Commentary

Behavioral Targeting: It Still Doesn't Play In Peoria

I was in a cab on the way home from a recent online advertising industry trade show, and while fully immersed in heady conversation with one of my colleagues about the latest targeting technology, was interrupted by our cab driver, who, in not-so-delicate terms labeled the lot of us "computer spies" that should be run out of town. The cab driver was certain we could steal his credit card information through cookies, and that cookies were no more than spyware.

Truth be told, I was a little surprised that the common cookie, a staple in the Internet diet since the early days of the Web, still invokes conspiracy theories and X-Files level fear? After all of the hard work that guys like Tacoda's ex-CEO Dave Morgan have done over the last few years to clear up the misconceptions of behavioral targeting is it possible that people don't understand what we do?

Yes, and looking around, I realized that these sentiments aren't limited to my cab driver.

The Federal Trade Commission solicited feedback from the public regarding proposed self-regulatory principles for online behavioral advertising. The FTC received 62 comments from companies and public citizens. Here is an excerpt from one of the letters, which makes it clear that my cab driver has company when it comes to the public's misperception of behavioral targeting:

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The methods currently employed by Web sites, advertisers, search engines, etc., are akin to allowing someone to install a video camera in my home and record which catalogs I read. The industries' position that this practice allows them to provide "free" content is rubbish. Content was free long before targeted advertising existed.

So what are we as an industry doing?

I have intentionally written this column for MediaPost because I know that many of us in the online behavioral targeting industry start the morning with the Online Media Daily.

As I see it, we have two main options. We can:

1. Bury our heads in the sand and do nothing.

2. Educate the real public (and not just marketing managers and media planners) before someone else does.

Doing Nothing

Maybe everything will be fine if we do nothing. But then again, maybe the government will decide to regulate behavioral advertising like they have started to do with the arguably more controversial children's food segment. State legislatures in places like New York are already grappling with the issue, prompting the IAB and other industry groups to take note, but the business community as a whole to issue a collective shrug.

The real problem with doing nothing is that we let someone else with their own agenda determine what will happen to behavioral targeting.

Let's not forget, privacy issues are a no-lose proposition for politicians -- on both sides of the aisle. They make great headlines, focus on "the victims" and are defended by a relatively nameless, faceless group of "technology geeks" perpetrating problems from their foosball tabled offices in Silicon Valley.

Educating the public and Putting a Face on the "Cookie Monster"

Is behavioral targeting so bad? Aren't we just doing what telephone and credit card companies have been doing for decades? The fact is 99% of us are reducing the costs for content creation by enabling marketers to better target prospective customers without revealing any personally identifiable information about anyone. But there have been a few stories about accidental leaks of personally identifiable information which have served to hurt the entire industry. Leaks that have little to do with advertising related BT programs, but get lumped together for drama and convenience sake. We can't let that happen anymore. As an industry, we need to get personally in front of the issue and speak clearly and openly about what we are and are not doing.

By doing so, we can also put a face on the industry and add humanity (and the prospect of lost jobs) to the equation. The online advertising business is one of the few thriving segments of the U.S. economy today. Putting a damper on that growth hurts not just 'tech hubs' like New York, San Francisco and Seattle, but all of the supporting services (banking, hardware, etc.) as well.

So how can we work together to combat the negative public perception of behavioral targeting?

How about, instead of publishing research sponsored by one company or another, publicizing industry-wide initiatives that tell the real story about what behavioral targeting is, and what it's not. We should work to educate the public that cookies enable them to access preferred websites and content, and that there is nothing to fear with cookies. Finally, we should work to show the public and our political bodies that the online industry is a real economic force whose influence is important and far reaching--one in which the U.S. far surpasses the rest of the globe.

It's time to talk . . . before our meter runs out!

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