how online targeting technologies really have come at the market. We came up with "targeting" technologies first, and then coated them with rationales to make them more palatable to consumers. The old saw that behavioral targeting gives the user more relevant and less annoying advertising generally is an empty claim, because no user I know can see such a difference -- even as scores of tracking pixels occupy all of their sites. Not surprisingly, technologies that were developed to serve the interests of advertisers and publishers simply have not shown their benefit to users.

What I found most interesting about the discussions at this week's OMMA Behavioral is how the industry itself is getting this. The conversations were more consumer-proactive and less defensive. It was almost as if the people in the industry were beginning to think about how to have truly productive conversations with consumers about what this technology can do for them.

Starting with Carl Fremont, Digitas' EVP, Global Media Director, I kept detecting (or was it wishful thinking?) a new theme of getting beyond the "science" of behavioral targeting and embracing the real marketing opportunities it offers to understand and relate to consumers. Stop calling this "targeting," Fremont urged. Use the tools to get to know the consumer and what he or she wants. Fremont suggested that this simple turn of thinking, from "targeting" to "relationship building," is not a simple or insignificant thing. I would agree. If you use the digital data first and foremost to create products and services that are genuinely helpful to the consumer, then it turns the conversation about intrusiveness around. You lead with the value and then transparently discuss the cost: an exchange of data.

As our panelists discussed various challenges in the behavioral environment, it seemed to me easier to start seeing opportunities. For instance, our retargeting panel took up the question (which frankly I had posed in the agenda) of how to handle consumers noticing they are being followed with ads from a retailer they visited recently. They discussed frequency capping and more intelligent use of dynamically created content.

But it seems to me the next logical step is to consider that retargeting could be an ongoing discussion with loyal users. If the majority of users are already detecting ads from retargeting campaigns (according to one Baynote study of holiday shoppers) then why not use the creative in a more open and conversational way to engage the user in a relationship?

The theme of moving behavioral targeting out of the shadows and into a new light could be glimpsed as well in Joe Turow's provocative keynote on data collection, "Beyond Anonymity." Previewing his next book, "The Daily You," Turow argued that user data, whether "anonymized" or not, will ultimately segment and categorize people in ways that may affect the opportunities they get. If behavioral and other forms of targeting are tied to the kind of products, pricing, health information, or even career information a person receives, then it has social consequence far beyond privacy. It creates "reputations" that can open or limit opportunity. If targeting is going to determine the kinds of information a person does and does not receive in American society based on an anonymous profile, then individuals certainly have a right to manage that reputation.

Arguably, what Joe is arguing has been the case in American culture even before digital targeting. Geography, neighborhoods, DMA profiling, etc. have always determined somewhat the kinds of products and opportunities made available to audience segments. You could say that digital tracking could make that process more open and transparent to the consumer rather than insidious. If digital tracking is starting to build social reputations for each of us, then consumers could become collaborators in the building of their consumer reputation or identity. Rather than run away from this notion that data collection builds these invisible "profiles" of consumers, perhaps we are all better served by envisioning these profiles as "consumer avatars" that the user is able to shape and manage?

This is all very abstract, I know. But throughout the OMMA event this week, I kept getting the impression that the conversation about this field was capable now of pivoting from a defensiveness about tracking to a more productive conversation. I go back to something Carl Fremont said about dispensing with the term "targeting." Simply by changing the language with which we refer to the process, he suggested, we allow ourselves to imagine different uses of the technology. What if we stop thinking about how marketing can "target" and "follow" people, and instead think about how the technology lets marketers walk alongside the consumer in a more open and frank way? How can you have a mutually productive relationship with someone you are silently talking to, anyway?

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