This is a question many people would prefer to ignore, instead abandoning social media or even the Internet altogether. (It’s easy to fear what you don’t understand, and easier still to run from what you fear.) But as the CEO of a data-centric ad tech company, thinking about this is one of the most important responsibilities I have.
Here’s why I cannot ignore this problem: It’s not just advertisers that want to deliver more relevant -- and therefore, more effective -- ads. Study after study confirms that consumers prefer relevant ads as well. It seems pretty clear that sitting through a video about a product you might be interested in feels like less of a waste of time than having to watch an ad for erectile dysfunction medication when you’re not in the market for it.
This is exactly the kind of “dumb” advertising that I get exposed to every week when I watch NFL games, for example. The advertisers know generally what kinds of products football fans might be in the market for, but as the pool of total NFL fans continues to expand, ads get less and less relevant.
The dynamics are the exact opposite in digital. The more people who use a given social network, for example, the more specific information advertisers have about audience types, and the larger and more specific targetable audiences become. In a space like this, E.D. ads are more likely to land in front of someone who might actually appreciate hearing about his options for treatment.
Yet when this kind of thinking goes too far, digital advertising gets creepy.
Here’s the truth about digital advertising, which is also true of other Big Data-driven answers to human problems being developed today: More contextual data means more relevant matching. We call this kind of technology “smart” for a reason. At one end of the spectrum we have “creepy” advertising. But just short of “creepy” is “smart” advertising, and at the other end of the spectrum we have annoying, “dumb” advertising.
Here’s another truth about this dichotomy: Nobody wants either of those extremes to win in the end.
I don’t want to make the world creepier or dumber. I want to make it better. And by the way, everyone else with any real skin in the game, staking their reputation on personalized advertising, feels the same.
The brands that deliver ads on social don’t want “creepy” any more than they want “dumb,” either. They want to deliver a more personalized experience to their audiences to create more positive relationships with their customers.
Finally, the social networks we advertise on want to create better services, too. They want their sites to be more valuable, more personal. None of them have a secret mission to make the world a creepier or dumber place to live.
This means that the only thing left for any of us to do is to find the balance between creepy and relevant.
You could probably point to a creepy ad you experienced in the past. You know it when you see it. But a good definition is actually more evasive than you might think.
Social gives consumers the chance to provide this feedback in real time, saying either “Thanks for the relevant ad!” or “Yuck. That was creepy.” This is what we really talk about when we use buzzwords like “customer-owned relationships” and “permission marketing.” This is the conversation brands are really having with their customers today.
Ultimately, what creepy really looks like is an ethical question, and ethics is rarely a black-and-white landscape. The shades of grey are what make it interesting, problematic and worth pursuing all at once. For me at least, it’s one reason why the work of advertising is more important than ever.