TV Ad Targeting Might Be Jumping the Shark

03 07, 2011 Blog 0 Comment

WSJ Posted an article today on emerging TV ad targeting practices:

…and not to take anything away from these brave companies who are pioneering TV ad targeting, they might be jumping the shark here.

I want to draw your attention to some alarming data gathering tactics that will undoubtedly alarm many Americans who won’t see it coming.  It is very discomforting to get a personalized or a targeted ad directed at you unless you a) approve it ahead of time or b) can easily see how the advertiser got the information to personalize an ad to you in the first place.  Cable TV providers know a lot of information about households that many viewers do not know that they know:

1) They know what you watch, what you rent on-demand, and what you DVR

2) They know how many TVs you have, and how many of them are on at once (family size) and what’s being watched on them (family members’ tastes, approximate ages, genders, and overall diversity)

3) They know your account history (Have you ever been late with a payment?  Are you routinely late? What’s your preferred method of payment? What’s your SSN? Do you own or rent your home? Plus dozens of other data points collected at the time the account is opened)

4) And…if your cable company is also your ISP, then they also have your clickstream data…meaning the sites you visit could even become part of your marketing profile.  As an aside…a little known fact…there are about a dozen different companies that actively purchase clickstream data from ISPs at the market rate of about $.40/user/month.  ISPs have no obligation to tell you if they are selling your data, and they won’t admit it if you ask them.

In addition to this, advertisers can blend data from other sources, unbeknownst to the viewers.  The article speaks of “prescription-drug records obtained from insurers” being one such source of information.

I’m not pointing fingers angrily here.  Cable companies are probably not “sharing” information about you as much as they are “leveraging” it…meaning that the data is probably never handed over to any advertisers in a way that is individually traceable.  I would definitely point out that there is no actual danger in advertisers “leveraging” this information for the purpose of giving you better commercials.  But I bet your average American TV viewer would be surprised…and perhaps feel a bit violated by these targeting practices.

We’re actively promoting a maxim…a litmus test for the use of personalization in advertising:  Personalization is fine for most people as long as they can clearly see how advertisers got the information used in the personalization.  But when advertisers are surreptitiously gathering and compositing data, it produces a black box that makes viewers jittery…even angry.  And I think that this has the potential to backfire on quite a few advertisers who are careless in their data gathering and targeting practices.

We’d be the last to cry foul and point fingers…that’s not the point.  The point is that advertisers have to take great care in making their targeting choices, and think long and hard about the data sources they bring in to select ads.  Is it fair to create targeting profiles by mixing cable viewer data, clickstream analysis, and “prescription drug records obtained through insurers”?  I think it very well might be fair, as in “they aren’t breaking any laws to get the data or use it”…but it won’t be tolerated by many.  And therein lies the trouble with this sort of effort.

The web is a lot easier…and a lot safer…for gathering data, creating context for viewer profiles, compositing multiple data inputs, and targeting viewers or even optimizing creative for them.  Here’s the deal: the web is intentionally personalized by web users through their escalating use of social networks, mobile devices, applications, and social games.  By and large, web users know that they are giving away datapoints for marketers to use.  They understand that this is the way the world works.  They clearly accept and condone a more targeted and personalized web experience by the very nature of adopting and using these tools.

Web users are building a personalized interface to manage their web experiences.  They are creating a personalization layer to provide context and relevance to their online lives.  This personalization layer…since it is created by and managed by each web user…is also a permission layer.  Consumers, for the first time, are beginning to have some sort of control over how their data is accessed and shared.  They control their profiles, who sees what, how much they share.  They are undoubtedly being heavily encouraged to share more and more.  They are being led into far more transparent lives.  But they are not being coerced.  And they are not, for the most part, being lied to or stolen from.  Consumers are in control on the web…and that’s a good thing.  When given the opportunity to be private…they have increasingly chosen to be public.  When given the opportunity to hide their activities or their whereabouts…they have shown an inclination to do the opposite…by checking into locations and accepting invitations for special deals.  All at the cost of giving up some data…but at least they know where the data came from, and how the advertisers got it.

Increasingly, we will all begin to see our own personalization layer as an important filter for our online lives…filtering in content we want, and filtering out content we don’t.  This is a good thing, and it is giving us control over our web experiences like never before.

Our advice to advertisers: don’t jump the shark by using surreptitious or secretive data gathering practices to better target ads.  Instead, be honest and completely 100% open about where data comes from…and give viewers the chance to opt out of advanced targeting that might make them squeamish.  Consumers are giving you a wide swath of access to present relevant ads to them and target them at will…today it happens to be on social media, but that will soon widen to include the entire web as filtered through this personalization layer.

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Co-Founder & CEO of StreamVine

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