Help! I'm being stalked by a diet ad
Products you viewed on one site are following you around the Web as more companies embrace targeted marketing techniques.
We wrote recently about a new phone app that knows when you're in a store and rewards you for stopping by, perhaps with relevant coupons. It's the latest twist on location-based services such as Foursquare, where users get rewards and sometimes deals for "checking in" at establishments.
Some people reject those technologies. They don't want to tell marketers where they are.
We have news for you. They already know, at least if you're in front of your computer.
The New York Times reported recently on a marketing technique known as personalized ad retargeting, in which ads from websites you have visited follow you around to other websites, in some cases even showing you the exact products you viewed but didn't buy.
Because I'm always online looking for deals, I often see ads for the group coupon networks Groupon and LivingSocial. When I travel, those ads change to reflect the city I'm visiting, even though I'm using the same computer.
But I found it odd that an ad for a weight-loss program I'd once looked at kept popping up on the websites I visited. Surely that small company couldn't afford to advertise on that many sites. Could that ad actually be following me around?
Yes, it could and most likely it is. It even showed up at the bottom of the Times story on ad retargeting.
This is how the Times explained the practice:
People have grown accustomed to being tracked online and shown ads for categories of products they have shown interest in, be it tennis or bank loans.
Increasingly, however, the ads tailored to them are for specific products that they have perused online. While the technique, which the ad industry calls personalized retargeting or remarketing, is not new, it is becoming more pervasive as companies like Google and Microsoft have entered the field. And retargeting has reached a level of precision that is leaving consumers with the palpable feeling that they are being watched as they roam the virtual aisles of online stores.
Online marketers have known quite a bit about us for a long time. Amazon suggests new products to us based on products we have looked at or bought in the past. Facebook bases the ads we see not only on our demographics but also on our online habits.
The personalized retargeting noted by the Times isn't new, but we are seeing more of it as it is embraced by larger companies and major advertising networks. (Microsoft publishes MSN Money.)
Companies are tracking our habits through the use of "cookies," the files exchanged when we visit a website. Cookies do everything from keeping us logged in to our favorite sites to providing marketing information about us to businesses. Ad retargeting uses a cookie linked to the exact product we viewed to show us that product again later, at another site. (Here is an explanation from one of the companies that does retargeted advertising.) The cookies don't provide the advertisers with our names, but with our estimated demographics and browsing history.
A blogger interviewed by the Times and Advertising Age columnist Michael Learmonth both found it disconcerting to be "stalked" by ads for products they had viewed but not purchased at Zappos.com. (Zappos.com's Jim Kinsbury left a comment at Ad Age explaining the company viewpoint.)
"For days or weeks, every site I went to seemed to be showing me ads for those shoes," Julie Matlin, a blogger from Montreal, told the Times. "It is a pretty clever marketing tool. But it's a little creepy, especially if you don't know what's going on." Still, she was happier to see the shoes than she was to see an ad for a diet program she had used. "They are still following me around, and it makes me feel fat," she said.
If you're interested in what data marketers are collecting about you when you browse the Internet and how they're using it, The Wall Street Journal recently wrote a series of articles, including instructions on how to opt out or edit the profiles marketers see. You can also delete cookies from your browser.
Even the advertising professionals who left comments at Ad Age were split on their reactions to the targeted ads. Lon of Overland Park, Kan., said many of us would not want to be followed around by EVERYTHING we had viewed on the Web. He wrote:
While many shoppers welcome relevant additional information, there should be an opportunity to communicate that you don't want a particular product added to your profile. Without that, a woman buying lingerie for a special date or a guy looking for a sexy gift for his girlfriend may experience an uncomfortable moment when "re-targeted" for a G-string from La Perla while preparing to make a Web presentation to a client.
What do you think? Are you willing to share some information with marketers in order to see targeted ads? Or is this just another slide down the slippery slope of privacy erosion?
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