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Save Me From Myself!


On November 27, an article in the independent, non-commercial online journal The NewStandard carried an article with the headline Marketers Still Free to Stalk Consumers Online.

Chilling. Sinister. Creepy. Nonsense.

The complaint focuses on very narrow view of the online world, exploits a general lack of understanding of how that world operates, and rises from the faulty premise that interactive marketing, by definition, requires that companies spy on consumers. If you recall from my “Fear of the Unknown” series of a few months back, you know I’m not a big fan of this kind of fear mongering. I get especially piqued when published arguments are based on far-fetched, sometimes dangerous assumptions, and one-sided reporting.

The premise is that consumers must be saved from themselves, and that only the good people at US PIRG and the Center for Digital Democracy (with a little help from our benefactors in Washington DC) are able to see and eliminate the danger for the rest of us. Specifically naming boogeymen like Microsoft, Yahoo!, and Google (big companies, and Microsoft in particular, make good foils for David and Goliath scenarios), US PIRG and the CDD have asked the Federal Trade Commission to step in and assail capitalism… er, protect citizens’ best interests.

The problem is that the idea of customer choice is completely ignored. Here’s a revealing line from the press release announcing the two group’s 50-page complaint filed with the FTC:

[T]he data collection and interactive marketing system that is shaping the entire U.S. electronic marketplace is being built to aggressively track Internet users wherever they go, creating data profiles used in ever-more sophisticated and personalized “one-to-one” targeting schemes.

Schemes. I like that word. It’s so… loaded.

What US PIRG and the CDD are really saying is that the American public would much rather receive random marketing messages while online than to establish trusting relationships with their preferred merchants. We’d rather receive more spam in our in-boxes and be interrupted by yet another offer for a low-interest home equity loan than to willingly be notified of offers we’re more likely to want.

Behavioral targeting, the demon US PIRG and the CDD seek to exorcise, is not a sort of fulcrum used to pry money unwillingly from the public’s wallet, as the two groups would have us believe. It is, rather, a means by which our favorite vendors can better communicate with individual consumers and cater to our preferences. What’s so wrong about that?

I often shop for fly fishing gear at the online sites run by Orvis and LL Bean. I have done business with both stores for years, I trust both to respect my personal information, and when they communicate with me, I’d rather they stick to telling me about the stuff I’m most likely to buy. And as long as that trust is not violated, I’ll continue to do business with both companies and to provide them with information about my preferences so they can better serve my needs.

Orvis and LL Bean don’t need to “spy” on me because they’ve earned my trust. That trust translates to a competitive advantage. I willingly cooperate with them in that effort because it is to my benefit.

And while it seems a token effort was made by the author of the article to reach out a couple players in the behavioral targeting industry, I see no input by accessible and well known experts in the field. Guys like Alan Chapell, or even anyone at the industry’s leading consortium, the Network Advertising Initiative.

What US PIRG and the CDD are doing is attacking the holy grail of on- and off-line marketing by saying that companies, rather than target customers and potential customers with highly specific messaging, should instead go back to the mass mail model – send postcards to tens of thousands of “residents” in a particular zip code and hope for a strong enough return to make a profit off of the effort.

In marketing they call it “spray and pray,” and it is far more maddening than behavioral targeting. Regulating away a company’s ability to target based on behavior would be counter productive; it would eliminate an important tool that responsible companies are already using to provide consumers with better service. Behavioral targeting isn’t about spying, it’s about two-way communication and it’s about telling people who are likely to buy certain goods that those goods are available – or, better yet, available on sale.

Besides, I’m not sure the feds are the best folks to put in charge of any effort to eliminate domestic spying.

Share  Posted by Mike Spinney at 4:15 PM | Permalink

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