Society - Written by Tim Bevins on Wednesday, August 4, 2010 11:46 - 5 Comments
Balance: customer receptivity vs. customer revulsion
In “The Pants That Stalked Me on the Web,” Michael Learmonth, digital lead at Ad Age, writes that he found the recommendations for some shorts that he got while shopping (but not buying) at Zappos popped up at other sites he visited, such as CNN, MSNBC, Salon, and The Guardian. Because he’s an advertising professional who covers online advertising, he knows why this is happening. In this case, it’s because Criteo is being paid by Zappos/Amazon to “re-target” him. Criteo’s business is to “re-engage with lost prospects via personalized banners across the Internet.” At the stops he made, the Zappos recommendations for shorts (under the Zappos banner) showed up and scrolled through. “At this point,” Leadmonth says, “I’ve started to actually think I never really have to go back to Zappos to buy the shorts — no need, they’re following me.”
Learmonth wonders how this online stalking may affect the Zappos brand, which has great customer loyalty. He never loaded anything into a cart, but was just browsing, yet the recommendations followed up. He warns: “If the industry is truly worried about a federally mandated ‘do not track‘ list akin to ‘do not call’ for the internet, they’re not really showing it. As ads become more persistent and more customized, consumers are going to demand one place to opt out of everything, and not to have to check boxes at Criteo, Yahoo, Google, Blue Kai or whoever else is targeting them that day.”
Coincidentally, within this past week, Wall Street Journal writers Julia Angwin and Tom Mc Ginty began a series about the increased “spying on consumers” that’s happening on the internet. Example: the chief marketing officer at Lotame Solutions Inc., a New York company, claims that via its software, which captures what people type on websites such as comments on movies or interest in parenting, it can “segment it all the way down to one person.” Lotame packages the data it collects into anonymous profiles of individuals and sells the profiles to companies seeking customers.
Angwin and Mc Ginty say online tracking files placed on individuals’ computers “represent the leading edge of a lightly regulated, emerging industry of data-gatherers who are in effect establishing a new business model for the Internet: one based on intensive surveillance of people to sell data about, and predictions of, their interests and activities, in real time.” They acknowledge that the Journal site itself installs some 60 tracking files. “Some tracking files can record a person’s keystrokes online and then transmit the text to a data-gathering company that analyzes it for content, tone and clues to a person’s social connections. Other tracking files can re-spawn trackers that a person may have deleted.”
Tracking is almost universally declared in privacy policies, but tracking companies can develop profiles on individuals that are nearly “anonymous in name only”: personal profiles can include “age, gender, race, zip code, income, marital status and health concerns, along with recent purchases and favorite TV shows and movies.”
Angwin and Mc Ginty may not exactly be breaking new ground in the series, at least about the spying in general, and I’m sure some people are happy to get personalized ads and recommendations as they move across the internet, but, to me, they do raise an important issue: the amount of data about individuals that’s necessary to provide this “service” is growing. Let’s face it, the vast majority of people do not know much about this process or seem to care about it – yet.
To paraphrase something attributed to Abraham Lincoln, you can sneak up on some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but not all of the people all of the time. Companies that would like to spy on all of the people all of the time in the name of commerce would be wise to beware of what they are wishing for: no one likes to feel duped, even if you can offer them shorts for $5 less.
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