Behavioral Targeting Might Scare Consumers Less If We Did Better Job Explaining It

'Tracking' and Even 'Cookies' Have Become Fear-Mongering Terminology. Here's How to Fix Things

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We all know consumers often say one thing and do another. So it shouldn't be much of a surprise that this is also the case with online behavioral advertising.

Most consumers say they don't think advertisers should be allowed to target ads based on browsing behavior -- 67% of those polled in a December 2010 USA Today/Gallup poll, in fact -- but the data show time and time again that consumers respond much better to behaviorally relevant advertising.

So why does there seem to be such a sentiment against online behavioral advertising? Firstly, the topic's been dominated by fear-mongering terminology such as "tracking." Who wants to be "tracked" all over the internet? They've even made "cookie" sound like a bad word. The second, and most important, issue is that the industry has ceded way too much of the consumer messaging around online behavioral advertising to the other side -- the privacy hawks, consumer "advocates" and headline-grabbing legislators.

But I think there's something marketers can do to close this gap between consumer perception and consumer reality -- and it's something they're already skilled at: consumer messaging.

The industry has done a good job of putting into place the Digital Advertising Alliance self-regulatory program, which explains to consumers why they're seeing the ad they're seeing and how to opt out of tracking. But the next step needs to be getting the word out about the program to consumers and, at the same time, doing a better job of explaining the benefits of a targeted, tailored online experience to consumers and how technologies, such as cookies, play an important role in creating a personalized web. And let's not leave this job just to ad-tech companies with funny names like DataXu or Quova that mean nothing (or worse, sound creepy) to consumers. I'm talking about marshaling the considerable consumer-marketing resources of the world's biggest, most-trusted brands.

For too long advertisers have been playing defense, fending off potential legislation and responding to scary-sounding anecdotal scenarios, instead of advocating the benefits of targeted online advertising -- a more efficient information marketplace that drives business results and reduces marketing expense. While we may be winning when it comes to ever improving the ROI of our behaviorally targeted marketing, we are losing in the court of consumer perception, and that could have highly detrimental effect on the future of internet advertising.

Some in the industry are taking note, but it needs more attention. While most of the ad industry gathered uptown during Advertising Week, the National Advertising Division of the Council of Better Business Bureaus convened its annual conference in lower Manhattan, where internet self-regulation was a major topic on the agenda.

Doug Wood, partner at Reed Smith and an industry advocate for self-regulation, took the stage to lead a discussion on online behavioral advertising and outlined the next step for the online behavioral advertising program: "It's education, education, education. It's got to be the primary concern we have."

Maybe some of that education has to be done offline, with old-school media such as TV and print. A funny campaign about being stalked by awful ads you don't want to see as opposed to ads you do want to see could work.

The big question is whether consumers care enough about online behavioral tracking to even have an opinion -- a doubt that 's been raised in these pages. As Mr. Wood sees it, most consumers don't actually care that much -- but most legislators assume consumers don't care because consumers don't know enough about it to care, when in fact, they don't care because they don't care. "There's this presumption that consumers have this great paranoia, but in reality, it's not clear they do," he said.

In that case, it's even more important for the industry to make some noise, if for no other reason than to balance the other (noisy) side.

Mr. Wood believes the true test of how consumers feel about the program will come as the data on how many folks opt out of behavioral advertising starts rolling in. And it won't be just about how many people are opting out, but also about how many people are opting back in.

"We say all of this makes your experience on the internet more customized to you and more relevant to you," he told me. "And this will sort of test that hypothesis."

All true. But as any marketer knows, perception can cloud reality. And right now, consumers perceive tracking as bad. If marketers truly believe behavioral tracking benefits consumers as well as marketers, they need to start getting that message in a bigger, bolder way.

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