Behind Closed Doors: Revealing the Privacy Issues of Behavioral Targeting


Imagine for a moment that you’re at your family’s annual reunion. Cousin Louise, whom you haven’t seen in years, asks what you’re up to these days. You reply: “I work for an online marketing company.” “Yeah, what specifically do you do” she asks. “Well, um, our company monitors individual’s web activity so that we can serve them more targeted advertising.” “Sounds kinda, creepy” she says.

In a recent article, Alan Chapell had this to say about consumers and privacy: “there is increasing consumer anxiety over how and why data is collected about their online activities.” Sounds obvious, but the alternative is a virtual world without relevant, targeted, advertising. Given that the vast majority of what’s on the web is ad-supported, I’m pretty sure most consumers would think long and hard about paying for their beloved content in exchange for keeping their anonymity, and their cookies, to themselves.

Ironically, the same consumers who object to having their personal information collected, particularly without their knowledge, are exponentially more likely to act if you serve them the relevant advertisements they want.

So how do you deliver targeting and highly-relevant online ads without invading privacy? It’s a question that has marketers everywhere scratching their heads, and occasionally banging them on their desks. The solution is simple: give them exactly what they want (total control) and tell them exactly what they want to know (everything).

Tell them all about the information you are going to collect — what kind it is, how it’s being stored, how long it is being archived, and why it’s necessary. Tell them exactly why you are collecting it. And then tell them that if they provide that data, they’ll receive the most relevant advertising, and incentives, in return. And finally, give them an all-access pass to do what they wish with the information. Yes – even if it means letting them delete it.

Andy Chen took a similar stance a while back: “Personal information should be managed and updated by consumers themselves.” This, he thinks, would provide more relevant advertising to potential customers, and lead to more disclosure of their personal “interests and purchase intentions.” Too simple you say — will never work. I think he is on to something.

Bottom line is that when it comes to Behavioral Targeting there is a correlation between full disclosure and acceptance. And if consumers totally comprehended the process and, more importantly, the values — privacy and control — of providing even the most personal information, they may be willing to surf the web a little more “exposed.” Sometimes, I think we as online marketers forget that not everything is solved by developing the next killer app. Often times, the best solution is simple and honest communication.


  1. David,

    I couldn’t agree with you more. Personally, I feel that the privacy/annonymity/user control issue is a time bomb just waiting to explode. This, along with click fraud, puts the fundamental monetization model of the internet at risk. The enticing growth projections for the online ad industry could suddenly be in peril.

    My only reservation to your suggestion is that “simple and honest communication” may not be enough. It is just too easy to say one thing and do another. End of quarter jitters often lead decision-makers to cut a few corners, bend a few rules, and that is stuff that isn’t communicated.


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