Get the right ad in front of the right person at the right time. It’s the advertising adage, one that’s been around for decades. But in the digital age, the industry sure has taken that saying to heart, deploying tools that follow customers around the web, tracking who they are and their every move to deduce when’s the right time to drop the perfect ad in front of a potential consumer’s eyeballs.
And while marketers aren’t complaining, the concern from regulators and the public about over-reaching in targeting and tracking is growing louder. Marketers, industry experts say, need to brace not just for business changes around targeting but for a larger moral reckoning over data tracking and ad-targeting practices.
Whether it’s creeping out users or getting caught disobeying new rules, brands using invasive targeting tools risk their reputations, said Doc Searls, editor in chief of Linux Journal and an expert on tech and privacy issues. “Do you want to be in the stalking business?” Searls said. “That’s a question for companies. Do I want to stalk potential customers, and do I think that’s a good thing?”
Popular internet browsers, like Google Chrome and Apple’s Safari, have rolled out tools to limit tracking capabilities, including blocking third-party tracker code and limits to website data collection. Other privacy-centric browsers like DuckDuckGo and Brave have taken even stricter steps to limit tracking. Plug-ins that allow users to block trackers or prevent ads altogether continue to rise in popularity; a March GlobalWebIndex report found that nearly 50% of people use ad blockers. Meanwhile, ongoing conversations about federal privacy rules could place additional restraints on targeting and data collection.
Natasha Duarte, a policy analyst on the Center for Democracy and Technology’s privacy and data team, said legislation giving consumers more control over how data is collected and used is a good first step in addressing ad-targeting’s side effects because it gives consumers the ability to limit the kinds of data being leveraged to target them. Both Duarte and Searls, though, agreed that legislation alone won’t cut it.
“Starting with a legal and regulatory approach puts the cart in front of the horse,” Searls said. “The horse needs to be the tech.”
Duarte said companies and brands that use ad targeting should review the ways they target ads, including how they choose targeting parameters and how they deploy algorithms to execute those targeting goals. Companies need to be aware of ad-targeting’s unintended consequences on different groups of people and conduct regular context-specific inquiries into their systems, she suggested.
“No one is saying personalization needs to go away, or targeting needs to be banned,” Duarte said.
Another hope, from a technical side, is for consumers to be automatically opted out of tracking by default. “We need tech that gives us a way to signal what [consumers are] OK with, that signals defaults, and that has defaults built into it,” Searls suggested. That way, advertisers know what consumers actually want.
Searls is just one industry vet imploring advertisers to embrace more traditional forms of marketing that focus on brand building through creative ad messages. Roger McNamee, an early Facebook investor and frequent critic of the company, said that he believes marketing should and will return to more traditional forms as the free flow of data used for targeting and retargeting is stanched.
“[Marketers] got used to this notion of perfect information, but it really violated the privacy of individuals,” McNamee said. “Because it’s captured involuntarily, politically it’s not going to work, and now that people know, they’re not happy about it.”
While that might not be music to data-centric marketers’ ears, Tom Boisvert, managing director and chief product officer at Deloitte Digital, said marketers need to balance privacy concerns with targeting approaches, all while looking for ways to establish better relationships with consumers.