If You Tell Them, They Will Come

Isaac Scarborough believes that if advertisers are straightforward and forthcoming about what information they're collecting and why, consumers will be more comfortable with providing better and more current data. Behavioral Insider spoke with Scarborough, a market intelligence consultant at Chapell & Associates, a firm that helps its ad technology clients deal with privacy issues related to innovations in online advertising.

Behavioral Insider: You've questioned the value of collecting data on consumer behavior, noting that advertisers should be sure they need that information, or use it in a way that improves the efficacy of their ads. Why? How can advertisers put the information they glean about consumers to better use?

Scarborough: It's sort of a question of permissions management. Consumers want to know about the data that's being collected about them and they want to know why this is relevant. It's a tradeoff question. I can make ads more relevant, but I can also make them more targeted, which creates consumer concern. Now, does the amount of extra targeting I get out of this behavioral data overcome the concern, or does it not? Do I get better traffic? Do I get lower traffic?



BI: Behavioral targeting networks and tech companies tout the benefits of serving ads based on consumer interaction data. For this column, I recently interviewed Ed Batista, the executive director of AttentionTrust, a nonprofit that distributes software that allows consumers to collect, store, manage and share their own 'attention data. Do you think that as consumers become more sophisticated, and targeting becomes more refined, that advertising will become less determined by advertisers alone, and based more on consumer input? Already, search marketing is based on consumer input, sometimes exclusively.

Scarborough: I think it's an intriguing idea. If consumers could directly tell advertisers, 'Here's what I'm interested in, here's my attention data, here's what you should be targeting me on,' they would understand why they're getting ads targeted to them; there's no mysticism about it anymore. And obviously it's good for advertisers as well.

BI: Looking at it in terms of behavioral targeting, do you think that consumer input could also play a role?

Scarborough: I think the best example of that is Amazon. Consumers input to Amazon what they buy, and based on that, get recommendations. I've never heard anybody complain about Amazon giving them recommendations, even though it's a targeted advertisement. I think maybe it's because there's no mysticism about it.

BI: And also, it's happening all within one Web site. It's not like I did this on one Web site and that prompted an ad somewhere completely different, which people would be more skeptical of.

Scarborough: Exactly. And the challenge then is to say, 'OK we're using behavioral targeting to give you recommendations on one site. If we could get more input from you as a consumer, this is why we're going to give you a similar ad on another Web site.'... if you're straightforward with consumers and explain to them what information is being collected and why it's being collected and why this is of value, I do think there's a better chance of getting better information and better updated information and having consumers be far more comfortable with giving it.

BI: Do you think that there's a possibility for advertisers employing methods that are seen as covert, like behavioral targeting, would be open to saying, "Hey, here's what we're doing"?

Scarborough: One hopes that would be the case, and probably for the long-term benefit of advertising in general, you want advertisers to be upfront about this, because to consumers what makes it seem covert is they're not sure why they're getting [targeted]. They're not sure why a site they've never visited seems to have information about their preferences. The advantage of making it all explicit is consumer comfort and consumer trust. There's been some recent data from the Ponemon Institution and other places that consumers are much more comfortable, if they trust in an organization, with giving that organization their data for advertising purposes. 

BI: Behavioral targeters worry that consumers are becoming so resentful of online advertiser tactics, and in turn deleting cookies, that the promise of Web advertising could be unfulfilled. Yet, consumers seem to respond positively to things like Amazon's personalized recommendations. Is there a disconnect here?

Scarborough: I do think there's something of a disconnect. Intuitively consumers would prefer a targeted ad, or a relevant ad as opposed to a non-relevant ad. But on the other hand, the notion of being targeted or having information collected is not really so nice. And there's not a general connection between the two, that to get these advertisements or these recommendations requires something, and that's data. I think that consumers may not be connecting the two. Cookies are a whole mess in and of themselves. There are a lot of strange things that are told to consumers about cookies that I think are far too fear-mongering than they need to be.

BI: Are there any issues that you think advertisers or publishers using behavioral targeting should be more aware of?

Scarborough: The question of permissions management. A lot of the time consumer concern over behavioral targeting is responded to in a good way, which is that we need to promote the value proposition of online advertising: free content. We want to continue giving free content, but because of it we need to have effective advertising. So you give us a little bit of information, we give you free contenta tradeoff. But I think it should be made a little more explicit --what is being collected and why it's being collected.... It's a complicated proposition and I think it's something consumers are not too familiar with right now.

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